Multidisciplinary artist Rachel Mason’s album turned surreal rock-opera film The Lives of Hamilton Fish owes its life to coincidence. In January 1936, two men from upstate New York named Hamilton Fish — one a sadistic serial killer, the other a minor statesman — died a day apart. Decades later, while volunteering as an art teacher at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (where killer Fish was executed), Mason discovered their side-by-side obituaries in a newspaper clipping that would spark her self-admitted “obsession” with the Fish men.
“You can get so many ideas in transit,” said Mason, recalling her cycle home a few weeks following on from her Fish discovery, when the idea for the first song off the album (think “straightforward classic American murder ballads”) popped into her head. The song, “Two Strangers,” envisioned the mythical meeting of the two men, which would later form the premise for The Lives of Hamilton Fish. In imagining this meeting, Mason came to echo her own obsession with the case through the fictional newspaper editor she plays in the film.
How obsessed exactly? Try, live-singing-alongside-the-film-obsessed — a spectacle you’ll be able to witness tonight at Anthology Film Archives. Or if you can’t make that, catch Mason this Sunday the 26th at Joe’s Pub, where she’ll be performing the full album with her band. We caught up with her over the phone to learn a bit more about why exactly she chose to swim with these Fish.
This all started with a little newspaper article, how did you go about constructing the narrative for the album/film?
Lots of people have asked me why I didn’t just make a documentary or write a book? Well, because this is what I do. If Errol Morris had done this it’d be a documentary, but I do song writing. I also felt that with film there’s so much more room to play. If you think of directors like Terry Gilliam or Alejandro Jodorowsky, they use film like clay.
Well, interesting that you should use the word “clay” because with your sculptures and songs, there seems to be this overlap of trying to inhabit the individuals you’re creating through your own impressions?
Let’s take Hamilton Fish II. There were several Hamilton Fish men far more powerful than him, so I just thought about what I would feel like if I were the namesake of all these powerful figures at the time. He also had all these appointments and wasn’t a self-made person. He wasn’t driven, he was always just appointed. So I came up with this idea of him where he was this reluctant heir to this throne, maybe he was this guy who had to do this? Also, his wife died very young so my image of his character was of a man mourning the loss of his wife and questioning everything about his status in the world.
My fear was that they would feel like I defiled their family name, but I haven’t really done anything except imagine a kind of way their paths might have intersected. Hamilton’s grandson contacted me and we spoke about his grandfather at length.
A lot of people have asked if it’s a reference to the Aladdin Sane cover. I definitely wear my influences on my sleeve and David Bowie is of course a huge one. What I love about opera is the leap into that pure imagination and I think exaggerated face makeup gives you that freedom and once you see that, you’re suddenly free to dive into this fantasy. The characters in the film are already singing in my voice so there’s this conceit that you’re stepping into and because of that, it made sense for me to think of a way to give them all a kind of stamp that would make them a part of this painted world. My songs were more inspired by Johnny Cash… that history of telling lurid stories through narrative kind of thing.
Yeah, we shot a lot of scenes in Sing Sing and at the Garrison Institute, which is located on the estate that was the property of the actual governor, Hamilton Fish. Also, another coincidence was that Hamilton Fish (the statesman) was named after Alexander Hamilton, who was killed by Aaron Burr and we shot a good chunk of the film at the Morris-Jumel Mansion — Aaron Burr’s former house.
True, it’s this strange in-between of a rock opera, feature-length music video and art piece. But recently I have actually had a producer for live theater approach me to turn it into a play and a playwright’s written the basis of a synopsis.
“The Lives of Hamilton Fish” will be screened together with a performance by Mason at Anthology Film Archives tonight (July 21) at 7:30 pm and a live performance of the album will take place at Joe’s Pub on Sunday, July 26 at 7pm; tickets are $15.