Schooltree’s ‘Heterotopia’: A Multi-Sensory Exploration of Other Worlds

schooltreeSchooltree photographed by Austin Huck

It’s been four years since Schooltree‘s debut record—the anthemic, experimental prog-rock production Rise—hit streets. But for frontwoman Lainey Schooltree, those years have been anything but downtime.

“After our first album, people were like, ‘You should make this into a rock opera!'” Schooltree reflects. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna write a rock opera. This’ll be easy!'”

“Four years later, here I am,” she laughs.

Schooltree’s long-awaited follow-up, Heterotopia, is the culmination of those years of effort (15 months of which were spent in production of the one-hour, 40-minute epic). The record is a kaleidoscopic, hero’s-journey-to-the-underworld-type tale a la Dante’s Inferno or Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld that follows an underachieving woman named Suzi, who falls through a manhole and wakes up at home, only to realize things are a little… off. (She can walk through walls, for example.)

Suzi, as it happens, is in Otherspace, a dark, strange, semi-psychedelic world that Schooltree conceptualized as a sort of representation of the collective unconscious. “It’s like being in a dream, but being in everybody’s dream,” Schooltree explains. The world has been overtaken by malicious forces, and Suzi’s been separated from her body—the villain of the story—which is walking around and causing mayhem as she tries to get it back.

Schooltree says she’s always loved rock operas, from Tommy and Quadrophenia to Genesis’s concept album The Lamb Dies Down on Broadway. She even cites Jesus Christ Superstar as a key influence.

But she also felt these productions were missing something—namely, a focus on story. “There’s not really a narrative you can sink your teeth into,” she explains. So the Lord of the Rings fan took a page from Tolkien’s book, doing the legwork to build an entire world with its own languages, history and culture. Schooltree has hundreds of pages of notes that didn’t necessarily make it into the final production but were instrumental in developing Otherspace and making it feel as complete and as real as possible. (Are you starting to understand why it took four years for this thing to come together?)


Schooltree in Otherspace, illustrated by Amanda Watkins.

It’s a fully fantastic concept, but Heterotopia has some surprisingly realistic roots. The idea for the song “Cat Centipede,” for example, came to the Somerville resident when she was driving through the city and a cat bolted across the street so quickly that it seemed to have a ton of legs. During a time when the fight for reproductive rights is again part of the national conversation, the poignancy of a writing a character who’s literally on a journey to reclaim her body isn’t lost on Schooltree. And the opera has shades of dystopian fare like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, both of which have seen sales spikes in the “alternative facts” era. In May, Heterotopia will even get a literary component of its own thanks to a full-color, illustrated companion book.

“Growing up, one of my formative experiences was just holding a CD and reading the liner notes while I sat down on my floor and listened,” Schooltree says. But she always wanted more—to know what the songwriter was experiencing and intending as they wrote the album. “I could see this, could see Otherspace, and I wanted other people to see it, too.”

That’s why, on March 31, Heterotopia will come to life thanks to an “interactive light sculpture video installation” by local Sam Okerstrom-Lang. As the band takes to the Oberon stage to perform their new record for the first time, the audience gets to experience Otherspace firsthand as the immersive, multidisciplinary concept envelops them. It’s a project that pushes at the confines of genre and combines artistic disciplines, and earlier this month, it received a grant from the Boston Foundation.

“It’s like a Pink Floyd concert—but intimate,” Schooltree laughs. “And instead of pigs and lasers, we’re gonna have this ghost girl and zombies and shadows.”

Schooltree performs Heterotopia at 9 p.m. on Friday, March 31. Tickets and more information are available here

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