Princess Demeny :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Princess Demeny’s work in various mediums transmutes tragedy into beautiful expressions of the surreal. In the late 1980s, the Montréal poet, filmmaker, painter, and musician met producer Jean Mineau, who shepherded the creation of her first demos shortly before passing away from cancer. This led to Demeny’s collaboration with new wave group Vini Vidi Vici, who joined the re-recording of her signature song “New York Grief,” an aching invocation from the school of Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti. Its rarely seen 1990 music video pairs stylish fashions with stunning choreography, while serving as a monument to another late member of Demeny’s inner circle, the dancer Garth Johnston. 

Both versions of “New York Grief” are now available as a 7” from Séance Centre Records, alongside Demeny’s cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow Is Falling.” Like their previous reissues for Beverly Glenn-Copeland, MJ Lallo, and Smokey Haangala, it marks the inaugural title in a series of releases from an artist whose work is long overdue for rediscovery. Watch the video below and read on for an interview with Princess Demeny. | j locke

Aquarium Drunkard: I understand you got started in music by setting your poetry to songs. What inspired you to do that?

Princess Demeny: I started writing poetry very young. I was maybe eight years old, but I was a timid child, very shy. I never thought about doing anything musically until I met Jean. He was a musician, an artist, and very well educated. I had just come out of a very bad abusive relationship where someone had convinced me that it was stupid to think about doing music. After three years with him, I sort of escaped Montréal and went to Europe to do a lot of soul searching. When I came back that’s when I met Jean.

AD: How old were you then?

Princess Demeny: I was around 22, but it felt like I had wasted a lot of time. I had attempted to start a punk band called Chaos before I met my boyfriend, but then while we were together I didn’t do anything.

AD: I’m very glad you escaped that abusive relationship.  

Princess Demeny: I am too, and it was with my life! It was really that bad with trips to the hospital. I got my passport and literally escaped Montréal for about six months. Meeting Jean was really a game-changer for me. He asked me what I wanted to do and I had piles of poetry from over the decades. I thought of singing and he pulled his guitar out right away. The first song we ever did was “New York Groove.” It was our first love child. He was a beautiful man who healed me and changed my life.

AD: Was he already sick when you met him?

Princess Demeny: I didn’t know he had cancer. We finished a five-song EP together after we had been together for about a year and a half. We were on a bus going together somewhere and he fell down. I stopped the bus and we headed straight to the hospital where he was diagnosed. It was very fast. They kept him there and I couldn’t believe or accept it. I wanted to bring him home and take care of him. He did come home for a week and we finished recording. I held on to him as much as could, but obviously he had to go back. Maybe two weeks later he was dead.

AD: You’ve said that “New York Grief” was written about your experiences visiting the city in the mid 1980s. What was it like at that time?

Princess Demeny: Wild! It was alive. Very different from it is now. There was a lot of freedom for women, gay people, and punks. I was a teenager at the time, so I had to get my underground albums and Manic Panic there because they were things you couldn’t find in Montréal. Not to mention the nightlife…

AD: Do you remember which bars or venues you were going to?

Princess Demeny: I don’t think it exists anymore, but I would go to a bar called the Purple Barge. It was a boat attached to a dock. There was the Cat Club, and I went to Studio 54, but I was very young and had to use a fake ID. I didn’t get into all of the bars but I got into a lot of them. I was usually with my sister and we were both extreme freaks, so of course we would get selected by doormen frequently. [Laughs]

I was having a lot of dreams back then, and some of them were quite scary and apocalyptic. I was in New York when I had one that was like 9/11. There were buildings burning and people running. I woke up and the poem just came right out. “Something happened in my dream last night/I woke up lost.” It’s like residue when you have a dream and it sticks to you. It lingers and just haunts you when you’re walking around in a space between the dream and reality.

AD: Can you tell me about the making of the “New York Grief” music video? Were you trying to conjure some of that dream residue?

