- Arts + Culture
The plot of “À l’intérieur” goes like this: After surviving a car crash but losing her husband, a woman is hunted — the night before she goes to the hospital to give birth — by a crazy person intent on taking her baby.
Or you could read almost anything by Thomas Ligotti, who writes like H.P. Lovecraft, fill of writhing horrors and terrible knowledge that leaves protagonists damaged forever, shattered by having seen too much.
Both are cited by Christopher Barnes as influences in the music and lyrics of Gem Club, which performs Saturday at Lilypad in Inman Square. But the results, as he sings and plays piano and as partner Kristen Drymala sings and plays cello, are as far from Ligotti and films such as “À l’intérieur” as you can imagine.
Gem Club songs chime slowly and blissfully into the air, stately and delicate pieces that can put audiences into a deep, peaceful trance. Barnes and Drymala are classically trained — he at the Berklee College of Music, she at the Boston Conservatory — and it shows onstage, where their talents command rapt attention.
“Beautiful ethereal airy ballads that whisk you away,” is how Twentyseven Views describes Gem Club, and the poet Eleanor Lerman describes its work as creating “an effect that is sometimes sad, sometimes full of yearning, and always haunting.”
While Barnes said he was a fan of techno and dance music when he was younger, this hasn’t made its way into Gem Club music any more than the horror he consumes. Even as a solo act, while he and Drymala were part of the same social circles but hadn’t shared a stage, his work was dreamlike, reminiscent of Cat Power or Sigur Ros. It inspired him not to buy a drum machine but — after a lengthy, arduous search via Craigslist, cello department inquiries and failed audition — to slip Drymala some of his music.
“I always dreamt of having a cellist, honestly, of working with a cellist,” he said. “It was always very romantic in my mind. I have a hard time conceptualizing the music with, say, an electric guitar.”
So it’s even more odd that much of the duo’s current music is the result of the RPM Challenge, in which artists create an album in a month, and that the challenge took place shortly after Barnes and Drymala started playing together and during Barnes’ stressful move to Somerville from Kendall Square. (It was unclear his upright piano, a gift from his grandmother, would make it into his third-floor apartment. Even the guys operating the crane weren’t sure.)
“Some of those songs were born put of panic and necessity to create, because there was a fever at the time, in February, of other artists who were creating and putting out new work, and I feel like I hadn’t put out anything in so long,” Barnes said, referring to the challenge period. “It was such a perfect opportunity to flush out whatever I had inside — I know that sounds really terrible.”
The contradictions of making peace out of panic seem to culminate in the fact Barnes started at Berklee as a film score major. Surely his work lacks the kineticism to serve as soundtrack to many kinds of movies, including even those in his beloved new French horror genre, but there’s no denying his seriousness in naming it as a starting point for what he creates.
“It’s not horror that’s based in fantasy,” he noted, helping explain how Gem Club songs generate light from blood.
“I don’t know that I necessarily glean straight from a storyline, more so that it’s a reinterpretation of characters or situations, but with my own kind of ‘What would I be doing if I were the person in that situation?’ that I’m reading about or watching,” he said.
It makes sense, then, that the elegiac “Acid and Everything” — the most widely distributed and listened-to Gem Club track — is described by Barnes as being about abuse, but also about hope.
Ultimately there’s less contradiction than there seems:
Gem Club songs seem to slow time so the listener can serenely swoop through and contemplate what’s happening. The moment may be horrific, but it’s also frozen. The song may be visceral, all about the body, but the listener gets to examine it at leisure, using emotion.
And it winds up being the opposite of the eternally unsettling Ligotti; listen to Gem Club and experience peace that sticks with you after the last note slowly dies away.
Gem Club performs with New York band Pearl and the Beard at 10 p.m. Saturday at Lilypad, 1353 Cambridge St., Inman Square, Cambridge. The event is all ages; tickets are $10. For information, click here.