A Cat of a Different Coat: Spirituality, Storytelling, and the Music of Karliene
Among my favorite YouTube independent artists is a Scotswoman named Karliene. An unabashedly enthusiastic pop culture fan-girl, most of her covers and compositions are inspired by geek fandoms such as Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Hunger Games, among others. But there is something that makes her musical style different than typical fan-based recordings.
There is real quality to be found in her works, and a real sense of the soul, creating a beautiful sense of grace touching culture. In whatever realm her music is supposed to be set, she weaves a web of timeless story-telling brought to life through emotionally-engrossing vocals and starkly surreal music. Through it all, she always manages to bring out the deeper meaning of her material with a burning sense of realism and purpose. Indeed I find that listening to her proves to be a spiritually enriching experience.
Although I am not a major fan of Game of Thrones (mainly because of the inclusion of sensationalist horror-sex, a nauseating level of gore, and ambiguous moral themes and sense of plot direction), Karliene’s GoT-inspired music has a way of drawing out the best elements worthy of being remembered.
“Sansa’s Hymn”, for example, highlights a prayer for protection and peace recited by Sansa, eldest daughter of the House of Stark, who has lost most of her innocence and faith after her father, mother, brother, and sister-in-law are all murdered by the ruling House of Lannister. In the midst of all this brutal feuding, and in spite of the bitterness that is seeping into her soul, the words of the prayer reveal the heart she is forced to keep hidden as she plays the political game.
Even surrounded by battle and bloodshed on all sides, the words dare to express hope for a better future. Although the prayer is directed to one of the Seven Faces of the Divine worshipped in Westeros, as a Catholic, I cannot help but see a strikingly Marian element to it:
“Gentle Mother, font of mercy/Save our sons from war we pray/Stay the swords and stay the arrows/Let them know a better day…”
She goes on to implore strength for all women to get through the darkness surrounding them, and that someday the feuding will end for good, when the people themselves know better than to continue it:
“Gentle mother, strength of women/Help our daughters through this fray/Soothe the wrath and tame the fury/Teach us all a kinder way…”
Karliene’s voice begins softly as she sings, and then swells with harmonies of heart-felt supplication and anguish that capture the mood to perfection. Indeed, if GoT has any lasting meaning, perhaps this song embodies it.
“The Rains of Castamere” is one of the most well-known songs in the series and in Karliene’s repertoire. It is a haunting lament for a noble house wiped out in the feuding, which also comes to be associated with the deaths of Caitlyn Stark and her son Rob at the gruesome massacre called “The Red Wedding.” The lyrics are extremely reminiscent of the historical inspiration for GoT found in The War of the Roses, when similar dynastic struggles brought medieval England to its knees.
In the style of a folk ballad, the lyrics give an overview of the dispute between two noble houses (both represented by different colored lions) with dialogue:
“‘And who are you,’ the proud lord said/‘That I must bow so low?’/‘Only a cat of a different coat/That’s all the truth I know/In a coat of gold, or a coat of red/The lion still has its claws/And mine are long and sharp, my lord/As long and sharp as yours…”
The second stanza is even more dark and haunting, as the once illustrious house, now emptied of inhabitants who have been mercilessly wiped out, falls into ruin (note: the word “rains” also is a synonym for “reigns”):
“And so he spoke, and so he spoke/That Lord of Castamere/But now the rains weep o’er his hall/With no one there to hear/The rains fall down, yes, the rains fall down/On Lord of Castamere/Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall/With not a soul to hear…”
In addition to being a grim ode to the casualties of feudal in-fighting that seems ripped straight out of a Shakespeare play, it also carries with it an age-old moral that no man, no matter how powerful or wealthy or secure he may seem, is able to cheat death, the great leveler. The splendors of the world are doomed to crumble into dust.
