The brooding sound of Purest Spiritual Pigsby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Helena Thompson's basement not only houses her recording studio, it's her escape hatch, her refuge.
Thompson, the founder and core member of Purest Spiritual Pigs, is also a 10-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department.
When you see a fire truck barreling through the city, it might be her behind the wheel. But when the Rhode Island native gets behind her drum kit or picks up a guitar, she's not usually trying to escape from life, she's trying to make sense of it.
"I don't sit down with a pop template or anything like that," she said. "I kinda just sit down with my feelings, you know, I guess. And whatever comes out comes out."
What comes out are often harrowing, bleak, brutally honest sketches of life, from a deeply introspective songwriter.
Purest Spiritual Pigs songs are like a haunting echo chamber where cryptic words and phrases bounce around. On the new CD "Body Misses," Thompson's vocals are soaked in reverb, the guitars distorted and the synthesizers crunch in their over-saturation.
The lyrics express deeply held feelings about subjects ranging from the awesome natural beauty of the great Northwest to an homage to a departed friend. It's not surprising Thompson's work experiences also seep in.
"As a firefighter and E.M.T., we see a lot of things that one wouldn't normally see," she said. "And some of those things are really hard.
"The song 'Unsteady' is about having to try to save somebody's life, and trying the hardest that you can. You could do everything text book and still not have them live. And just being able to cope with that, and the idea that we can't do everything."
Purest Spiritual Pigs is as much a cross disciplinary project as it is a rock band. Thompson has joined forces with choreographers, filmmakers and performance artists around the country.
Natasha Hassett of Minneapolis first worked with Thompson as a dancer four years ago. She's now the bassist for Purest Spiritual Pigs. Hassett finds Thompson's approach refreshing.
"She's not interested in doing the regular play-show-at-bar kind of thing and is more interested in using all genres," she said.
The music Thompson crafts is also conducive to the creative process, said Minneapolis performance artist and frequent collaborator Jaime Carerra.
"It's got an uncontrolled structure to it," he said. "It's not the typical music composition. It ebbs and flows so that when you imagine it as a performance you can see the things that can happen visually."
In some ways, Helena Thompson is like most musicians. She doesn't want her work to exist in a vacuum. And some day she'd like it to make enough money to support her artistic pursuits. She also wants to perform live more often.
But if Purest Spiritual Pigs continues to be primarily a basement studio project, Thompson will still be satisfied.
"I think for sure music is therapy for me," she said. "Without music, I don't know, I'd be pretty unhappy I think, without an outlet for it."
For Thompson, the experience of making art is what's important, and working with other artists who can take her music places it might never have gone.