By the time All the Little Pieces’ Rhyan Sinclair went on a ghost walk with Bulldog Tours last spring, she’d already written the music for the Kentucky band’s next album. In Charleston to perform during the Cooper River Bridge Run, the band didn’t have lyrics yet — but that all changed once Sinclair learned the story of Lavinia Fisher.
If you don’t know the tale, Charleston’s Lavinia Fisher is purported to be the first woman hanged in the United States, for the crime of highway robbery, which at the time was a capital offense. Fisher and her husband, John, owned an inn called the Six Mile Wayfarer House, where legend has it that guests would occasionally disappear along with their possessions.
The lines between history and myth blur when it comes to Lavinia. Some say she was the nation’s first female serial killer, others say she was merely a thief, part of a larger gang of highwaymen who assaulted and robbed travelers. Regardless, she was arrested in 1819, spent a year in Charleston’s Old City Jail, and was hanged on Feb. 18, 1820 while she was still in her late 20s.
But as Sinclair took the ghost walk, hearing about how Fisher’s spirit supposedly still haunted the jail, it sparked the idea for an album.
She saw visions of Fisher wandering through the night within the walls of that jail, doomed to pay for her crimes forever. The story, told on All the Little Pieces’ new album, The Legend of Lavinia Fisher, fit well with the haunting acoustic folk Sinclair had been writing, laced as it was with Appalachian accents and her mournful vocal wail.
The concept, which takes the listener from the perspective of a modern-day traveler back through time into Lavinia’s mind, is effectively expressed in the video for “Lavinia’s Song”: A gallery of woozy male travelers succumb to Fisher’s drugged tea as she fixes an icy glare at the camera, all while Sinclair’s ghostly cry echoes in the background.
Interestingly enough, the album exists now because Fisher’s story reminded Sinclair of her favorite film director. “I’m heavily influenced by Tim Burton,” she says. “I’ve watched a lot of his movies, and I think that influenced me and helped this vision come to life for me. I saw a lot of visuals in his style in my mind, and I think that inspired it.”
There’s also a lot of grey area in Fisher’s story, a lot of legend and myth that freed Sinclair up to add to the tale in her songs.
The music that Sinclair had been writing before she took the ghost walk seemed to fit her new concept perfectly, while the lyrics and melodies intertwined almost from the start. “Everything sort of fell into place like puzzle pieces,” she says. “So I think that in a way the sound that the album needed was already there. I just took that inspiration lyrically to kind of carry the album through.”
Making a concept album can be difficult, simply because the lyrics and the music have to tell a continuous, multi-song story. But once she started rolling with her idea, there weren’t any real roadblocks in the writing and recording processes. “It flowed pretty well,” she says. “I think that’s what made writing it feel so much like home to me. It just kind of flowed, and I never got stuck or anything like that. I think with this record [the band’s third] I blended all of my influences, and I was able to find my voice. I think I found my sound writing this record.”
The band may be finding a lot more than that while they’re in town, because they’re planning to film themselves performing some songs from The Legend of Lavinia Fisher in the City Jail building. Perhaps anticipating some more direct communication from Lavinia herself, Sinclair says she’s excited about the performance. “It’s definitely going to be spooky,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to that.”