The sound of rain and the mournful violin on this track is masterful, as is the reverb placed on Karliene’s vocals, making it sounds as if she is truly singing in a hall. In addition to this version, Karliene created a special track lamenting the Red Wedding, overlaying “The Rains of Castamere” with a powerful plea for an end to the killing called “Let It End.” The words repeat themselves with heartrending effect:
“Let it end/Bloodshed…”
Touching further on the spiritual side of Westeros, Karliene sings a lullaby about the seven gods of myth called “The Song of the Seven.” In the broad sweep, one might see the different figures not so much as multiple deities and the many facets of The Ground of Reality. They are often represented by the seven colors of the rainbow, and crystals used to separate the colors. Also, they can be seen to represent different members of the Stark family:
“The seven gods who made us all/Are listening if we should call…They see you, little children…”
The song goes on to list the roles of the gods as Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, and Smith, but appropriately leaves the last god, whose role is that of Stranger, anonymous. This is profound in that he is very much the unknown aspect of the seven-sided deity, called upon by outcasts and rejects of society.
Karliene sings with tenderness and also a touch of melancholy, for we know the child-like innocence expressed will soon be shattered by violence and war. And yet there is also a sense that, through it all, the powers that be are still guiding events. The harp track is quite otherworldly, and reminds of the Vulcan lyre.
Aside from the Stark family, another character Karliene highlights is Daenerys Targaryen in the song “Dragon Queen.” The music begins with a brief harp intro playing the TV theme for GoT and then breaking into her own individual theme. Her legacy as one who liberates slaves and “answers injustice with justice” is brought to the fore in the lyrics:
“She who walks in fire will strike down every master/break the chains around us…Oh, silver Queen! Blood of Dragons can be seen!”
Also, her claim to the throne of Westeros is strongly alluded to, as she marches with her army of loyal freemen towards the sea. Her association with dragons is one of the most overt fantasy elements in the series that tends more towards a crude historical fiction feel. These “pets” are symbolic of her own strength and fierceness, earning her the name “Mother of Dragons.” In many ways, she represents the archetype of royal savior returning from exile to liberate the oppressed and defend the weak, making her a character we can all feel cause to champion, in spite of her various faults.
Another cover Karliene recorded was the theme from The Hunger Games, “Safe and Sound”. It is a song that manages to capture the depth of humanity found amidst the horror of tyranny and gladiatorial spectacle, speaking of Katniss Everdeen’s love of her sister Prim, whose place she took as tribute in the Games, and also for her fellow tribute Peeta, whom she nurses back to health when he is injured and refuses to kill at the Games’ end.
Not only does it speak of the desire to keep one’s loved ones safe, but also, after watching the often tragic unfolding of the individual character stories, it has a similar effect to “Into the West” from The Lord of the Rings, and can be seen as speaking of a higher eternal plane:
“Just close your eyes/The sun is going down/You’ll be alright/No one can hurt you now/Come morning light/You and I’ll be safe and sound…”
The tune has a lullaby-like quality, and the simple piano accompaniment brings this out all the more. Furthermore, Karliene manages to bring an element of tenderness and melancholy to the piece, which I felt was lacking in the original version by Taylor Swift.
Turning to The Lord of the Rings, one of my favorite Tolkien-esque tracks from Karliene is “Lament for Boromir.” Indeed, it was the first track that I ever heard her perform, and it completely won me over.
It is sung a capella with haunting harmonies, humming in chords, the songs of the bird, and reverb, perfectly fitting for Tolkien’s lengthy poem in the style of the Anglo-Saxon epics such as “Beowulf.” The singer asks the wind what news it has of Gondor’s favorite son, Boromir, and both his last stand in battle and his Viking-like funeral are recorded:
“Ask not of me where he doth dwell, so many bones there lie, on the white shores, on the dark shores, under a stormy sky…”
In addition to the richly evocative language, the thing that makes the song particularly powerful is the section of the story which it describes. Boromir had just tried to take the One Ring from Frodo shortly before his death. However, he redeems himself when he is killed trying to defend the hobbits Merry and Pippin from an orc attack. As he lies dying, Aragorn swears he will not allow Gondor, The White City, to fall, and finally rises to the challenge of being king. It is one of my top favorite scenes in the LotR film trilogy.
