COVER STORY | Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter and Her Ciphers of Healing

The New England singer/songwriter and pianist talks saying goodbye to Lingua Ingota, the rigors of speaking in tongues, studying Pentecostalism and her new album, SAVED!

Music Features Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter
COVER STORY | Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter and Her Ciphers of Healing

[TW: This article contains mentions of sexual abuse]

“I can’t pretend I’ve done better than you,” Revered Kristin Michael Hayter sings early on her new album SAVED!, “I walked in the dark and I lost my way, too. But I’m on my knees in the place where I fell, begging God, ‘Save my soul, please, don’t send me to Hell.’” Ever since discovering her self-released 2017 album ALL BITCHES DIE, I’ve found Hayter to be our uniquest and most gravitational storyteller. For half a decade, she toted herself around under the name Lingua Ignota—a moniker derived from a 12th-century form of constructed language in the codex of St. Hildergard of Bingen—and released four albums as such. She quickly became the woman with the harrowing, operatic voice who sounded like she was intoning from inside a furnace. Her sermons were laced with arsenic, puncturing your soul deeply and righteously. Then, around the time her final Lingua Ignota record, SINNER GET READY, came out, she found the courage to detail online her experiences of rape, violence and the longstanding trauma side-effects that ensued. The context of that album became, in the wake of that courage, much more vivid and devastating, and Hayter had found herself at an impasse, wanting to step away from the project for good.

On top of that, once SINNER GET READY came out, Hayter had to cancel a number of shows because of damage she endured from a molar extraction that prevented her from singing. For six months, she had a hole in her sinus and, even today, is still missing a tooth in her mouth. “It’s just a hole, so it’s affected my speech and it definitely affected my singing,” Hayter tells me from her home in Connecticut. “I had to just adapt to it. There weren’t too many long-term effects from that and, singing Lingua, I would just wreck my voice anyways, singing and screaming and doing all the shit, so it didn’t matter that much. It was the process of getting back into vocalizing [that was difficult].”

In February 2022, she released her own rendition of the American folksong “Katie Cruel” and then, in November, finally revealed that she would no longer be performing Lingua Ignota songs. “This era is over for me,” Hayter wrote in an Instagram post. “I will give my final performances of this music everything I have, and I look forward to the actual great pleasure of interpreting hymns for you. Revelations is upon us. Gentle friends, it is ok to let go. Thank you for sharing the dark with me, it is time to move forward.” “I was just kind of done,” Hayter says. “I had a lot of obligations to fulfill—and I was happy to fulfill them—but my heart really wasn’t in it anymore. I was in a place where I was working on myself, personally, and was working on getting away from a lot of pain. So, to be doing that—and to, simultaneously, be stuck performing and working with that material—was really painful for me. It felt really complicated and really strange.”

As a survivor of sexual abuse, I latched onto Hayter’s songwriting immediately—though I didn’t, at least not at the time when records like CALIGULA and SINNER GET READY came out, know why, other than the fact that the latter had been written in the same part of the country my family hailed from. “Remember, this body is not your home,” she sang on “REPENT NOW CONFESS NOW.” “No pleasure in this year, no wound as sharp as the will of God.” I remember when I was abused at five or six years old (abuse is poison to the mind, and it sometimes clouds precise timelines, so forgive me if I’m off on my own recounting by a year or two) by a family member at my grandmother’s house—how, a week later, I was sitting in a church pew next to her and having sermons spoken at me by a man who sweet-talked the worshippers of the town just as my own kin had when he convinced me to lock the upstairs bedroom. “I can’t say I don’t deserve it,” Hayter mused. I felt that deeply.

After years of repression (after I was well-settled into adulthood), I could see that day again for the first time and I’d thought, perhaps once and for all, I could not go on living knowing that such an innocent piece of me died in a home I was no longer welcome in. “O, Sinner Friend, be not afraid, your shadows here shall end,” Hayter sings on “MAY THIS COMFORT AND PROTECT YOU.” “Know that, in death, you’ll live again! May this comfort and protect you.” Listening to Hayter’s music is not for the faint of heart, but it very well could save your life if you let it.

With Lingua Ignota buried and mourned, she made her pivot to the next chapter: Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter. In December 2022, she and KW Campol launched their own label Perpetual Flame Ministries—which is, for clarification purposes, not a real ministry. While on a Lingua tour and decamping at a SpringHill Suites in Nashville, she went online and became an ordained minister. “I did that because, while I am engaging earnestly in a lot of parts of the Christian tradition, I am also examining some of it with playful criticism,” Hayter says. “And it is definitely true that you can just become a minister in five minutes and thereby call yourself a reverend.” But it wasn’t so much about the honorific she adopted. Instead, the mark of SAVED! comes from a place of reclamation and creative and emotional autonomy. By calling herself Reverend, she is leading her own congregation—no longer plodding along as merely a voice. “Doing this project under my own name felt important,” Hayter adds. “I wanted to feel proud of my name and myself. That was something that was really lacking for me, working under the project Lingua. I assigned all my value to Lingua and not to myself as a person. So, accepting myself as a person has been a long, weird road. It’s just me now.”

