“I Always Choose Risk Over Safety When It Comes to Art”: Wax Idols’ Hether Fortune Triumphs Over Her American Tragedies

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Hether Fortune is a force. The LA-based musician, who records and performs music under the moniker Wax Idols, commands attention with her voice, her body, her music, and her Self. Wax Idols’ latest album, American Tragic, is a nine-song LP that sees Fortune at her most self-assured — sonically, at least. The lyrics are rooted in pain and loss, in no small part thanks to her recent divorce. She’s hired a band to tour, but with the exception of the drums (handled by Rachel Travers), Fortune tracked all of American Tragic’s instrumentation herself.

After spending much of the last year fine-tuning the new band and working in two new members, Wax Idols have been touring behind American Tragic since early October, culminating in a November 8 show at Complex in Los Angeles. The record’s release has not been free of controversy — it’s the last scheduled release for Geoff Rickly’s Collect Records, whose financial ties to odious PharmaBro Martin Shkreli were brought to light last month. Fortune says she’s never met Shkreli, and that ultimately, the reason she signed with Collect was Geoff’s genuine care for his artists. “I knew that the deals were set up to protect us first, more than the label,” Fortune says. “Geoff really did set everything up so that the artists would be No. 1 priority across the board. That’s a real thing, it’s not just talk.”

But the story of Hether Fortune started long before Collect Records, and long before Martin Shkreli befriended Rickly by offering $10,000 for the guitar on which he wrote Thursday’s Full Collapse. Like many a young punk, Fortune (government name: Heather Fedewa) had a less-than-stellar childhood. For much of her young life she was raised under the authoritative hand of her brother’s father, her first stepfather. Stuck in the boondocks of rural Michigan, living in fear of her stepfather, feeling very much like an unwanted stepdaughter, she used school and books to shut out the world around her. “That was my escape when I was young…reading. I was always reading books, because my life around me was very just.. bleeeghh.”

Once her oppressive stepfather was out of the picture, Fortune finally had room to breathe. She pilfered XTC records and a Cure anthology from her new stepdad; her mom was into Madonna and Janet Jackson. Both loved U2 and Adam and the Ants, bands Fortune will still ride for today. Eventually she started taking trips to Lansing, the city of her birth, hanging out at a record store across from Michigan State University’s campus called Flat, Black and Circular. Embracing her inner goth, she picked up on Joy Division, Siouxsie Sioux, and the work of Daniel Ash, she’d buy music and Absolute Punk magazines and retreat back to the sticks, finding thriving online communities on Friendster, Myspace, and Livejournal. She also discovered a band called Thursday.

“I was the biggest Thursday fan in the world,” Fortune says. “I went to every show, everything. I did a poetry analysis of ‘Autobiography of a Nation’ for a class at school. I was hardcore devoted.” She followed the band on tour, hitching rides to catch shows in Detroit, Chicago, wherever. She was such a regular that the band members came to know her; how could they not? She was always in the front row, screaming lyrics and crying. An awkward, tomboyish teen, she wasn’t there because she wanted to sleep with the band — she wanted to be the band. “I wanted to be Geoff,” she admits. “He was like my hero.”

It couldn’t have come at a better time. As yet another lost and disaffected youth, her teen years often got dark, and her acting out often got her kicked out of classes and into trouble. The music finally provided an outlet for all the anger pent up from her childhood—she would ultimately graduate early at 16 and hit the road. “I definitely believe that I would have killed myself if I wouldn’t have found the punk and hardcore community, found Thursday, found people like Geoff to look up to, and thought ‘Maybe I could be that?’” Fortune explains. She would soon leave the Great Lakes for California, and settle in the Bay Area.

Fortune’s Wax Idols project — whose name was inspired by the Bob Dylan lyric “flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark” — released its first LP, No Future, in 2011. It was compiled from songs she had written over the previous two years, including several about Jay Reatard, whom she briefly dated and admits to being in love with — though she didn’t tell him before he died of cocaine toxicity in Memphis in 2010.

By the time she started working on her sophomore album, Discipline and Desire — a title derived from a ’70s fetish magazine — Fortune had already spent some time working as a dominatrix, under the moniker Mistress Eden. She drew from the experience for the album, but for Fortune it was less about sex and more about power dynamics that permeate life outside the bedroom as well. She recorded it with help from The Chameleons’ Mark Burgess, and as she told Wondering Sound in 2013, their relationship blurred the lines between professional and personal. And it wasn’t just the music they were making—in the interview, Fortune makes it clear that her work as a dominatrix complemented Burgess’ own proclivities. The tension bled into the work; at the time, Fortune said “Stay In” was “about the deterioration of my relationship with Mark.” But to hear her tell it, it was all worth it. “I always choose risk over safety when it comes to art,” she says.

