Emily Palen of KnightressM1 Interview22nd March 2021 0 By Queen Nikki
KnightressM1 will take you on a musical adventure like no other. Emily Palen is the talented violinist, vocalist, pianist and composer of this power trio. She leant some of her time recently to All About The Rock to discuss her musical journey so far and to give us some more insight into the concepts that lurk within her incredible mind.
Emily, you are the brains behind KnightressM1, could you tell us a bit about your music? What inspired you to create such a unique style and how did it all start?
HI Nikki! Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, it’s an honour. I would love to share more about the origins of KnightressM1. I began playing the violin when I was 4 after absolutely falling in love with the sound of it. My mother is a cellist and my sister is a violinist so I was always hearing the gorgeous violin literature in the house. I studied classical all through school and was pursuing a Violin Performance degree at the University of Michigan when I just couldn’t be inside of the classical box anymore. By this time I was heavily steeped in dark, heavy rock. Tool was my mainstay back then as well as all the grunge greats. So I struck out on my own and started developing improvisation and rock playing. It took a long time to cross over, from one brain hemisphere to another, from classical to playing in the moment. It was so freeing however and worth all the awkward stages.
I played violin as a side person in a lot of bands and found it lacked challenge for me, so eventually I decided to cut out all other projects and focus on my own band exclusively. KnightressM1 was really born out of this necessity to just pour my heart, soul, rage, grief, dreams and love into sound. It continues to evolve as a band and I have been so fortunate to play with absolutely stellar musicians along the way. Logistically, being a violinist presented a unique opportunity and a continual challenge for me as a writer and performer. I didn’t want to do any sort of niche sound for the violin. I love straight up heavy rock, heavy metal that just crushes. That’s what I want to play so I had to figure out how to do that on the violin, while staying authentic the whole way. I find that violin can tend to be pushed into the corners of the music industry, almost becoming a caricature of itself.
My intention is to present the violin as a viable front instrument for rock and metal. The music continues to evolve and has been heading in a heavier direction in the last couple years. This is what I love so much about music, that it’s an infinite language. I could always be honest and raw with the violin in a way I never could with just words. Now, as a vocalist and violinist combined, it’s an especially potent combination to be able to fully express myself. What I crave is complete vulnerability, raw, seething emotion. A pure expression of the human condition that we so often dress up in “I’m fine”. Are we fine? We’re not fine right now. Let’s talk about it. Let’s fucking scream about it. Put it on the table where we’re at as a species. Maybe then we can do something to turn this ship around.
Wow! Thats quite the story, thanks for sharing it.
How did you come up with the name KnightressM1?
So, this band name is something that has become almost a pet to me. This sounds odd but, I feel the things we create take on a life of their own, whether it’s a song, art, poems or a band name. I was originally trying for songs that had something to do with light, stars…..something to express a cosmic consciousness. Everything I came up with was either taken, too sweet sounding or didn’t have the timeless quality I wanted. The name KnightressM1 came to me after hours, days and weeks of pondering. It’s interesting how a lot of the ideas for this band have been like that. Not processed necessarily directly from my mind but almost sent to me from another consciousness. KnightressM1 in it’s essence is the name of a female galactic superhero avatar that has come to Earth to return justice and peace. She is born from light, comes into form after being called out to, from the grief and sorrow of humans subjugated to misery from their corrupt and morally destitute overlords. In this “comic book” world, or mythical world rather, there are many Knightress’ so M1 is her particular code. M1 stands for unity. KnightressM1 has taken the human shape to be able to traverse this physical plane and we put her into art form with the help two amazing friends and artists, Symuelle Allen and Robert John Tucker. The reason this name is a bit like a pet to me is because I have had to stand by it. It’s not an easy name. It doesn’t necessarily roll right off the tongue and you have to explain it to people. But once you get it, you get it. It’s just like the consciousness it transmits. You cannot unknow the known. Also it’s an interesting red flag to me now with people when they tell me I need to change it or go by my given name. Usually my collaborations with those folks have worked out really badly. Life is funny like that.
Well that is certainly an incredible explanation of KnightressM1!
Who would you say has been a constant inspiration for you musically and throughout your journey?
Music is just such a beautiful way to express what is otherwise impossible to channel. I was first drawn to music for it’s exquisite beauty and then music has become my greatest power in this life. As we all have, I have gone through my own set of harrowing challenges and each time that death seemed like an easier option, music was there for me to transmute my pain into beauty, power, liberation and healing. When I am performing it’s an especially amazing experience because the collaboration of players, the energy we create together onstage, it’s transcendent. In the studio, the level of detail, skill and focus it takes to bring an album to life, nothing can match that experience.
