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Annika Socolofsky will turn soothing lullabies into feminist anthems at the Pulitzer

 Composer-vocalist Annika Socolofksy draws from a variety of styles as she reimagines old folk tunes as feminist anthems.
Annika Socolofksy
Composer-vocalist Annika Socolofksy draws from a variety of styles as she reimagines old folk tunes as feminist anthems.

When composer-vocalist Annika Socolofsky listens to nursery rhymes and lullabies, she hears the potential for queer, feminist protest.

“Don’t Say a Word” is her seven-piece song cycle of centuries-old songs — including French folk tune “Au Clair de la Lune,” nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue” and lullaby “Hush, Little Baby” — reimagined as forceful anthems.

Socolofsky, 32, draws on a variety of styles to achieve a visceral, emotionally direct effect.

“I do use some classical techniques. So you’ll hear some moments in the piece that are quite operatic. But you’ll also hear some moments that are quite experimental,” Socolofksy said. “You’ll hear me belting, which is kind of a curated shout. You’ll hear some death metal growling.”

Socolofksy will release “Don’t Say a Word” as an album later this year, recorded with the new-music ensemble Latitude 49. She performs the song cycle with six members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation on Wednesday.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Socolofsky about the concept behind the work and her nonconformist approach to music.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: What ties the pieces in the song cycle together?

Annika Socolofsky: "Don’t Say a Word" is a collection of what I call feminist-rager lullabies for a new queer era. A lot of the songs that are on this program deal with queerness, some of them very, very direct.

Like the one “Who Am I to Say?” which is inspired by an English nursery rhyme, “Tinker, Tailor.” The idea here is it’s a clapping game that young girls would play, and they would fantasize about who their future husband would be. As a queer woman and a woman who is married to another woman, that socially conditioned heteronormativity is something that was really hard for me, because I had internalized homophobia within myself.

I had many years of conversations with my now-wife about getting married, and I would just say "Yeah, maybe one day." It had nothing to do with how much I love her. It had everything to do with the fact I just really struggled to see us as married. “Who Am I to Say?” kind of goes through the journey of that frustration and that shame and sense of defeat but ultimately lands in a little more of an empowered place.

Something that I have tried to do in regards to queerness in my music is to bring that forward as part of my sense of vulnerability and authenticity.

Goodwin: It sounds like, to you, a lullaby can be a protest song.

Socolofsky: Absolutely, it can be. I mean, putting girls into subservient roles, there’s nothing new, right? This is a long, long fight.

Goodwin: Your score for these pieces is so wonderfully evocative. There’s a point where you indicate the instruments are meant to sound like “ugly crying.” There’s a point where you note that the music should sound “like a swarm of angry internet trolls.” What does that sound like?

Socolofsky: I think it has a certain intensity to it. A dehumanizing quality. At that moment in “Au Clair de la Lune,” I really wanted that sinister quality, something that notes on a page won’t say enough. Sometimes you need that little bit of a sense of direction.

Goodwin: The way we talk about this project can sometimes sound like an intellectual exercise, but listening to the title song “Don’t Say a Word,” there’s so much emotion in your performance. It jumps out of the speakers.

Socolofsky: Whenever I perform it, there’s one moment in the middle of the song that gets very visceral very quickly. And every time I get to that moment, I break into a sweat, because my whole body is in it. The only way to pull this off is if you’re completely committed and in the moment.

It’s a very empowering feeling, I must say, to get up there and literally shout what is in your heart out to the world. I recommend it, actually, to everyone: Stand up and shout what you think. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Goodwin: You describe yourself as an avant-folk vocalist. What’s that?

Socolofsky: I would say avant-folk vocals would be vocals that draw upon a lot of folk technique that is used, in my case, in American country music and folk singing. I also spent a fair amount of time studying Yiddish folk songs. What I do is very much on the fringe of that, pushing into new territory.

Goodwin: There are times when someone might describe a vocal as not correct from a musical-theory perspective, but it can still be correct in the sense of achieving emotional communication, right?

Socolofksy: Absolutely. I mean, it’s not correct if you’re trying to put me in a classical box. But as a queer person I’ve never really belonged in boxes anyway. So it’s correct for the box that I’ve constructed for this piece.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.