Princess Demeny: I worked with one of the dancers. His name is Garth Johnston and he’s recently deceased. He was an incredible artist and choreographer. We did a lot of shows together, and even some of my films. The very first time I met Garth he was dancing at a bar I was working in. He was so wild, and I approached him about working together. He gave me a cold expression but I told him I would come to his apartment and play him some of the music I was working on. I rode to his place on a bicycle and played him the music on headphones with my cassette player. He stood up and really loved it. We worked together for years after that.

Isolation (a film by Princess Demeny) from Image Is Productions on Vimeo.

AD: You would go on to do other cinematic work, including the 1994 film Isolation. What can you tell me about that project for someone who hasn’t seen it?

Princess Demeny: Isolation is a film about forgiveness. It takes place in basically only one location. It’s a girl in her bedroom that transforms into a prison. The door disappears and it’s very abstract and surreal. Everything I do is! [Laughs] I made several films before that, including one called Surface. It’s one of my best known films, even though I was only a student when I made it. It played here at a small theatre called Cinéma Parallèle and was very well distributed. Isolation was a bigger film. It was 47 minutes and hard to distribute because it was longer. I ran out of money and was struggling so badly that I was doing food line-ups. I had given everything I had and put all other work aside. At that same time I had a baby. I just looked at her and decided I was going to put everything I have into her. I don’t regret it!

Isolation is a bit personal because my father took his own life. There are parts of my life in there, and the life of the actor I worked with. It’s about things that happen to us in her life that create baggage and become paralyzing. That affects the ways we interact with the ones we love and the people closest to us. Because we carry it with us and use judgement to condemn people that have hurt us, we keep that baggage with us. My father was an immigrant who escaped the revolution and had a really hard life. My mother was in foster care, so she did too. They came together and this life they built was very violent. She worked out a lot of her inner demons, but I don’t think my father did.

Some of my siblings were affected very badly by this, and their lives are different than mine because of it. I think forgiveness is essential. You can’t have happiness without it. If you walk around judging things and harboring resentment, it keeps you in that trapped room, which brings you back to Isolation. I did it in a very abstract form with pictures coming to her through water. It all leads back to a traumatic experience from childhood that she has to let go of.

AD: You recorded another EP in the late 1980s called Me C 3D. Did that come out officially at the time?

Princess Demeny: No, but I did do a little tour and a lot of shows. A lot of people had filmed me, but when I looked into getting that footage again unfortunately they confessed to taping over it. It was important to document that time because the scene was so small with so few people doing music. I was part of that handful and I’m proud of it. There was a bar on Saint-Laurent called Poodles that I did a lot of shows at, and another one called Business. Do you know the dance company La La La Human Steps? I did my biggest show at their loft. I had lights, props, smokes, and the Grim Reaper was picking up bodies.

My sister Annette started the rave scene in Montréal. She’s the one who initiated parties in lofts that would go all night and into the morning. I did a lot of shows for her on Saint Laurent, and there was another one I did at a club down on Saint Denis called The Key Club. You needed a key to get in and that was a very strange bar. I was also an assistant to a magician at the time to make money. He made very dark, gory shows where we tried to kill each other. Finally he would cut my stomach open and pull my guts out—it was disgusting! [Laughs] I was also singing in a theatre group, but when Jean died I stopped everything.

AD: How did you connect with the folks from Séance Centre?

Princess Demeny: I had only recently put the “New York Grief” video online because Garth had died. He was one of my best friends in the world and it was very upsetting for me. He was a drag queen as well and his family completely rejected him. Garth was an amazing artist so I wanted them to see him in all of his glory. He’s so beautiful in that video. I put it on YouTube for him and then started to get attention. 

Brandon [Hocura] from Séance Centre contacted me right out of the blue. He told me that once I started to upload more of my music online he decided to get in touch, and I’m very happy that he’s come into my life. It was like a whirlwind because I felt everything I had done was sort of lost. I know a lot of artists experience that, so I’m not trying to make myself out to be a victim, but I put a lot of myself into everything I do.

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