It takes a lot of strength to choose to grow from grief, and it takes even more to share the steps you took to process, accept, and look in retrospect on your pain with hope and then share them with the world. For London-based artist, Saint Clair (Emma Topolski), it was just a form of expression. Her cathartic, authentic, and divine EP, “in the violet hour,” features a collection of songs she wrote following the loss of her father, Daniel Topolski, who was a travel journalist, rowing coach, and the figure who instilled in Saint Clair a relentless attitude for following her artistic drive, her passion, and her need to create.
Featuring the artist’s latest 2020 singles, “in the violet hour” tells the story of a journey of loss, heartache, and hope. Developed with her sister, actor and director Tamsin Topolski, Saint Clair pairs a deeply creative short film with her emotionally-charged collection of songs that perfectly encapsulates one of the most honest and hurtful journeys anyone can endure. Turning their pain into a work of art that highlights the importance, impact, and essence of human touch, “in the violet hour” is ambient truth eloquently paired with everything from mystic beats to organic string orchestrations to delicately crafted songwriting.
Fearless in pulling back the curtain on the way her grief changed her, Saint Clair shared the details of her songwriting journey in making her EP, the story behind the visuals for each song, and touching, heartwarming memories of her father’s influence on her.
“in the violet hour” was inspired by the loss of your father, and thank you for sharing your grief in art because I think that’s going to help a lot of other people heal who are also going through what you’re going through, losing or missing a loved one so when you created this EP, did you have that healing factor in mind for other listeners or was it more of just letting your emotions out?
I think it’s more the latter. In hindsight, now that the project is finished and it’s being shared and there’s more of an interactive element to the project, it’s not just me caught up in what I want to say and making the films and writing the lyrics and what feels authentic and honest … That was all very personal and very internal just as an expression of it. Since sharing it, that’s when it’s become a conversation and dialogue’s been opened up so I think now, there’s a very small responsibility in having these conversations, hearing other people’s very intimate reactions to watching the film and listening to the music. So in actually releasing it, that’s when it’s become a shared experience and I feel like I’m part of a community as a result, and we’re all using as a springboard to discover poetry or watch movies or feel emboldened to have conversations that felt hard. It feels a lot like a big hug.
For music lovers, especially those who grew up loving music at a young age, we often fall in love with the music our parents first introduce us to. Did your father play a helping hand in your love for music or you wanting to become an artist?
I think what he instilled in me is a “Go get ’em,” attitude that applied to anything. There wasn’t much of a conservative outlook when it came to me finding a proper job. It was just if you’re passionate and if you feel ambitious, then go and do whatever it is and be sustainable. He was always somebody who had so many different jobs on the go at one time. He just pursued whatever he was passionate about so he was a travel journalist and published three books on travel. He coached sports, then he did commentary for the Olympics for rowing. He was a curator for his father’s paintings, so that’s definitely a big part of me. Just figuring it out, juggling stuff, and making it happen.
Musically, he was such a champion of what I was doing. I think it was just because he was so not musical. He just found it almost like magic that I could sing, play instruments, and he’d come to a show and just be like, “How?!” He was always very, very proud and I think in terms of his taste, it was a lot of Joe Cocker, The Kinks, The Beatles, and Supertramp. My dad’s taste in that traditional gritty, British rock is something that I’ve adopted for sure. I only listen to The Beatles, basically!
The EP features audio moments of you and your family talking to your father. Those are very personal family treasures. They weren’t songs you crafted that you knew you were going to share. What made you want to put them on this EP?
It was a roundabout way that we constructed it. The songs were written over a four year period without the intention of them being a visual project. It was me eighteen months ago reflecting back on all the songs that I’d written. Some weren’t about grief and then seeing that there was this thread, and they became like diary entries about grief that were written at various points before and after he did. I was like, “Look, that’s almost like stepping out and hearing myself back.” I saw like, I was angry or I was sad and so then, I thought I could put them together as a body of work and I’ll do a project about grief and it’ll feel like a tribute to my dad and maybe it won’t be so explicit, and people can take what they want from it.
I knew I wanted it to be a visual piece so I sat down with my sister to talk about how that could happen. We shot these four videos knowing we wanted them to link in the short film. They were never intended as independent videos, but we just thought the best way to reach people and help them join us on the journey would be to separate them, but the full film in its intended form, we knew we wanted it to be a consecutive thing and for them to tie together. Once we’d done the videos, with the edit, we were like, “Where can that go?” The idea was that we’re in a house, and [in each video] we’re going room to room depending on the feeling. So once it was edited as a whole, the middle bits were silent, so I needed to compose a soundscape for it.