Hayter had kickstarted the project, at least spiritually, through her EP Epistolary Grieving for Jimmy Swaggart in November 2021. A month prior, she’d started writing letters to the televangelist as a means of processing trauma and evicting her own self-doubt. As she stated during the rollout, the project was not “about music, it is about language and image, and how meaning shifts between mediums, who is speaking who is being spoken to.” In total, there are about 12 to 15 letters, and all of them are recorded. Hayter is still trying to figure out whether or not they will ever see the light of day, but she recorded hymns alongside her writing, and some of those arrangements ended up in the SAVED! pile.

Swaggart would become a throughline, as SAVED! is largely influenced by Pentecostalism—especially the Pentecostal Holiness Church—and Charismatic Christianity (a figment of Renewalism that grew from Pentecostalism and emphasizes spiritual gifts as a mark of growing closer with God rather than speaking in tongues). Hayter picked up on learning about the belief systems after reading Swaggart’s biography and a book written by the lawyers of another reverend he was in a defamation lawsuit against. Beyond the allure of one of the most taboo, extremist sects of Christianity—despite it having nearly 300 million worshippers globally—she was mainly interested in how people who have good intentions, and appear to have come to the idea of wanting to preach the Word of God through an oral history, through their family, with a real belief system, become so susceptible to abuses of power. When Hayter stepped back and realized that she, too, had fallen to that same predation in her own personal life, SAVED! quickly became a cipher for her own healing.

At one point, Hayter considered herself an atheist, only to renounce that once she started exploring divine retribution. In her time studying different factions of religion, her relationship with spirituality has fundamentally shifted, as the work has become both edifying and confusing for her. At this point, she’s not sure what she does believe. It’s a question she’s still asking and, thus, is what her work is setting out to discover. Hayter approaches everything with a healthy dose of skepticism, and she notes that many folks who study Pentecostalism do, too. But she wanted to learn how people were achieving miraculous states and what it meant to directly communicate with God in such ecstatic modes. Her affinity and curiosity for the limitlessness of divinity has offered her a dense, more crystalline understanding of motive in scripture. Hayter’s roots are in the stoic, theatrical, gilded and formal branches of Catholicism, but her focus has turned towards the Pentecostal idea that there is no intermediary between ourselves and God, that we can communicate with Him directly through our own personal transcendental experiences—a reckoning that she fully embraced while making SAVED!.

“I set about recording this record trying to get saved according to those tenants,” Hayter says. “And the process was ‘I will record as many hymns that are sung in this tradition as I conceivably, humanly, can.’ And, through repetition, I will find God. And then, I started to develop ‘Okay, well I want to experience the miracles that pentecostals experience, so I will create environments that will make it easier for me to access God and to access tongues. I will fast, I will deprive myself of sleep. I will repeat prayers ad nauseam in the studio and then I will, hopefully, find God through that.’ A lot of people see Charismatic Christianity and the evangelicals as smarmy, and there’s truth in that. And there’s a lot of ugliness that I’ve found with many, many, many forms of swindling and scandal and alienating—othering—of people. But, at its heart, the teachings of finding communion with God through a miracle, through your personal experience is, I think, really fascinating.”

On Lingua Ignota records, Hayter’s focus was often on demanding answers rather than basking in the questions that precede them. It was a very black and white absolutism about the divine retribution she sought out, and it came from an unhealed place that was honest and traumatic. “At the same time, it was coming from a person who had been through a lot and didn’t know how to contend with it,” she admits. “So, being honest about those experiences of confusion and how we contend with that form of suffering and ‘Here’s the answer, retribution is the answer,’ I think I wanted to engage with the idea that God could deliver and God could provide salvation. But how?” In turn, Lingua Ignota was a heavily subjective project that produced heavily subjective albums—and Hayter’s intentionality bled into every aspect of them. SAVED!, however, is fueled by a grandiose source of objectivity. The record is documenting a process, it’s an exhibition of someone’s trajectory towards being a person who is, slowly and viscerally, becoming whole again.

Over the years, Hayter has become more and more skeptical of dogmatic belief systems. “I’ve always felt that I don’t really belong anywhere,” she tells me. And that goes for pretty much every area of my life. I wasn’t a noise artist, a classical artist or a metal artist. I wasn’t any of those things. But I, somehow, managed to find a way through all of them.” She’s taken this outsider’s approach and implemented it into her spiritual practices, too. “I don’t really know what I believe, I don’t really know what I am, but I’m interested in pursuing the parts of them that seem like they will challenge me emotionally and spiritually,” Hayter adds. “There are certainly things that conservative Christianity espouses that I really, really disagree with—and I definitely would not consider myself or ever say that I am a conservative Christian. But, I think that a lot of the issue with dogmatic practices is that people get involved, and people are complicated and destroy things. You can find sects within Pentecostalism of people who support abortion rights. It’s all about how people have decided to interpret certain scriptures in ways that are extremely hateful and definitely not something I agree with. It’s important to approach this stuff with not assuming that everybody has the best intentions.”