I’m constantly internally driven to push for the edge of myself and I think writing songs is just a way that I get to see how far can I go, emotionally. So you have the personal experience of being an artist, of being a bandleader, of being a female front, of having a different instrument than usual, these aspects that add colour and depth to the experience. Every artist has to fight their own demons. That bravery you need to counter the fear, the questions and doubts, one always has to muster it. Those negative voices maybe get softer over the years but I don’t think they ever go away. Also the more vulnerable and real you are, you have to learn that the shame spiral you can get on the other side of that is a good sign. If you weren’t putting any soul up, you have absolutely nothing to fear. If you’re laying it all out there….that’s when it gets good, and terrifying. If it’s not terrifying, I’m not very interested.
The other aspect of music that is a consistent inspiration is collaboration. Producing Dreams and Devastation was such an amazing experience. Getting to work with Rob Ahlers and Uriah Duffy in the studio with John Lousteau at 606 was a really moving time for me. It’s humbling, a great honour, to have people say yes to your heart’s dream. To come in and bring their mastery, their magic and help you create an album that you fought tooth and nail for , that took years to make. Then working on the video’s and the incredible team of artists there, was another huge experience. Shena van Spronsen worked tirelessly with me to create the video’s, to shoot three videos in one day with this team was just incredible. Her editing work on the three singles is just outstanding. The hair and makeup artist we had, the projection artist, everyone at every step of the way who gave their precious time. It’s nothing I take for granted. Now as I am gearing up for the recording of the second record, I can hardly contain the excitement. The sound is pushing in a great direction, with Chad Tasky on drums and bassist Larry Boothroyd we’ve really been able to explore a raw and unbridled sound. The people coming on board for this album, I just can’t wait. Music ultimately is a channel to traverse life in a way that is not only tolerable but gorgeous in every aspect. Music is a teacher in and of itself. It calls to you and if you answer, you will live dreams you never even dreamed you could dream. Some nightmares too but you can wake up from those.
KnightressM1 released your full length album Dreams and Devastation last year in September. Can you tell us a bit about the concept behind the album?
Yes! Dreams and Devastation was a concept album about a cosmic awakening, the great shift we are in as a planet and species and personal embodiment of our natural evolved state. As I planned the album I intended it to be like a sonic tunnel through which people could pass safely through whatever pain or darkness they carried and come through the other side more empowered. It’s all about the courage to face the truth of both personal and collective trauma and having the unshakeable knowing that in facing the truth of that injustice, that distortion and that dishonesty, that we can get through to the other side and become the fully embodied, awake, aware humans which is our birthright. I am fascinated and intrigued by the concept of humans innately having 12 strand DNA and that we are currently living in a disconnected state. It makes sense when you look at all the unnecessary suffering and cruelty in the world. We are acting out of extreme immaturity. On a more cosmic level I feel we are reconnecting that DNA and we are each doing that work in our own very unique way just by living through our own life experience. So with that framework each song was connected to 1 strand of DNA, working up to 12 by the end. On a very human level, I aimed to be authentic in this album. That was the goal. To be real and I think we did that. I was so lucky to be able to work with Lou (John Lousteau) who helped bring the songs to a place I never could have on my own. His ear, his intuition and ease of working in the studio helped elevate the music to a place I didn’t know was possible. Lock & Key has remained to be one of my favourites over time and I think embodies the attitude of the album the best. We found the lock and key and we won’t go silently. It’s about breaking out of the oppression, breaking down the lies, risking it to raise your hand and say “I don’t agree and I won’t obey”. I love the ability for humans to think for themselves and determine their own destiny. I believe we must hang on to that birthright as well as take great care of our planet. There’s too much at stake now to just listen to the “Radio- it’s playing my favourite song, hush now child”. Now is not the time to hush it.
The album was recorded at Studio 606 with John Lousteau who has been involved with some big names including, Foofighters, Joan Jett and Iggy Pop, why did you choose this Studio and to record with John?
