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Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter blurs lines between reality, performance and research with 'Saved!'

Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter blurs lines between reality, performance and research with 'Saved!'

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The bones that embody an album can take many shapes. They may tell a story, follow a genre or soundtrack a film.

But thanks to her interest in religion and her education in art, literature and linguistics, Kristin Hayter found herself in a unique position to embark on a kind of anthropological experiment through her latest album.

Released under the name Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter, “Saved!” is a concept album which explores a fictionalized conversion to Pentecostalism.

“When people ask me like, ‘What is it?’ I’m like — I honestly don’t know what to say,” she says of her album, ahead of the second of two recent performances at the Masonic Lodge at Los Angeles' Hollywood Forever Cemetery. “It’s supposed to sound kind of like found sound, field recordings, that kind of thing.”

Although not attempting to portray a genuine conversion or create a piece of historical research, Hayter, who previously recorded under the moniker Lingua Ignota, used the album to meditate on how people tell stories about their perceived realities. As she made it, she found herself thinking about the concept of documentary storytelling and “what is edited out and what we choose to leave in."

“Saved!” is made up of a combination of recognizable Christian hymns, including “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” and “How Can I Keep from Singing,” as well as original and sometimes more subversive tracks like “All of My Friends Are Going to Hell.”

That range reflects Hayter's following, from devout Christians — including a snake handler from West Virginia who extended to her an open invitation — to those vehemently opposed to religion.

“I was expecting more outrage,” she said plainly. “But I think there’s enough ambiguity in it and the ambiguity is pretty intentional, where I’m not requesting or requiring people to have any kind of particular response. Your experience is going to dictate what you hear.”

To emphasize that “found sound” approach, Hayter recorded in a lo-fi style, often abruptly ending or fading in and out of a song. Hayter’s powerful voice, accompanied by her prepared piano, vacillates between beautiful and terrifying in a manner not unlike the way in which she thinks about religion.

“A lot of the language surrounding Christianity really is quite beautiful and poetic but is also, or can also be, pretty horrifying,” she said.

But Hayter doesn’t just utilize her voice for singing on “Saved!” Woven throughout is her attempt at glossolalia — speaking in tongues — a defining feature of Pentecostalism, according to Grant Wacker, a historian at Duke Divinity School who specializes in the denomination.

“It’s important to understand how fundamental speaking in tongues is to the identity of historic Pentecostals,” Wacker said, recalling the pressure he himself witnessed to speak in tongues growing up in the church.

That Hayter turns such a sacred and integral aspect of the faith into a performance, while cultivating conditions that could bring the act of speaking in tongues about, could be taken as disingenuous. But Wacker says similar tactics are frequently employed within the Pentecostal church.

“The pastor would encourage young people — usually teenagers — they’d say ‘Well, just start talking faster and faster, and before long, your tongue will just fall into it,’” he said.

Wacker explained that as long as attempts at glossolalia are done in a “worshipful context,” tactics can be employed to achieve it. For Hayter, those included sleep deprivation, fasting and listening to others speak in tongues, an idea from her producer and recording engineer, Seth Manchester.

“He was like, ‘Well, let’s put you in the studio and blast other people speaking in tongues at you for 90 minutes and see what happens,’” she recalled. “What you hear on the record is actually like one unedited portion of maybe two hours total of speaking in tongues.”

As is often the case with art, the line between performance and reality is a blurry one for Hayter. While she would by no means describe herself as a Pentecostal, the preparation and research required for the project raised the age-old question in the study of religion: whether an insider, outsider or both can study a tradition.

She spent much of the pandemic researching the denomination as a clear outsider, meticulously procuring and sifting through countless Gospel tracts and attending Pentecostal worship services behind a distant screen on Zoom. But her research bled into practice when it came time to record the album and experiment with what can be considered spiritual disciplines.

“It was really pretty dissociative. I was able to just kind of let my brain go and let language and the brain kind of act independently or something. I’m not entirely sure what happened. But it definitely felt like releasing something,” she said.

Hayter attended parochial school as a kid and sang as a cantor in the Catholic Church. Though she was for years a devout atheist after denouncing her faith as a teenager, Hayter has long been drawn to religious concepts, imagery and iconography.

“I think the ideas of things that are absolutely evil or absolutely good are really interesting to me,” she said.

Across her chest, she is tattooed with the name “Caligula” — the notorious first century Roman emperor who — though the veracity of historical accounts is questionable — is often associated with religious persecution and sexual deviancy. Hayter’s previous recording name was an ode to the 12th century Benedictine mystic and saint, Hildegard Von Bingen, an epochal figure in the history of glossolalia.

Hayter is hardly the first musician in recent memory to commit to religious extremes for the sake of art — Grimes, also inspired by Von Bingen, famously locked herself in her room for weeks to make the album “Visions.” But Hayter is also cognizant of the ways in which her academic background — she has a master of fine arts from Brown University — make her distinct.

“It’s just the way that my brain works,” she said. “I do like this period of research and then this period of doing the thing and being kind of like an insurgent within the thing. And it becomes like a weird life-filling situation, an obsession.”

Calling it an obsession might not be an exaggeration. She co-founded her current label, Perpetual Flame Ministries, ahead of the album’s release. And once she settled on adding “reverend,” Hayter decided she might as well get ordained in the Universal Life Church.

Her past work encapsulated avant-garde sounds that tackled dark topics, including her experience with domestic abuse and anorexia.

But more recently, her journey has been one of healing — even conceding she has a “much more open sense of what God is and what God can be at this point” — and so felt it was time to retire her old recording name and music.

“For the first time in my adult life, I have a normal life now. I have a really nice home life. And I have a lovely boyfriend and the cats and the house,” she said with a smile. “So I’m trying to really lean into that.”