Kristin Hayter believes extreme music is overdue a reckoning with misogyny and violence – and uses her own ‘survivor anthems’ to spread the word.
Lingua Ignota is swinging a pair of bright-white lights from her arms and screaming on the floor of the London venue Electrowerkz. Her intense industrial electronics and guttural growls startle the crowd; when she breaks into her haunted cover of Jolene, they are stunned into silence. “I want people to have to deal with me in a way that they don’t usually have to deal with someone on a stage,” she says later. “Nobody really expects to be the subject of someone else’s concert.”
Lingua Ignota, AKA Kristin Hayter, is a survivor of abuse who calls her hybrids of folk, spiritual, industrial and metal music “survivor anthems”. Two years ago, the Rhode-Island-based musician self-released an album called All Bitches Die. Its emotional rawness – all anguished howling and spitting fury – paired with moments of melodic beauty give it an extraordinary power. She is unflinching in her descriptions of violence (“He beat me till my teeth were scattered / Like pearls across the red, red ground”) and her hunger for revenge (“I repay evil with evil”).
Extreme music is overdue a reckoning with misogyny and violence – Hayter says one of her abusers was “a very powerful noise musician in the Providence community” – making her use of heavy music as a tool for catharsis even more remarkable. “A lot of my work comes out of extreme music and heavy music that’s in a misogynist context,” she says. “I’m trying to re-contextualise that phallocentric format for people who need it.”
Hayter says she wants to challenge the idea of “civilised femininity” and survivorhood: “Most things I read about surviving espouse socially acceptable self-care.” While Hayter doesn’t want to undermine individual responses to abuse, she is attempting to expand what it looks like to be a survivor. “There’s so many layers to survivorhood,” she says. “There’s rage and despair and we don’t really talk about that.”
On the track All Bitches Die (All Bitches Die Here), she sings: “Sinner, you’d better get ready” – borrowed from the spiritual of that name – a sentiment she sharpens into a violent threat: “You can’t run, I’ll find you / I’ll bind your feet to hell and drag you down … I’ll snap your legs in two.” Recently, Hayter has found herself renouncing her teenage atheism and becoming obsessed with Roman Catholic iconography, its good-versus-evil dichotomy and teachings of divine vengeance. “It is all-powerful and there’s a finality to it, a stoneness, an unquestionableness, that I like a lot.”
She admits that regularly performing her harrowing material can get “a little suffocating”, but like the mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who claimed to divinely channel an unknown language – known as lingua ignota – Hayter says that when other survivors tell her how deeply her work resonates with them, she feels like a conduit for something bigger. “It becomes less about me. People tell me it’s the work they needed to hear, and that helps me as well.”
Classically trained in piano and voice, Hayter studied interdisciplinary creative arts in Chicago before doing a master’s at Brown in Providence. As she started performing in the city, word of mouth spread. A friend shared All Bitches Die with Chris Bruni, of the influential extreme label Profound Lore, who reissued it in 2018 to acclaim from the experimental music community.
Hayter considers her success a rebuke to her abusers, especially because “bad people are inescapable” in extreme music circles. “I was lucky to be welcomed into the scene by [the avant-metal band] The Body, because they surround themselves mostly with good people and are always like: ‘Don’t play with this person, they suck’ ... I just played a metal fest in Denmark and I was frantically Googling all the bands on the lineup, because you don’t know. It’s such a minefield.”
Although Hayter says it is impossible to control a narrative once it has been made public, she feels as though people are starting to listen to what she has to say. “But how much will they listen I don’t know,” she says. Her next album, forthcoming on Profound Lore, was “a lot rougher” to make than All Bitches Die. “It’s about my experience in Providence, speaking out about abuse and feeling invalidated, and people who I thought were my friends no longer being my friends, and the crushing experience of how that feels,” she says.
Hayter adds that Lingua Ignota is not just about catharsis, but also transformation and retribution. “Because I don’t get to enact violence or murder my abusers; I get to make music instead, and this has been fantastic revenge,” she says. “If everything ends tomorrow, I already won.”