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Witch of the East's Singer Aeris Houlihan on Her Turbulent Journey to Their Upcoming Album

19 September 20 interview: Alex Mace

With a story that wouldn’t look out of place in a HBO series, Witch of the East lead singer Aeris Houlihan certainly has plenty of experience to draw upon for writing new material. From serving in the armed forces to spending months incarcerated in Eastern Europe as a transgender woman, she talked to Alex Mace about her fascinating story, as well as the band’s upcoming music...

Here in Nottingham, we take pride in a local music scene that has a thirst for smashing the status quo  – just take a look at the likes of celtic punks Ferocious Dog or underground bassline hero Darkzy to get a taste of what we mean. Valiantly carrying the torch against the aforementioned ‘quo’ is grunge and dark-pop trio Witch of the East – a project of intense emotional vulnerability explored through an indulgence of thriller-based imagery within an expanding catalogue of music videos. With a new single within arm’s reach, a new LP just beyond the horizon and a past seemingly as enigmatic as their future, getting in touch with the band’s founder and frontwoman was a given. So, armed with an arsenal of caffeine, we got chatting to Aeris Houlihan, where the conversation jumped from prison stories to reactions to the ongoing global crisis. We even managed to fit some music chat in there as well.

Having served in the armed forces, played for a Sunday League Football Team, been incarcerated for a couple of months in Eastern Europe and lived as a transgender woman in a world that seems to be taking steps back in its support for trans rights, Aeris has enough stories to tell without delving into her musical antics. Be that as it may, it is her elaborate past that gives Aeris her brutally honest lyricism and the band its deep, brooding sound. As such, the pandemic is yet another source of creativity which Aeris has put to good use: “I've written plenty of songs, and I've also done pre-production on a lot too, so I've been super busy. It means I'm way ahead of schedule for when I go in to do the album. I've even done a few music videos and the album's not even recorded fully yet!”

With a writing style heavily influenced by her volatile surroundings, predicting the next step in Witch of the East’s discography is no trivial task – almost as insurmountable as following up the band’s debut LP Queen of Insecurities with the same vigour. Aeris explains, “I think people are going to be surprised because there's a bit of a Nina Simone vibe in terms of aiming into the soul. It's going to be more vulnerable than the last record too. I would also say it's less heavy and there’s a bit more of an electronic side of it as well.”

The new album’s expected lyrical poignance stems from a genuinely life-shaping experience. Following a minor altercation with someone at a New Year’s Eve party in Eastern Europe (having moved there whilst in her original band Chambers), Aeris was hardly expecting to be handcuffed on a plane and thrown into a cell a year later: “I wasn’t taking it seriously, to be honest. I thought my friend would be coming to get me in the morning and they’d just let me out”.

Witch of the East’s latest single Comfort Me is out now. From October it will be available to download for free as part of I'm Not From London's 15 year birthday celebrations – you can find the code on the limited edition I'm Not From London beer cans. The new album will be released January 2021.

Unfortunately for Aeris, they didn’t. After having faced a judge who told her that she “had brain damage,” Aeris was informed that she was looking at an attempted murder charge; things weren’t making sense. “I was just thinking, ‘what am I doing here?’”, she explains, “and obviously the guards won't speak to you in English, even though they know English, so I had to learn broken German in two weeks just to try and survive. It was mental.” To her luck, Aeris managed to retrieve her liberty with the help of a good solicitor and returned to Nottingham with a story to tell. Aeris recalls: “When I came back, I was determined to turn the circumstances from a bad situation to a good situation. There’s no doubt that all the energy from that experience has gone into it [the new album] as well as this entire lockdown thing.” 

If it’s not life experiences fuelling her creative fire, it’s other people. Throughout her career as a musician Aeris has immersed herself in a hub of creative people. She clarifies, “Artists, especially ones that are my friends, get together and help one another.” Will Robinson from Nottingham’s own I’m Not From London (INFL) Records is a fine example: “When I was in Chambers, one of my songs, (Disappear) got onto Radio 1. I was like, ‘Okay maybe we're ready now to start speaking to some record companies?’ So I just dropped INFL a message and they had a listen and we just got on really, really well. And then it blossomed from there and got stronger and stronger; it's like family, it really is like family”.

With a proven record label behind her and production wizardry being partly handled by Lee Smith of Greenmouth Studios – whose past collaborations include names like Ellie Goulding and Easy Life – things were coming together. Now, with Arch Femmesis’ Zera Tonin as an official band member, the family just got bigger – a decision that came naturally to Aeris. “I just thought that if we see someone that can add to the project then let's do it, why not? We worked with her more and more and then it just made sense for her to be part of it really!”

It’s a true pleasure to see a musical outfit thriving in a world that is currently shaking under its own woes. As she bears witness to a society that “pushes in the opposite direction because they don’t understand it” in the case of both the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for trans rights, the hunger for live music respite grows. “Being a musician, your therapy is through your songs and your art so it’d be really nice to play gigs again because there’s a lot of energy that can be spent with that.” 

Aeris concludes, “It’s been tough for a lot of us but, and I say this to my friends all the time, whenever a door closes, another always opens; you’ve just got to find the right door.” 

Witch of the East’s latest single Comfort Me is out now. From October it will be available to download for free as part of I'm Not From London's 15 year birthday celebrations – you can find the code on the limited edition I'm Not From London beer cans. The new album will be released January 2021. 

Witch of the East Facebook

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