I was initially invited to record at Studio 606 by Dave Grohl which was an incredible honour and an amazing opportunity he extended to me. The infamous Neve board from Sound City is in that studio and I also have tremendous respect and trust in the musical colleagues of Dave. He is someone who has worked his way to the top of the music game by being completely himself, by absolutely working his ass off and by choosing people to surround him who are also authentic and just really fucking good at what they do. I take inspiration from his path, that you can do it and stay true to yourself. There’s no limit. John Lousteau is the chief engineer at the studio so when we all went down to track bass and drums to tape and get this album rolling, we met Lou. You couldn’t ask for a better engineer. He helped ease my tremendous stress and anxiety. He had a great way of running the session everyday to bring out the best in everyone and not add any attitude or self-righteousness to the room. He has this magical way, just from who he is as a person, to go with the flow but also really trust yourself to show up and do the best job you need to do. You’re not going to get the best out of someone when you’re pushing and bullying them. There isn’t even a wink of that in that studio. We co-produced that record together and I had someone in him I could really trust to let go and let the songs become something of their own. A couple of the songs broke down, they just weren’t working in the studio. Minutes and Force of Nature in particular and he really helped to bring those songs to life as they are now. The ideas that he had for particular lines, for the arrangement and sounds I hadn’t thought of. His input was so key. I love Lou, he’s just the best.
Emily, Lou sounds amazing. On this album, you had Uriah Duffy on bass and Rob Ahlers on drums to join you in the studio. How did you choose them and will they play live with you?
Rob Ahlers was the main drummer for KnightressM1 since it’s inception. We had played together before with Bonfire Madigan and Rob just has this snap and pure spark to his playing that I had never seen before. We synchronistically ran into each other at a Starbucks the day after I decided to just manifest a drummer out of thin air. My intuition told me the next day to go to this starbucks I never go to and there was Rob. He played with me on Raising Light first and really saw the essence of that song. He got it. He innately got what I was trying to do. We started working on all these songs I had written together and played with a few different bassists in the bay area. It’s a running joke how many bassists we’ve had and they’ve all been amazing! But they’re busy so we really had to hustle to find players available for the gig and who wanted to learn the weird time changes in the songs.
Uriah Duffy came highly recommended to me and for very good reason. He is an absolute shredder. I was shy to ask him to do the record but gathered up the guts to ask him and he said yes! We rehearsed these songs down before the recording dates, packed up the car, and hit it! Uriah brought some beautiful bass lines to the songs. His work is spectacular on the album. Particular on Minutes, Lock & Key, Desolation….his solo in Zero Point. Just amazing work. He’s so in the depth of the pocket and added the really important harmonic element to the band because it is violin-based. We needed a more complex harmonic approach to the bass to fill out that spectrum of the tone. He was such a natural fit.
Then having Rob record on the house kit, in that huge beautiful room was amazing. Rob has this thing about his playing, you feel like he’s playing for his life every single time. Every single time we played a show, every single song we did in the studio, he pushed it to the limit. Drums and music is crucial to life for him. It’s as important as breathing and you can feel that. We have an unreleased track called The Epic and I was in the room, just watching him play to that song and I learned from that. I learned about the power of playing drums in a room set up by one of the best drummers in the world. There’s a legacy in that studio that you show up as yourself and you fully show up. I remember that Lou said to me about that board, that it reveals what’s there. You can’t hide anything in that board. Also recording drums and bass to tape and then setting the rest of the record on top of that sound, it helped to give it such an alive feeling. We’re all really proud of that record and it was an honour to play with Rob and Uriah.
The film clip for your song Butterfly is awesome. What was the idea behind the clip and how was the filming process for you?
Thank you so much. I worked on that with some extremely talented people. Shena Van Spronsen was the Director of Photography and Executive Editor for these videos and has she been amazing to work with. She really helped to bring the essence of these storylines through. I created the storyline for the three video’s as a consecutive storyline through a trilogy format. First up was Polarity Integrate, freeing up from being chained in a colourless room with a captor, KnightressM1’s wings being cut off and hanged. She reclaims those wings and we’re into Lock & Key which is the game of checkers with Death. In the end in a fight to the death she perseveres, cutting the keys off his neck and slitting his throat.
In Butterfly, she has the keys and is Queen in the avatar timeline and in the human timeline she is in the forest, running for her life. In the Queen setting, she lives on rose petals. Tricked by a deceitful suitor she eats the flowers offered to her and they are immediately poisonous to her. As she is spitting up her own blood, she takes a dagger to her chest and rips her own heart out, presenting it to the audience as if to say, what is it that you need from me to see…..here is my heart. This occurs simultaneously in the human timeline and then she is safe to be in vulnerability as being real and raw is an untouchable state. When we shot this video it was the second of three video’s we shot in one day. We had an amazing hair and makeup crew come in to design the Queen look. Ernesto Meneses created the hair for this video as well as for Lock & Key. He was assisted by Daniel Hausler Hernandez. Ace Garcia did the makeup for those two videos as well and they were sublime to work with. It was an intense day and nerve-wracking to get the shoot done. Chad Tasky, the drummer helped so much that day as well as Zachary J Rodell who did all of the projection art.
