Witch Of The East

Witch Of The East is a nine-member musical collective formed by Leeds based artist Aeris Houlihan and Louder Than War have an exclusive of the video for their new single Something’s Wrong.

There is a new album coming soon, but Witch Of The East also have a track on Leeds-based label Come Play With Me’s new Side By Side compilation showcasing up and coming local acts. Paul Clarke caught up with Aeris to talk about the new video, an exhibition linked to Something’s Wrong and a traumatic incident In Eastern Europe that was the inspiration for Witch Of The East’s upcoming album.

Aeris, the new video is quite a dark affair, so would it be fair to say the apocalyptic events of the last year might have something to do with it?

A big part of it was the first time we went into lockdown and it just felt that a lot of people in the queer community couldn’t meet up with each other. We didn’t have that vital network of support, a lot of my people were struggling based on what I could see on social media and through speaking to friends on zoom. It’s really important to be around other people you can identify with. It felt like a lot of things were going wrong not just with the virus but with the mental health side of things.

In the video, you are performing, but on the backdrop there is a montage of what seem like home videos, so what’s the story there?

When I wrote the song I spoke to my friends and said ‘what can I do to make it more inclusive?’

So what did you do?

I wanted to try to help people with some creative escapism. We came to the conclusion of placing a call-out on social media asking for people to submit videos of themselves expressing how they are feeling during lockdown. I guess you could say the idea came about due to concern around marginalised communities. The submissions could be in the form of dancing, performance art or anything they felt comfortable doing. The idea was to help people escape reality for a brief moment, celebrate themselves and get back to some type of normality and joy. It was just really beautiful to see everything come together.

And how did the video come together?

We used the videos that were sent in and I performed in front of them as an expression of the overall tone of the videos. It was professionally filmed at Leeds School of Performance Art.

How on earth did you choose between all the different submissions?

I screened through the submissions and got into a bit of a trance. kind of like when you’re writing music, I guess. I choose things that seemed to make sense, so you just go with it.

You’ve turned this idea into an exhibition in October at Belgrave Music Hall but you are issuing a call out for more videos that reflect people’s lives as we come out of lockdown?

Now that people are starting to be able to hang out together again. We’re going to do another call out for submissions. But this time it’ll be based on people doing it with their pals. It should be a nice contrast from the first submissions we received.

I understand you suffered a traumatic incident when you were travelling to Eastern Europe and were arrested on the tarmac after an incident with a local man the previous year?

I was on a plane and landed in the country I was booked to do some DJ work in when all of a sudden the police raided the plane. I thought it was a joke at the beginning as it was so surreal, I started looking for cameras as I thought it was a prank, but it was deadly serious.

And there was an added complication after your arrest when you were on remand in a local jail?

That’s right. I was put into their prison, it was terrifying to say the least. Being transgender, I really didn’t want them to find that out. I wasn’t sure if they’d put me in a male prison. Every day, every minute and every second I was looking at the prison door worrying they’d move me to a male cell. I could hear the cries from some of the male prisoners from across the prison yard. We were in lockdown for 23 hours a day in a tiny room. When we were allowed to walk in the yard all the men were shouting at us from their building. I was having cold sweats the entire time I was there.

And somehow it managed to get worse?

I also lost my dad whilst I was in that prison. My solicitor said I couldn’t tell anyone or show emotion as it would likely stop me getting out on bail. Bearing in mind this entire situation was brought about by a man who threatened me at a party one year previously, out of the sight of his friends. I called him out and restrained him in front of his friends. All this for that. I still have night terrors now and probably will for the rest of my life.

You were eventually freed and allowed home, but that experience must have had an impact on the writing for your new album?

The whole album, Savage Beauty, is about going through an incident like that which is really, really traumatic. You say to yourself ‘like what do I do?’ I either end up on anti-depressants for years or it’s a case of getting creative and having an outlet really. I dug deep and spent a good nine months doing the album. I wasn’t long out of experiencing night terrors from being in the army. I literally landed in the desert on 9/11 when I was super young. That part of my life was put so far back in the corner of my mind and I was doing well up until the prison situation.

Did your military background help in this extreme situation?

My army training helped me in a way. I was able to go into survival mode, as you either crack up and go crazy, or take things one day at a time. You go into this lizard brain vibe, luckily nothing really bad happened, but it’s the mental damage it does.

So was writing the album in a way cathectic?

100%, and the people who have listened to it so far say they are able to connect in their own way. I think people connect to the album as it has that undertone of real life, heavy stuff.

If you want to submit a video relating to the theme of how you felt emerging form lockdown then send it aeris.houlihan@gmail.com

You can follow Witch of The East on Facebook and Twitter.

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Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here.

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