The process of making American Tragic took about a year. By this point, Fortune’s whirlwind marriage was falling apart, she was playing bass in White Lung and also in the process of moving from the Bay to Los Angeles. “I was going back and forth to the studio I work at in San Francisco, and I was writing at home,” she explains. “And I was writing on the road, because I was playing in White Lung, and it was just a lot of chaos…” But just like the books she retreated into when she was a child, searching for an escape from the world around her, writing music provided her with a safe space amid the chaos of life on the road. “Everything ended up being so chaotic around me that I created a controlled kind of zen space within the record,” she says. “I didn’t want it to sound as chaotic as my life was. It was an escape thing where I was like, ‘I want it to be this perfect world where none of this other stuff can mess it up.’” Like all her records, she recorded it in San Francisco with Swell’s Monte Vallier, who has a studio called Ruminator Audio in the Mission district. “He’s like my zen dad,” Fortune admits. “He’s very chill, and he really gets me.”

American Tragic was supposed to come out on Slumberland records; the erstwhile Berkeley-based indie label that had put out Discipline and Desire. Around the time of that record’s release, she reconnected with Rickly on Twitter, first on the “remember me?” tip (he did), and then, once Rickly realized Wax Idols was her band, on the “oh shit” tip. They became close friends, and when she called him one night crying, despondent, and ready to quit because she’d learned that Slumberland wasn’t going to put out her new record, it was Rickly who proffered a solution.

Wax Idols were one of the first bands* to sign to Rickly’s newly formed Collect Records, funded by former hedge fund manager Shkreli’s charitable largesse and love of Rickly’s music. In September, after Shkreli infamously raised the price of an AIDS treatment he had purchased the rights to, his involvement in Collect was exposed, and people looked to bands like Wax Idols, Rickly’s own No Devotion, and Philadelphia’s Nothing for a response. American Tragic was already on track for its October release — it was too late to take back, not that Fortune would have anyway. But Nothing immediately distanced themselves from the label, even dropping out of its CMJ showcase at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. In the end, all the label’s bands admonished Shrkeli and declared their desire to have nothing to do with him, while simultaneously singing Rickly’s praises. “Everyone was like, ‘You gotta do the right thing!’ and so then we did,” Fortune says. “And now what?”

Fortune’s uncertainty was shared by her labelmates; the Internet outrage machine promptly and thoroughly shamed Shkreli, but it also left Rickly, label manager Shaun Durkan, and all the label’s bands without jobs. And while there was plenty of vitriol spewed at Shrkeli, Rickly, and even Fortune, there were considerably fewer ideas on how to support independent art without taking any money from assholes.

“You know, they like to talk about ‘blood money’ in this very uninformed, narrow-minded way, while they’re writing on their iPhones that are made by child slaves where people actually commit suicide,” Fortune says of the cogs in the blogosphere’s shame machine. “People just want a scapegoat, and Martin was a perfect one. He did a terrible thing and he acts like an asshole, so it was easy for people to jump on that, and then go, ‘Oh, these people are all posers.’”

In a way, as one of its first signees, it’s almost fitting that a Wax Idols record will be Collect’s last (for the foreseeable future, at least). For her part, Fortune says she made no profit from the deal, spending the meager advance on recording costs, visuals for the album and her touring band. “I didn’t make a single fucking cent, personally,” she says. “Every single dollar went into the record, so I’m certainly not chillin’ in my paid-for apartment by this guy.” Her goals are modest, mostly, to build a more sustainable career that allows her to keep paying her band, and doesn’t require odd jobs in between tours. “This last month has been torture,” she says. “It’s brought out a lot of emotions, a lot of anger. I’m definitely writing, but what I really am focused on right now is touring this record and sharing it with anyone who wants to hear it.”

With all the tumult in her life, she’s got plenty of new source material. But regardless of what has happened or will happen, the music is a constant. “It’s the only thing that makes me feel good.” she says. “The only thing.”

*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Wax Idols was the first band to sign to Collect Records; while they were one of the bands to sign before the label’s existence was announced, they were not the first. We regret the error.