On “Byron Is Dead” Hennessey continues to proves her punk poetess credentials

photo by Max Lakner

A confession: There are some nights where I’m forced awake with a start in the wee small hours by urgent question that sits helplessly in my cerebellum until the sleep paralysis lifts just enough for me to force the words from my tremulous, perspiring lips: “WHERE IS THIS GENERATION’S GREAT PUNK POETESS?!?!” and specifically a New York punk poetess (though the “New York part" is practically taken for granted) because, I mean, we can’t expect modern-day Romantic punk poetesses like Patti Smith and Lydia Lunch to live forever even though it’d be nice of course and true both of these esteemed poetesses are still out there recording and “kickin’ it with the kids” at live shows but nonetheless I can’t help but ceaselessly prowl this city’s dark streets and its dens of musical iniquity like a tortured Byronic hero seeking out the perfect Romantic punk poetess ideal like a vampire searching New York City’s back alleys for sources new blood with a frustrated but unrequited desire to settle the matter once and for all.

And that’s why I’m so delighted that my atheistic/aesthetic prayers have been answered because there’s a young artist out there who gives off more than a strong whiff of “punk poetess” and that’s Leah Hennessey (ok there’s at least a few others too but please I’m trying to stick with my original conceit here!) otherwise known as (in classic single moniker form!) “Hennessey” who’s also frontperson of the musical collective known as Hennessey and leave it to a punk poetess to mess around with ontological boundaries in this manner but hey I’m grateful because I’m terrible with names. And without a doubt Hennessey’s most recent release “Byron Is Dead” (a-ha!) certainly fits the Romantic punk poetess bill, an artist who self-admittedly writes songs about “the feeling of being a freak or a failure for holding on Romantic dreams of a poetic sort of life” and who admires the work of ’80s NYC punk poetess Cristina…jackpot!

“Byron Is Dead” (see the video at the top of this page and/or better yet LISTEN HERE) opens with a low, humming throb provided by bandmate/producer E.J. O’Hara over which Hennessey growls in a mesmerizing half-whisper: 

What are doing now? / sighing ensuant now / rhyming and wooing / half dirt, half demon / harlequin in uniform / masking and humming / guitaring and strumming / sound of the sleepless

And I’m hoping that I got at least 90% of the words right above but either way you get the idea. [n.b. I’ve since been informed that the one line is "signing and suing" but Hennessey complimented "ensuant" as "beautiful and archaic" and hey I know how to take a compliment and put it into my blog!!] Anyway it’s pretty heady stuff but equally visceral too—describing what sounds like Lord Byron himself rising from the grave and getting his seductive anti-hero groove on, all delivered with an implacable insouciance but 110% entrancing and alluring all the same and I think you’ve got most of your basic “punk poetess” boxes check off right there and that’s why Hennessey gives me hope for curing my night terrors or at the least providing a perfect soundtrack for them. Plus, apparently, she’s currently working on a dramatic presentation called “"Byron & Shelley: Illuminati Detectives" so there you go.

What’s more, the song “Byron Is Dead” was composed for, and in close conjunction with, Hedi Slimane who’s a big time fashion designer (according to GQ magazine “no other designer inspires this [much] ire, or excitement” which sounds pretty punk rock to me) in order to musically accompany the debut of his 2022 CELINE collection when it was unveiled in ol’ Gay Paree earlier this year (ergo the prowling models in the video above) and Hennessey had this to say about Slimane’s collection: “I love the billowing Byronic cloaks and the juxtaposition of the aggressively casual denim with the 18th-century environment and aristocratic detachment” and who in the world would say such a things except for a punk poetess, not to mention once who’s mastered the extremes of Romantic-style self-expression with vocals that range from a whisper to a scream and at least 50 shades in between, and plus Patti Smith is into high fashion too and both her and Lydia Lunch are indisputable fashion icons so there’s another box checked off I tell ya!

But don’t these take haut monde associations at face value either because, much like those other two aforementioned punk poetesses, Hennessey’s music has a strong component of social critique (final check box!) that ranges from astringent to subtle to playful, like on her single “Eight Men (Still Have All The Money)” (the former) as compared with the opening track of her HENNESSEY EP.01 extended-play from 2020 titled “Let’s Pretend (It’s the 80s)” as in “let’s act like we’ve got money” (the latter).

And really you should check out the entire EP with its four mini-symphonies of Romantic fervour—songs that range from being about being a user (“Use”) and about being used (“ No Transformation”) all culminating in the final track, an epic cover version of “We Will Not Be Lovers” which crosses the Waterboys with Donna Summer and Diamanda Galás, this being the track that led the fashion designer to dial up Leah and say “hey wanna fly out to Paris?” a meeting that must’ve been something like Lord Byron hanging out with Mary Shelly and we all know how that meetup resulted in nothing less than everyone’s favorite novel about “The Modern Prometheus” i.e. the destroyer (and potential preserver) of worlds with bolts in her neck. (Jason Lee)