The morbid, the macabre. The grisly, ghoulish and gruesome. It surrounds us and is within us. This discussion of artistic influences and processes centred on the darkness of reality, and the feminine experience of it.  

Victoria McNulty, this year’s writer-in-residence for Paisley Book Festival, selected Iona Lee and Empress for the dark discourse of the afternoon. Both are writers who see their work as words to be consumed alongside visual elements; throughout the talk their influences and artistic styles diverged and met and diverged again. 

Iona stated how she ‘leads with language first’ and ‘collects’ words for their aesthetic value. Words have shadows to them, layers and textures when spoken through the teeth and tongue. Her process involves writing out these words and whatever is on her mind and then connecting together the dots to see what recurrent themes and concepts arise.  

Empress begins with ‘real life’ – she raps about what she goes through as a woman and what she sees around her happening all the time. Victoria commented on how honest and raw her raps were – they’re made of the stuff that’s all around us but not enough people are shouting about – the ‘untouchable chat’. Sometimes what we should talk about most is what we raise the least. However, Iona later commented that she herself as a performer is more ‘timid’ than she was as a brash teenager starting out, but perhaps this is another way of being more efficient and purposeful with her vitriol.  

Both interspersed the afternoon with gorgeous and devastating raps and poems. Lee’s first one centred around a graveyard she had spent much of lockdown skirting, looking for a way in. Two lines stood out to me and I’d like you to sit with them for a moment as well: 

‘I decorate this empty time.’ 

‘The streets are now our graveyards.’ 

Following this, Empress galvanised the audience with a poem about not feeling guilty for attacking one’s attacker, and by her command we intermittently screamed and shouted at apposite points: ‘CUNTS GET SLAPPED!’ 

Right under our feet was a much calmer event with Scotland’s new Makar, Kathleen Jamie (known for her gently stirring poems evoking Scotland and its nature) and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon… We might have interrupted that – sorry for anyone who was there – but if anything it added to the rebellious air of the room. 

Empress explained that writing this song was a sort of therapy and she’d had difficulty sleeping between the incident and the song’s creation. Once it was out and she understood the situation in these terms she slept much better. How much guilt should we feel for doing dark deeds in response to dark deeds? How much do our surroundings influence us and how far can we hold them accountable for how we act? 

She added more about how early on in her career she was rapping about what made her angry. It was very much in the spirit of ‘let me say my piece’ and wanting to show her worthiness to hold the mic.  

We watched two videos, one from each artist, both with witchy vibes. Iona Lee’s video was a mishmash of public domain clips – a lot of black cats and a lot of unsettling eyes. It underpinned what she had created as Acolyte in collaboration with folktronica group Yoko Pwno. Empress’ video featured Shelltoe Mel and scenes of Paisley, amongst other things. She was keen to feature Shelltoe Mel breakdancing as someone who represented a woman in a predominantly male field.  

Even now, women in some scenes and circles are underrepresented or underestimated and this was touched on in the Q&A section of the talk, where each of the three women on stage discussed some of the ways their gender has impacted their practice and experiences in the world of words and music.  

To sum up, writing is a kind of alchemy, turning our dark twisted reality into something on display to dissect and discuss. Look out for more upcoming projects from all three of these fantastic women that do just this.

As Victoria herself said in the beginning of this talk, it’s important to support grassroots events like Paisley Book Festival – there’s a link below to watch more of the events (for free!) and to donate what you can if you can.  

By Natalie Jayne Clark