Musician and visual artist Rachel Mason has an extensive career that includes multiple albums, performances, and exhibits. Her film The Lives of Hamilton Fish, however, takes her work into new territory: initially released as an album on Bandcamp earlier this year, Lives is now a full-length film chronicling a bizarre coincidence in Depression-era New York State.
When a newspaper editor, played by Mason, discovers that two men named Hamilton Fish — one a serial killer, one a statesman and scion of a prominent political family — died on the same day in 1936, the editor sets out investigating the coincidence. Written, directed, and produced by Mason, Lives brings Mason’s concept album to life in the form of a “film song” that’s part rock opera, part performance art.
In anticipation of two New York-area screenings — one at Anthology Film Archives on July 21st, one accompanied by a live performance at Joe’s Pub on July 26th — Flavorwire is premiering a video excerpt from The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Watch “Wild Fish” below, and scroll through for our email chat with Mason about the film.
Flavorwire: What initially drew you to the stories of Hamilton Fish, the killer, and Hamilton Fish, the statesman?
Rachel Mason: I was a weekly volunteer at Sing Sing prison, teaching an art class there, when an art curator at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art asked me to contribute to an exhibition there. I wanted to conceive of a piece that had to do with local lore so I went to a library in Peekskill to look up one particular man who I had been fascinated with, who died in the electric chair at Sing Sing. He was a serial killer named Albert Fish, aka Hamilton Fish. When I looked up the date of his execution I discovered an article on the same front page stating that another Hamilton Fish had died. Hamilton Fish II, the statesman, who in New York is actually more well known than the killer because the family name appears on a number of state monuments. As I started to investigate the two men, their stories and the characters in their lives inspired and thrilled me.
You’ve released The Lives of Hamilton Fish as both a standalone album and a film. What led you to add a visual component to the project? What do you feel it adds?
The entire project first began as a series of disconnected songs. Any time I got an idea for a character I’d write a song, and I often performed these songs here and there in between other songs when I played live. A gallery in Philadelphia called Marginal Utility suggested that I integrate these songs into an art exhibition, and I did a show of a series of music videos trying to thread the songs together. I created a staged environment and the video played in this art installation. This is what led me to go to the next stage and actualize the whole thing into a work of film that could stand by itself. Around this time, I was also getting feedback from friends in the music world that I should really record my songs properly and that they had the ability to resonate to a wider audience, so this really became my first effort to take my music further.
As a visual artist who’s created several videos, how did you approach a feature-length project?
I suppose all of my previous performances and videos prepared me for the task of making a feature film, although nothing really prepares you for such a thing. What really made it happen was the fact that all of the songs had the duration that they had, and that the story naturally started to be sculpted into this form. I was obsessed with the locations and wanted each and every place to tell a story of its own. It is filmed on the sites of various events in the lives of the real characters. One scene is shot at Sing Sing prison, one is shot at the grave site of Hamilton Fish II and another at the home of Aaron Burr, where the name Hamilton Fish originated. (As the name extends all the way back to the founding father, Alexander Hamilton.)
In addition to the screening at Anthology, you’ll be performing The Lives of Hamilton Fish live at Joe’s Pub. How do you think live performance adds to the audience’s experience?
Without the added visual of the film, I think the songs take on their own lives and offer up other things. The film is a film and the songs are songs. But as far as performing, sometimes I get this feeling when I perform these songs, that I’m somehow in a time warp because of how strange is it that the deaths of these two men in 1936 led to a person singing songs from their imagined point of view to an audience in 2015.