Nick Bellarosa shot all of the outdoor footage for Butterfly which was a powerful and emotional experience for me. Nick is a good friend and fellow star-chaser. We filmed the beach footage a day or two after my brother passed so it was a very real ritual to go to that beach and honour him. When I stepped into the role of directing the video’s I discovered that I really love visual art and that it’s a huge component of my expression of this music. I worked for a long time to get a storyline and set design that was actually feasible in real life. I had grand visions of castles and massive fires and all of this, but what happened through the experience was, I learned through the talent of my friends how to deliver a really beautiful piece of work, in a way that both works onscreen and offers emotional honesty. Butterfly, being the last of the three video’s to edit and release was really like a gruelling last run to the finish line.
I was definitely tired by this point. Shena had been working with me tirelessly to get these videos edited and out. We had all of these running shots that we needed to fill out the video and so ……I had to run! A lot! Nick and I went out to the easy bay hills and we both ran. He booked it after me every time with his gimble as I sprinted down the paths of Joaquin Miller Park and fuck, I couldn’t shake him. We got a full two days worth of these sprint shots. He did amazing work with me and has an exquisite eye for grand nature scenes. I love what we captured. The best was the drone shot in the middle of the street. He grabbed me up off of Piedmont Ave, late at night, just in the knick of time before a car came. So that shot of me with the drone descent and ascent, is a very real look of terror and thrill. In the end the making of Butterfly was the most emotionally moving video out of the three. Because I lost my brother during the production of this video, it brought everything full circle for me. By this time I just wanted to be real, to be vulnerable, to risk it. The song Minutes was about my brother and he never got to hear it so I honoured him in this video. I think it shows as well the beauty of nature is the true power. It was a very special production, and one that I’m very grateful for. Just like the album, each person involved was very specific on a soul level. Very important, humanly very meaningful to me. Irreplaceable.
I found a few videos on your Youtube channel. One video had over one million hits and was your violin cover of Foo Fighters- The Pretender. The next video is of you playing live on stage with Foo Fighters! Can you tell us how all of this went down? I bet there is a great story there.
Yes, talk about the power of seizing an opportunity and going up against your own doubt. I took part in a competition to be in the Foo Fighters orchestra at the Grammy’s with John Paul Jones as the conductor. I got into the finals and was in the orchestra and spent a week in LA with the band and JPJ rehearsing and then playing at the Grammy’s. It was wild. I was also so sick that week, I could barely speak. It was really amazing, the whole juxtaposition of it. I remember so vividly when Dave Grohl walked into the rehearsal room for the first time, you could feel the energy come off of him from 30 feet away. He is a powerful! And also very kind and real. I really appreciated that time spent with them because, I got to just be in the same room with them and watch them operate, experience that energy.
I’m not someone who really enjoys glad-handing or networking. I’d rather just be real and have a conversation, play some music together. I stayed lightly connected to the band, so I had a contact but nothing heavy. I had decided to manifest me playing with them at Red Rocks just to prove to myself that I could do it. So I was completely lazor focused on creating this. I told no one. I only held thoughts that it was happening. I went from one moment to the next as the date came closer and closer and each piece fell into place, one at a time. Not all at once, I had to walk from one moment to the next, being very awake, aware and not distracted or afraid. I ended up backstage to say hi to the band and told Dave my vision and he said yes. He put me up onstage the next night, for The Pretender and I played. I was so nervous, I was shaky, what would I play, how would it be, how is this happening? But once I was onstage with them looking out on that audience I knew I was where I belonged. That experience continues to teach me about the nature of creating opportunity. I also had some invaluable conversation with Dave and Taylor who both talked a lot about gratitude. It was key to them. They were grateful. They were at their jobs, their jobs just happened to be bigger now. I will always remember that.
What an incredible experience!! Whats next for KM1? Tours planned when the world opens back up again? Live stream perhaps?
I’m in the writing stages for the next album which I hope to record in Paris. I have my sights set of the European metal festivals so I’m planning to skip over the pond, record this album that just destroys and get tapped into the scene over there. The last two years I’ve been playing with Chad Tasky and Larry Boothroyd as I mentioned above and we’ve been pushing the sound much heavier since Dreams and Devastation. I’m really craving a certain feel for what’s next so I’m exploring what the makeup of the band will be, possibly some additional instrumentation to bring that depth. Just because we’ve been in this lockdown situation it’s really put a hold on recording at Studio 606 and I hope to be able to get back there soon as well. We were setting dates to record and then everything shut down.