From The Hobbit, Karliene also managed to salvage a song I had long rolled my eyes at as a coffee house background tune unsuitable for Middle Earth: “I See Fire.” Somehow, for me at least, her vocals brought a whole new level of emotional intensity to the song. While I had previously felt that the lyrics had fallen rather flat (and still consider some of them to be the same!), the passionate resolve in her voice brings alive the declaration of loyalty to the end between Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf friends:
“If this is to end in fire, we will burn together/Watch the flames climb higher into the night…If we should die tonight, we will all die together/Raise a glass of wine for the last time…”
Here, I can’t help find an historical equivalent in British General James Wolfe singing “How Stand the Glass Around?” before the Battle of Quebec in 1759. What Karliene achieved was to bring this connection home to me and highlight the bond of brotherhood that binds the main characters together even as the dragon Smaug takes to the sky with all his fiery destruction.
Apart from major fandoms, Karliene also has good taste in extracting songs from stand-alone films/video games with Celtic/Medieval themes. For example, from the 2006 motion picture King Arthur (which I admittedly found to be a rather painful exercise to trying too hard to stuff mythology into an historical context, and butchering both) she recorded a cover for the sorrowful and spine-tingling “Song of the Exiles.” Again, she manages to reproduce it with gentility and power, accompanied by haunting harmonies and the pluck of harp strings.
The lyrics speak of the profound longing all of us have to “go home”, in the emotional sense of finding a place of belonging, as exemplified by the Sardinian soldiers forced to fight for Rome in the wilds of the British Isles. It also comes to be associated with Arthur’s decision to stay in Britain and fight the Saxon invaders, for even though his head may be for Rome, his heart is firmly set in the homeland of his mother.
In a more universal sense, the song also brings Arthur’s words to the fore about finding a “home” wherever one is free. Beyond the temporal, there is also a spiritual dynamic of searching for a home beyond this world, where our deepest longings may finally be satisfied:
“Land that gave us birth and blessings/Land that calls us ever homeward/We will go home across the mountains…”
Another one-off song track by Karliene is “Gently As She Goes”, taken from the soundtrack from the 3-D animated version of Beowulf. As one who appreciates the original epic poem, I can’t say that this action-crazed, sex-saturated, glorified creature-feature was anything less than a total turn-off for my sense of aesthetics.
Nevertheless, Karliene once again managed to pull out the best element of the film by choosing this song sung by the king’s wife to the warriors steeling themselves to battle Grendel in the Mead-Hall. It is soft and delicate as the falling snow, describing the outward and inward beauty of a fair maiden, accompanied by a harp, similar to the lyre she played in the scene, accompanied by the gentle rattle of a tambourine in the last verse.
All this is strikingly serene in comparison with the harsh Scandinavian landscape beyond the hall, and the knowledge that Grendel and his mother are preparing their attack. It also highlights Beowulf’s own growing attraction towards the queen:
“Lips ripe as the berries in June/Red’s the rose, red’s the rose/Skin pale as the light of the moon/Gently as she goes…Eyes blue as the sea and the sky/Water flows, water flows/Heart burning like fire in the night/Gently as she goes…”
In a deeper sense, it shows that even the most hardened warriors are still capable of being touched by softness and beauty, just as is demonstrated in the legend of the Japanese Samurai who had his sword engraved with pastoral images of home.
There are many other songs of note, including “The Dragon-Born Comes” from Skyrim, “John Snow, “Dornishman’s Wife,” “Mountain Giants”, and “You Win or You Die” from GoT, “Hanging Tree” from The Hunger Games, “The Last Goodbye” and “Misty Mountains” from The Hobbit, “Edge of Night” from The Lord of the Rings, “Bound” and “The Woman of Balnain” from Outlander, not to mention her albums with historical/mythological themes, dealing with such famous female figures as Boudica, Guinevere, and Anne Boleyn.
But one thing remains a universal constant in her work: her stories-in-song manage to transcend time and space and make one truly feel the heart and soul of any setting. It is a strikingly human journey into the deeper meaning of popular fandoms, and it is one on which every geek in search of grace should embark.
By Rosaria Marie