I was then inspired by how it looked and what I needed to write musically to link the two songs that weren’t connected at all, harmonically or lyrically. That was my first foray into film music and soundscaping and it was so fun. The first thing I thought of using was his voicemail, and then I spoke to my mom and asked if there were any home videos, and she said in the late 80s, [my dad] bought this massive camcorder that was his pride his joy – he felt like he just got the new iPhone! His best friend, Ernie, knew the format of the tapes to digitize.
So my mom and I sat for eight hours to watch unseen footage from our childhood, and it was really heavy but also unearthing this treasure. It was like a gift of all these experiences and memories, and then you re-memorize him because the last time I saw him he was so unwell. [With the footage,] I was like, “Oh, he’s so healthy and sexy and funny,” and it helped me reconnect with him in a way that I’d forgotten. So we got the digital videos back, and I went through it all and picked sound bites that felt like they could link the passages, and then with the rolling credits, “row row row” felt like a very peaceful and complete way to sign off. It was probably the most intense part of making the whole film.
Let’s talk about the visual for “goddess.” You describe the”goddess” as someone who “gradually starts to malfunction.” What did you mean by that in the song?
She was this very grand, haute couture, Versace griever. Nothing could rattle her, so you see her in an incredibly elaborate garb in mourning where she’s totally in control. Then she just starts to show signs of not being okay, and we thought it would be interesting to show that in a kind of surreal choreographed way than anything too literal. The whole piece is a metamorphosis into something more primal as grief descends and takes any sense of calm or rationale or ability to handle yourself because you can’t really … and she makes a pretty messy cake.
Both your EP and the short film are titled “in the violet hour.” Does the color violet have any meaning to you?
Not beyond the title but it was a domino effect. I wrote the song, “violet hour” first, and then I saw, in a T.S. Eliot poem the phrase, “in the violet hour,” which is this dusky, reflective time at the end of the day. Kind of an “In Memorium” period and I was like, that’s really beautiful and so fitting for this in-between limbo of reflecting on what matters but still with hope. It seemed like the perfect title to encapsulate what we were trying to create, and then that dictated the amount of purple we use in the artwork.
“elegy in c” contains layers and layers of different styles of how you approach the music and how your voice grows throughout the song, and it sounds so different from “goddess” or “violet hour.” What is the story behind writing that song?
I think that song is probably the most explicit one. You can’t really get away from what it’s about and I think that makes it a bit more emotional. I wrote the beginning before I went to the studio. I had the first few lines and the melody, and then the line, “I only miss you when I’m breathing,” was the trigger for the song. Then, there’s a breakdown in the middle 8 that’s I had written on the bus. I went to my friend, Dom Howard, who produced it and we built from this melody idea, and the stillness of it and the synths that he used was a perfect mirror for the sentiment.
I had that chorus melody and then you always ask yourself, “Is that too sparse? Is that a counter melody or is it a background vocal?” but every time I tried to write a counter melody, it felt cluttered. Then, he created the chopped up vocals with the sonic elements, and we agreed that that was enough. That repeated line was hypnotic got the point across and the space was nice. Someone said it was almost like a country song. If the production was different, the melody and repeated line was almost country and I was like, “Yeah, country’s like the most direct, raw way of saying this is what I think. This is how I’m feeling. It’s storytelling so I think it was just a perfect collaboration.
“better” is the last song on your EP. What’s the message you wanted to send with this song?
I think in the context of the piece, you’re not supposed to feel anything, but with the song, I think there was some hope. With how stripped back and simple the accompaniment is, it’s not hiding or buried by electronic production, and being with the animation, it’s as organic you can get. I wanted people to feel relieved that it wasn’t all going to be awful forever.
As a song, it was actually about my sister. I wrote it about her grief when I felt like she was really struggling, and it was a tribute to reassuring her how amazing she is and how it’s all going to be okay. It wasn’t written with the intention of closing the piece with it at all and it’s actually so fitting. Not only did we make this film together about our own grief, but it’s like a hopeful message to her too. It worked out very poetically.
For anyone who listens to or watches “in the violet hour,” what is the message you hope people go home with after hearing your music and seeing your story?
I hope that anybody working in music who is an independent artist can trust themselves to think big and ambitiously about what they can achieve with very little resources and very little money, and to just make sure you’ve given a lot of time and thought to the concept because if you work really hard to get a good concept together, then really great people who you need to help facilitate what you’re doing will come on board to help you. I hope people will just not think they need a label. They can just go and do it. I hope they don’t really worry about if something’s too open or too personal, and that by making art, it can be really cathartic. As much as sharing has made me quite vulnerable and quite aware of how much I’ve given away of myself, I’ve hard far more support and open conversations than I have felt daunted by it.