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Handmaids and Hootenannies

With “Letters from Gilead,” musician Kirsten Hazler takes inspiration from a modern dystopian classic.

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Musician Kirsten “Haze” Hazler remembers being deeply affected after she read the nightmarish novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood. Years later, she resisted watching the popular Hulu television series, not wanting to tarnish her memory of the book. When she eventually did binge watch the first two seasons, she was blown away. And more importantly, inspired.

Hazler, as half of the acoustic indie-folk duo, Haze and Dacey, soon found that the two seasons provided a rich vein of songwriting material. “It had such an emotional impact on me with everything that was going on, with attempts to retract reproductive rights and assaults on bodily autonomy,” Hazler recalls. “I began by writing ‘My Name is June’ about the main character, then ‘Blue,’ so I knew there was a whole album there.”

The singer-songwriter and guitarist appreciated how the series branched off the book in a respectful way, developing other characters and presenting multiple opportunities for songs. Hazler and partner John Dacey, usually on bass, began playing some of these new songs during live gigs around Virginia with a goal of recording in 2020. But when the pandemic hit, Hazler stopped tuning in to the Hulu series altogether.

“I felt like I couldn’t watch any more dystopia because we had more than enough right here in real life,” she says. Although up until that point her songs had been written about her own experiences, she now was writing in the shoes of different characters: “It was really liberating not to write about myself."

Because her day job was not affected by the pandemic, Hazler used 2020 as an opportunity to bank money that would enable her to self-fund the recording of an album based on the series. “It was very freeing to know I could go into the studio and not have to worry about retakes,” she explains. “I’d be able to take advantage of extra time and allow the songs to solidify a little.” But with pandemic restrictions still in place, recording seemed a long way off.

When 2021 rolled around and life wasn’t back to normal, Hazler resolved not to wait around any longer. Turning to her musical circle, she contacted musicians whose work she liked and asked if they’d be interested in recording. Unlike the acoustic spareness of Haze and Dacey, she imagined a fuller band sound for the album she was planning to call “Letters from Gilead.” Drummer Blee Child, guitarist Leslie Williams, mandolin player Doug Austin, saxophonist Allen Burris and back-up vocalists, Jolie Harrison, Megan Rollins and Doug Hewitt, all signed on to record. Hazler handled acoustic guitar and piano, along with lead and some back-up vocals.

Given this was before vaccinations had ramped up, the group never held any band practices together. Hazler sent each of them scratch tracks, or demos, she’d recorded so they could practice on their own before the upcoming session. Wearing masks except when singing, the Haze and Dacey Collective convened at the temporary warehouse home of Sound of Music Studios in February to have John Morand engineer the album. “It was so cold, I could see Blee’s breath,” she remembers.

Because the songs had only been performed as a duo, Hazler admits that some of the new versions have a very different feel, albeit in a good way. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen since all I’d given them was the structure of the song,” she says. “They’d come up with something and we’d go with it, then sometimes we had to tweak and re-record. It was kind of like opening a present because I didn’t know what was going to come out.” Released in November, “Letters from Gilead” offers broad appeal given the album’s multi-genre array of songs, from folk rock and country to speakeasy swing. Like Patty Griffin – one of her musical heroes for her storytelling ability -- Hazler’s vocals invite the listener in.

She’s quick to point out that knowledge of “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t necessary to enjoy the music. “These songs deal with universal themes – losing love, hope, humanity and courage – while trying to live through a dystopian nightmare, so everyone can find meaning in them,” she says. “And for those who have seen the show, you’ll get an extra layer, maybe even remember the episode.” Asked if she considers this to be a political album, Hazler explains that it is in the same way that the “The Handmaid’s Tale” is political. “It’s a warning about what can happen if you let fanatics take over, if you let human rights be taken away.”

She knows that means there’s a risk in alienating some listeners, but that no longer concerns her.

“These songs really poured out of me,” she acknowledges. “I’ve got to say what I’ve got to say.”

“Letters from Gilead” is available for streaming and direct download at hazyshadeproductions.com

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