In April, during a particularly furious show in the Netherlands, Kristin Hayter severely injured herself. Hayter swings bright clamp lights around, creating motion and drama — and a certain amount of physical peril — while she performs as Lingua Ignota. In the middle of a performance at this year's Roadburn Festival, one of the lights she was swinging connected with her head and gave her a concussion. Amazingly, she made it through that set, but the repercussions of the injury lingered, and Hayter spent the next few days in a daze. Then, she smacked her head again during a set in Milan. This time she knew something was really wrong.
"I was having problems with balance and dizziness and weird nerve issues," she says of her symptoms, which were painfully exacerbated by being in the vicinity of loud music. "My whole body would reject being in the venue."
Still, Hayter persevered — until her symptoms made light and sound intolerably intense, and then, on top of that, she lost her voice. She cancelled the last few dates of the tour, and is now home in San Diego, near where she grew up, trying to make herself rest. (Our interview had to be postponed while she recovered.) The injury caused her to reflect on survival as a matter of keeping body and soul together.
"I was thinking recently about self-preservation, especially in the context of getting injured on tour, which I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me. I did it to myself, 100 percent, and then maybe not taking care of it in the way that I should have," she says. "And exacerbating the issue, because I did not make more effort to preserve myself. So I'm thinking about survival lately in terms of self-preservation and keeping the self whole somehow."
Hayter's survival of domestic violence is the central subject of Lingua Ignota songs, and the artistic context in which she places these experiences is arresting, incorporating influences that range from classical and religious music to black metal and noise.
Her upcoming release for Profound Lore Records, Caligula, expands on themes of power and pain against a formally complex backdrop. Hayter's compositions draw from many storytelling forms including masses, opera and ballads, but with little concern for the rules of any of them. While Caligula features contributions from some extreme-music heavy hitters — Full of Hell's Dylan Walker and Uniform's Mike Berdan add guest vocals, and members of the Body, the Rita and more provide instrumentation — the abrasive industrial aspects of her last full-length, All Bitches Die, recede as piano and percussion come forward to create a sparse and dramatic chamber for her primary instrument — her powerful and versatile voice — and the lyrics that she keeps deliberately clear.
Lingua Ignota performances are so intense that it's not unusual for audience members to approach Hayter with deeply emotional reactions, which she, in turn, finds affecting. "There've been a couple of people who have collapsed with emotion. I get a lot of tears and I don't know if I can even describe how that feels," she says. "To affect people in that way is a little bit confusing for me, but … I feel very connected to people in those moments and I feel extremely grateful to be able to share that experience with people."
Hayter's musical education began with classical training and the musical traditions within Catholicism, but she was drawn to confrontational and tormented performers at a young age; by her account, starting when she got her hands on a Nirvana cassette in the fifth grade. She'd cut out the pages from Shakespeare plays in paperback so she could conceal the Nirvana biographies she was reading from her parents, and was captivated by the Locust when she was a teenager going to see noise and punk shows at San Diego's Ché Café.
Hayter says following the lines of influence outward from Nirvana to Sonic Youth and Nine Inch Nails led her to industrial and experimental music. She and her friends in middle and high school would trade music on hard drives and engage in their own performance experiments. "We'd have a party where we would try to turn someone's backyard into a socialist nation or listen to [politically conservative author and former TV personality] Bill O'Reilly's audio book for children, and then do improvisation over that."
Hayter headed East to study at the Art Institute of Chicago for undergraduate, then later to Providence, Rhode Island, where she got her MFA at Brown. During her post-grad work she also became immersed in the rich experimental music and art scenes. Her thesis contained the first Lingua Ignota songs.
It was also in Providence that Hayter was abused by a partner — an experience that was personally traumatic and isolating and threatened the social order of her artistic community. "I ended up speaking out about my ex-partner who was kind of the most revered noise musician in Providence. It was a real struggle to be heard or to be accurately heard," she says. As a result, Hayter returned to San Diego. "I just could not deal with the invalidation or the fact that people who I thought were my friends did not believe me and that somebody who was my partner, who I trusted, turned against me and tried to make himself into the victim in this very strange way." She says that now she has little faith in community and tries to stay self-reliant.
Her return to San Diego didn't end the creative partnerships she'd formed on the East Coast, where she continues to record. Her work has been a way for her to process personal trauma but also to comment on our world, all with a completely unique artistic approach. In 2017, Hayter self-released her first EP, Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him — the proceeds of which were donated to the National Network to End Domestic Violence — and All Bitches Die, which was reissued in 2018 by Profound Lore. It's flattening, paralyzing music; Hayter's voice soars and pierces through layers of keyboards and noise with a fierce clarity and purpose, like a mass or the words of a cantor during a religious service — if that service was devoted to a woman's wrath. Fittingly, she employs dramatic, evocative and occasionally biblical language, with song titles including "Faithful Servant Friend of Christ," "I Am the Beast" and "Sorrow! Sorrow! Sorrow!"
"There's an absoluteness to biblical language," she explains. "It was also an effective way for me to process this stuff because it's not confessional, contemporary language. So I don't have to go through a slew of things that actually happened to me. I can just put it in some kind of allegorical, biblical box. And it makes it not only relatable to more people, but also makes it a little bit separate from me and my experiences. It makes it like less about me and more about these kind of absolutes."
Transforming her specific, personal stories into allegorical work seems like the necessary response to the ingrained and institutionalized misogyny that translate into violence against women. A massive, crushing, malevolent force demands an absolute response. When we spoke, days after the Alabama abortion ban had passed, the perils of living under those forces, especially in bodies subject to state control, were starkly clear.
"It just blows my mind how much people hate women, how much the world hates women and how crushing it is to have more and more information and proof to that out there in the world," she says. "So I feel a great sense of responsibility in surviving with other women, like frantically trying to keep control of our fucking bodies."