For Hether Fortune of Wax Idols, there’s no such thing as a fairy tale ending. There’s simply life – the bleakest aspects of which have often become fodder for her musical output – and death, the finality of which she’s come to theorize may be the sweetest release. On Wax Idols’ forthcoming record Happy Ending, slated for release sometime this spring, Fortune spins another of her dark, personal narratives, with one major difference; she’s learned to give up some of the control she had over her past work and let what was essentially a solo project evolve into something she’s always dreamed it would become – a full band.
Though Wax Idols has featured other musicians in the past – nearly a dozen over the years, by Fortune’s estimate – it was always a vehicle for Fortune’s songwriting, with a revolving door policy when it came to who played along. “I’ve tried to keep things very fluid and amicable and friendly,” says Fortune when we speak over the phone. “[Other musicians] have been involved in varying degrees and it’s always been chill. You contribute what you want, I’ll credit you appropriately, and if you can’t do it anymore it’s okay.” Her laissez-faire approach worked well enough over the course of three emotionally raw LPs: 2011 debut No Future leaned heavily on the San Francisco garage punk scene from whence it came; 2013 saw a turn toward goth-tinged post-punk for Discipline + Desire; by 2015, American Tragic placed Wax Idols solidly in the moody dreampop sphere.
That was when a permanent Wax Idols lineup began to congeal. Multi-instrumentalist Rachel Travers, who played drums on American Tragic, became a core part of the band; Fortune’s longtime friend Peter Lightning (of Some Ember) joined them, and “everything changed,” according to Fortune. “Once we started playing music together, we realized that we could do this for real, like we could write together,” she says. “And that’s something that I’ve never really had. I’ve never had a pure collaborative relationship with someone.” Travers began writing guitar parts in addition to drumming duties. And although bassist Marisa Prietto would eventually opt not to join Wax Idols full time since she lives in Los Angeles, she ended up writing the chorus for “Devour,” which turned out to be one of Fortune’s favorite songs on the LP.
“I’ve always wanted this project to be a band – that’s why I called it Wax Idols and not my name. I was always hoping that the right people would find the project and stick,” says Fortune. The result of writing her first truly collaborative album, she says, wasn’t a distillation of her sound, but cohesion. “Now it’s much more streamlined; it finally feels more like what Wax Idols music really sounds like,” she says. “It’s taken a lot of weight off of me.”
Part of the reason those first three records sound so disparate, she admits, is that she was “trying to cram too many ideas into one place with Wax Idols.” Collaborating with a full band helped her focus and define the project, and while touring behind the reissue of American Tragic, an idea for the next album began to take shape. “[The title Happy Ending] came to me when we were in the van on tour two summers ago,” she recalls. “The initial concept was meant to be this sort of fictional narrative about somebody who has moved beyond the body, a kind of tongue-in-cheek happy ending, like: I’m not stuck in this flesh carcass any more.” Wax Idols released a single, “Everybody Gets What They Want,” as an early teaser. But in the wake of a tragedy that hit too close to home, the band shelved their work in progress, eventually scrapping many of the songs and reworking others. Fortune was no longer interested in writing an esoteric concept album – because she had to rely on writing music to save herself.
“I’ve had severe depression for as long as I can remember, paired with crippling anxiety, which turned into a panic disorder over the years. In the last year or so, it got really dark, darker than it’s been since I was a teenager,” Fortune says. “I have attempted suicide twice in my life. And I got pretty close at the beginning of last year to trying again. But I was able to pull myself back. Realizing how dark things were last year and seeing how it was affecting my loved ones, and my band and everything, I just was like, something has to change.” Fortune went back to therapy. And she began writing noise-driven solo material without any self-imposed boundaries, to move past feelings of self-loathing and self-doubt. “I just did my best to quiet those voices, or even if I couldn’t keep them quiet, I tried to give them an outlet in sound.”
She realizes now that at the beginning of her career, she’d tried to project a hardened, give-no-fucks attitude, but that in the end, this wasn’t an honest portrayal of the emotional devastation she felt inside. “I think that was empowering to an extent,” she says, “but a lot of it was really me trying to hide the fact that I was ill, and was really scared of dying. I think it does a disservice to myself, to fans, to peers, or whoever, to not tell the truth, which is that I have severe mental illness, and it’s a struggle for me every day.” In one of Wax Idols’ most arresting new songs, “Crashing,” Fortune sings openly about suicidal ideation – not to glamorize it, but as a way to communicate what it’s really like for those, like herself, that have been “at the brink of death.” Fortune hopes this radical honesty will help destigmatize mental illness.
“Crashing” is one of a handful of songs that survived the first iteration of Happy Ending, along with “Too Late,” “Scream,” and “Belong.” Wax Idols played them live for the better part of a year before taking them into the studio, which Fortune says made recording them “a breeze;” to complete the album, they put together “impeccable” demos, then re-tracked them at Ruminator Audio, where Fortune says she “worked her ass off” trying out new vocal techniques and experimenting with “the fun stuff – nuanced post production things, weird sounds and textures.” Fortune says the content of Happy Ending is some of the darkest she’s put to tape – which is no small statement, given her back catalogue – but that hashing it out in the studio brought her some relief, even if the bulk of that came just from being able to complete the record.
“It was painful content-wise, but [making the record] felt exciting and we could tell we were pushing ourselves, and it was a great record to make. It was difficult but it felt really authentic, it felt right,” she says. “[This record] stayed with me for a year and half through all kinds of hell and turmoil and struggle with creating it, so I feel like I had to keep it intact. I’m seeing it through ‘til the end, seeing the idea through.” That sentiment gives the record’s title its true weight; making meaningful art out death, out of struggle, and out of our darkest moments is perhaps the happiest ending any of us can strive for.
Wax Idols plays our Audiofemme showcase at Elsewhere, Zone One, on Friday, January 12 with Bootblacks and Desert Sharks. Check out Hether’s exclusive Audiofemme playlist below – we’ll see you at the show!