Eugene musician Jessica Haeckel grew up in the ’90s along the coast of California, traveling on occasion back East to visit her grandparents. Haeckel says she was deemed an autistic savant at an early age, and she completed college-level coursework by the third grade, earning awards and scholarships by her freshman year of high school.
At her grandparent’s house, she discovered music.
“There was an old player piano,” she tells me by email. “I spent many hours tinkering at it when I would visit over summer.” Back home at her mother’s and without a piano of her own, Haeckel took advantage of what she calls an “immaculate autistic memory.”
“I could sit at the kitchen table and see the keys laid out before me and I could play,” she goes on. Her mother noticed and soon found her daughter a real piano. Before long, Haeckel was also playing guitar.
On July 15, Haeckel will release Empty Boat, the musician’s third studio album and the first under her own name. She released her first two records as Gemini Rising. With songs like “Ball and Chain,” the album is dark and brooding, centered on piano over abrasive and industrial sounds of percussion, recalling Nine Inch Nails as well as Tori Amos and Evanescence, though generally not so mainstream as that, with the sound of more-contemporary artists like Marissa Nadler and Chelsea Wolfe also in the mix.
Throughout, Haeckel’s alto sounds big enough to swallow oceans: the kind of voice that makes you gulp your coffee and spill the creamer. Using a vocal technique called ToneMapping, which Haeckel developed on her own, Empty Boat pushed Haeckel’s vocal range into previously unexplored territories and emotional landscapes like sadness, anger, betrayal, defeat and ultimately resignation, she says.
Haeckel also developed an innovative approach to playing her instruments while writing and recording the record, playing the drums with her left foot and right hand while simultaneously using her left hand for guitar and piano. In this manner, Haeckel played all the instruments on the album, with bass lines supplied by Francis Atrus of the Denver-based metal band Tethys.
Although Haeckel’s first two albums were more guitar-centric, this return to piano is like coming home to a time and place, she says, long before her first songs were ever recorded and when songwriting was like a refuge.
“It was the beat that kept my feet moving onward, alone, into uncharted territory. It was an unbreachable vault where I could record my innermost experiences, for my own processing and healing and the documentation of my journey,” she says. “The ‘me’ who releases the final album is always a vastly different person from the ‘me’ who penned its first verses, and I think that’s the point.”
The standard edition of Empty Boat, available for preorder from Haeckel’s website, will be an artistic experience in its own right, extending well beyond just the music. Included will be a small wooden book with an engraved cork cover, as well as a glass bottle sealed with a cork. Inside the bottle, lyrics and album notes will be handwritten on strips of Manila paper, and set into the cork is the USB drive containing all of the accompanying digital media.
Believe it or not, there’s also a deluxe edition, including additional material like a large wooden book, a 30-note hand-crank music box and glass bottles with corks, each containing up to two songs punched into a strip of cardboard that can be played using the music box, like the player piano from her childhood.
An artistic and creative polymath, all the elements included were manufactured and assembled with help locally in Haeckel’s workshop, Tribe of Crow Studios.
Available July 15 in limited quantities, both the standard and deluxe editions of Empty Boat can be preordered now at JessicaHaeckel.com. The album will also be available that same day from all major music streaming services. In fall 2020, Haeckel will begin teaching her ToneMapping vocal technique online at ToneMapping.org.