Missy first emerged in 2018 with a darkly enigmatic brand of electronic pop which incorporated traces of classical influences. This year has seen a dramatic expansion of prolific composer Abigail Knudson’s project with the release of two sister albums, ‘Major Arcana’ and ‘Minor Arcana’. Nur Lajunen-Tal finds out more.
Dunedin-born singer-songwriter and producer Abigail Knudson is the creative force behind Missy. Released back in 2016, her debut album ‘Nicotine’ included a song of trip hop beats mixed with classical music textures she called Missy, which she described to NZM back then as being “objectively” the diverse album’s best track. The song title has subsequently become her artistic sobriquet.
“Essentially Missy is an amalgamation of different people I know in my life,” Knudson explains. “I’m not releasing under my own name because it’s not just my perspective… This is not meant to be a good or bad person. It’s an exploration of flaws and conflicts, fears and anxieties, and it’s meant to be a way of processing and healing. I kind of add different people that I’ve known really well into this person. So she’s accumulated all these different people… you know, kind of like Frankenstein, woven into the fabric of her perspective.”
These days resident in Auckland, Knudson has been involved in music for much of her life, though her musical background is very different from her present direction.
“I grew up playing classical cello,” she says. “My family’s pretty musical. Both my parents are in Southern Symphonia, my mum’s a choir conductor and a composer as well. I grew up singing in choirs and came from a more classical background, and I was very much not really allowed or encouraged to listen to pop music.
“I became a teenager and started trying to listen to pop music so I could relate more to the other kids, and definitely was pretty overwhelmed with how expressive and fun and interesting it was, especially given the fact that I was told that pop music, hip hop, all of those modern genres, didn’t all have the capacity to express any kind of depth.
“Discovering that this was very much not the case kind of led me on this path of starting to write. There were (strangely for once in my life) no pressures or expectations for me to be any good at it. And that was a huge sense of relief that allowed me to fully embrace and explore it…
“I taught myself how to produce music. I got Logic and started making demos, went to producers to try and get them to help me produce and found that I was being either misinterpreted or deliberately misinterpreted, or just told my ideas were dumb. So I started making more and more elaborate demos to try and convey more clearly what I wanted, until I realised that, you know, people just might not want to listen and that I could do it myself, essentially.”
The two Missy albums released this year are named after the two groups of cards in a tarot pack, Knudson intending it as a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with power.
“I wanted to explore different facets of humanity’s desire to control or predict the future and the environment,” she explains. “Tarot cards seemed like an interesting concept to play off of… You’ve got people who believe that you’re tapping into some sort of universal energy and – and that this is a legitimate method of discovering things about yourself or the future – and you’ve got people that think it’s nonsense. And then you’ve got other people that just simply are incapable of making decisions for themselves, and they’re searching for anything that might give them an idea of what to do with themselves…
“I didn’t want it to be just about power or universal energy. I also wanted it to be about the fallacy of humans. Humanity’s attempt to just control. Initially, I was conceptualising around the deadly sins, but as I wrote more I discovered that wasn’t really what I wanted to explore. I wanted to explore elements of our human weakness, but not necessarily in such a black and white sinful, preachy kind of way. I wanted to explore human weakness around our attempts to control our environment rather than generic human weakness, because I think that we are exposed to a lot of humanity hatred pornography, in our day to day anyway, through media and all elements of our life.”
One of the highlight tracks of ‘Major Arcana’ is Hell In My Head, a darkly off-kilter song about human suffering.
“It’s all demo vocals on there,” Knudson confesses. “I made this track while I was just drunk and sad, in the middle of lockdown. You know how there’s the whole, you don’t cry over spilled milk thing, but then it’s like cry over spilled wine because wine has got more of like a holy symbolism. And it’s also a symbol of rock bottom for a lot of people.”
Another highlight comes with Dark Side, a driving, infectious pop song exploring how entertainment and consumerism can be used to control.
‘I’m weak-minded, blinded by the circus freaks,’ sings Knudson. ‘Give them candy, bread and watch them weep.’
“I’m referring to a Latin poem by Juvenal, Panem Et Circenses, which is ‘bread and circuses’,” Knudson revealingly explains of the lyric. “Give the people bread and circus and they shall ne’er revolt… Dark Side is essentially my alter ego shapeshifting between a confused, impulsive citizen of a future dystopia that has been totally pushed into the role of a self-absorbed narcissist, consumer, and a dark political figure, generating public approval through diversion, distraction, or base needs like bread, candy, and a show type thing. Tapping into this new algorithm-driven social and political apathy. The whole bread and circus reference just felt more relevant today than it did in ancient fucking Rome because I think that the ideal citizen in a capitalist society is this single person who’s just consuming.”
For the listener, there seems little separating the two albums musically, each presenting a clever and colourful production palette. Among the highlights of the shorter ‘Minor Arcana’ is the ethereal Plastic Doll, which explores humanity’s longing for immortality. ‘I wanna be immortal, escape the end of the line’, sings Knudson. ‘Don’t wanna be so mortal, I wanna be stamped in time.’
“We are so advanced as a society that we’ve become in denial about our own mortality,” the deep thinking artist explains. “We kind of no longer respect the wisdom that comes with growing older. The technocratic elite coming up with ways to become immortal through pushing technology into their bodies, and then, of course, plastic surgery. We’re so obsessed with preserving ourselves that we don’t think about the consequences of that obsession and how it makes us lonelier. My personal perspective is there couldn’t be anything worse than lasting forever, to the point where your family dies, your loved ones will die and you are eternally alone, or the sun consumes you.”
Despite the obvious intellectual depths of her own creative musing, ultimately Knudson views the listener’s perception of her music as the most important viewpoint.
“My songwriting is never designed to tell you what to think,” she notes. “There are multiple ways to interpret things because I find that art has a lot more meaning once it’s observed… I almost don’t like it when people tell you what their songs are about, because a lot of the time you’ll listen to a song and you’ll just be a hundred percent sure of the meaning to you. And it can almost like, kill your experience of the music if an artist says, ‘Well, actually that song’s about this, did you know?’ I think how other people have interpreted it actually makes art great, as opposed to whatever you’re putting into it.”