So in that time I’ve written a lot of electronica music because I can do it without upsetting the neighbours. I also switched into the Kemper modelling amp land. So I have a these two sets of songs basically, the metal sound and the dance sound so I’m working on merging these different aspects. I’m also in collaboration with one of my heroes and we’re currently keeping it under wraps but I am so fucking excited for this song to come out. I can’t even control it. It’s wicked. Livestreaming I’m not too sure about. It’s tough to transmit a metal show well over stream. I’d rather make a crushing album and then just dominate when the venues and festivals open.
This all sounds very exciting. Is there any advice you would like to give to any one who is a classically trained musician about following their dreams and taking to plunge to make genre bending music?
Bend the genres. Break the molds. Use your classical education and roots as a strong and essential foundation and then launch yourself into the unknown. It’s scary to step out of that world, where you’re playing what is scripted. Where perfection is constantly chased and demanded of you. Don’t get me wrong, the classical greats and there are so many, composed the most exquisitely beautiful music. I owe my heart and my love of music to those composers. Classical music will teach you how to be disciplined, how to build harmonies, how to play in tune, how to develop your tone, just for the basics. It teaches you so much and the technique required to really fly in that music is so high level. But it’s not everything.
There can be an attitude in the classical world that it’s everything and other kinds of music are not as legitimate or elevated. That they’re “not real”. That’s bullshit and it’s white-centric. It’s a Eurocentric attitude. It takes an extremely high level of skill to make metal, rock, funk, blues and jazz, you name it. It also takes musical courage, to fly on the wings of the moment. To not know what you’re going to play next and to trust that you will “know” where to go. It’s an altogether different consciousness and experience. I love being able to play authentically to what I’m feeling. It’s something that will always grow with me. I’ll always be able to push myself into the next phase, into new growth. When you’re inside of a box, whether it’s classical or the rock someone else is writing or hits, whoever’s box it is….you need to get out of that box. Dive into what is beating inside of you. There is only one of you. There is music inside of you that nobody else will write. There are songs that only you can sing and perhaps that song will save someone’s life or change the world.
People always have their opinions. People want order and to mentally digest something they’ve already been primed for. Something entirely new is challenging so you’ll get kickback. Take that as a signal that you’re doing something powerful, something unique. We love to revere heroes of the past but we know a lot of those artists were hated or mocked in their time. Even more-so if you’re a serious truth-teller in our society you’ll end up dead. A lot of the musicians who were bringing massive power through, they are no longer here with us and I would love to know the true circumstance around their deaths. Everyone knows music can change the world. But change is uncomfortable. So it’s been pushed into us to sing about shit that doesn’t matter, or to play music that is “acceptable”. Be fucking unacceptable. We need to change the world now. Stravinsky did that by writing The Rite of Spring which was banned because it was too controversial. He didn’t follow Beethoven and Beethoven didn’t follow Mozart. They learned from each other but they evolved. We are in a massive evolutionary stage right now, one that is essential to our survival and music is a huge way we can amplify that message of change. Also, just to break from classical into improv or in the moment playing of any sort, you do have to use a different brain hemisphere so that takes time. Be patient with yourself. Be awkward. Take risks. Eventually that risk place is where you’ll want to live.
Thats some great advice Emily. Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say to your supporters at this time?
Thank you so much for your support for KnightressM1. Music is a wonderful way to connect with people around the world, to share in a conversation about how to change things for the better. I want to thank everyone who has contributed to this band, who has worked with me on a very real, authentic way and with integrity. Being able to speak up, to have an empowered voice is something I really had to fight for and to be able to work with such talented people who are so skilled in their own worlds is a deep honour.
I want to especially thank Shauna McLarnon of Shameless Production PR for her amazing work and support for not only the release of Dreams and Devastation but her continued support. The connections that I’ve made with wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful and passionate people around the world has been such a huge gift. Shauna works harder than anyone I know and I owe her a great debt of gratitude.
To have people hear the record and really get it, to support us, to send words of encouragement, it is all so important and all of it matters. KnightressM1 has become a family of people who respect each other, who will always stand up for each other and where cowardly, dishonest and bullying behaviour is absolutely not tolerated. It’s been a privilege to forge this path with people who have the same ideals, who respect human to human and who want to make the world better because we all believe that we deserve that. There are bands that have changed my life, saved my life, have given me reason. They have inspired me to strive to do the same. Nothing gives me so much life as this music and the people I have met because of it. None of this comes easy and that is why it’s worth it and to every single person who has supported us, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It all matters, greatly.
Thanks for you time today Emily, you have an incredible vision which we at AATR Towers have enjoyed being along for this journey so far. We cannot wait to see what you come up with next!
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"It does not require a majority, but an irate, tireless minority, keen to set bushfires in people's minds." Hail Satan!