SAVED! arrives like an artifact. It doesn’t sound like it was made by some well-kempt, pristine congregation or choir. It’s not a million-dollar sermon; each song echoes as it would through the doors of a slipshod home of worship in the stomach of some destitute Southern forest. These sounds do not—and could not—adhere to the realms of pop music, or even chamber music. It’s a continuum built on stripped-back piano and bells-oriented hymnals and glossolalic speech. There’s intention behind it sounding like something that is bound to no time, no place and, according to Hayter, is fucked, ancient and “could have been found in a basement 70 years ago.” She was studying the ethnomusicology of Alan Lomax and abandoned the hi-fidelity production she and collaborator Seth Manchester had previously captured on Lingua Ignota records. The process this time around included recording the songs on multiple tape recorders, breaking, stretching and manipulating the tapes, making the tracks “dirty” by stepping on them—and you can hear that from the jump, as “I’M GETTING OUT WHILE I CAN” surfs across an ocean of imperfections and gnarly wounds; “I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS” crackles and nearly disintegrates as Hayter sings “In the night, I was beset with demons. I know all their names but cannot speak them, their grinning teeth split the darkness and I said ‘I know your name, take your teeth out of me.'”

“There’s only one song that I may have done two passes of, or where we may have spliced things together because my timing was so off,” Hayter explains. “But everything else is just one pass. And then, we put them through the tape recorders in various assemblages. Whatever happened is what’s on the record. There was a certain amount of trying to remain, to some degree, objective and trying to remain authentic to what that sound was supposed to be, regardless of whether it sounded really terrible or not.”

When Hayter was making SINNER GET READY, she visited a lot of sites of ruin and dereliction and abandonment near where she was living in Central Pennsylvania at the time, be it the mining ghost town of Centralia or studying the history of the Molly Maguires and the concept of doom, damnation and curses. There was this exploration of ugliness and admonishment that served as a means of Hayter becoming more in touch with her surroundings. Her living in close proximity to Amish and Mennonite communities reshaped her own understanding of fundamentalism in sectioned droves, a familiar truth applicable to the Pentecostal Holiness Church that has its roots in Georgia and South Carolina, primarily. She took a lot of those experiences with her into SAVED!, when she moved to a rural part of New England two years ago. Hayter bought a home that was positively devastated down to its wounded frame, a space she and her loved ones call the “Murder Mansion.” She’s been restoring it ever since, scavenging through its history while ushering in her own. It’s also where she made SAVED!.

“The sight of [SAVED!] became my basement, and I did a lot of research into doomsday Christianity and apocalyptic Christianity—which, all Christianity is essentially apocalyptic—and into people who were making bunkers and who were preppers who had relinquished society and gone subterranean,” Hayter says. “I looked at what these people kept in their bunkers or in their spaces and I started to build that in my own basement as well, as the shrine—or the earthly paradise—that graces the cover of the record.” Hayter went to a lot of Pentecostal worship services nearby, while also doing a bit of, as she calls it, “digital Zoom lurking” on services in the South to see how they differentiated across geography. For all of the ways she looked outwards for SINNER GET READY, Hayter positioned the focus inside, within her own home, for SAVED!. “It’s the basement of my house, which is just a big Victorian space that’s segmented and compartmentalized in really interesting ways, which would have been used by the servants of the household at the time. The ways in which it has fallen into disrepair and been abandoned is really interesting to me,” she adds. “We’ve tried to find some spirits, but haven’t had any luck so far. But we’re all here together, I hope.”

There’s a recurring motif of blood—namely Jesus’ blood—running through the songs of SAVED!, and Hayter is even covered in it on the album’s cover. In the Lingua Ignota song “The Solitary Brethren of Ephrata,” there is an audio clip of an anonymous woman—during quarantine—explaining that she can go out in public with a mask because she’s covered in Jesus’ blood and, therefore, cannot get sick. The image has long been looked at as a vessel of sacrifice that intertwines with the idea of being saved, and it’s an image that Hayter projects so vividly onto her own work. “Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide, there’s wonderful pow’r in the blood,” she sings on “THERE IS POWER IN THE BLOOD”; “I want to sing salvation’s story in concert with the blood-washed land, I want to wear a crown of glory when I get home to that good land,” she howls over a choppy, jangly organ on “THE POOR WAYFARING STRANGER”; “I know His blood can make me whole,” she sings on the record’s penultimate chapter.

“When you are covered with the blood, you are cleansed and you are free and you are saved,” Hayter says. “You are constantly seeking the blood in order to be pardoned and in order to feel deliverance. How exactly one becomes covered with the blood, I do not know. But we all want the blood. We all want it so bad. It’s another one of the metaphors in Charismatic Christianity that is just so strange and so fascinating to me—because it’s such a gory, violent metaphor, but it’s supposed to mean being truly cleansed and truly purified.”

Violence crops up all over Hayter’s discography, and it does so again in spirit on SAVED!. The act of fire baptisms and its tether to the Pentecostal-Holiness Movement was heavily on her mind, and she wanted to approach the idea of having Holy Fire rain down upon the album in conjunction with achieving the direct dialogue with God that so greatly motivated her research when piecing together the emotional backbone of SAVED!. “The baptism of fire is usually the Holy Spirit which comes upon us,” Hayter explains. “In both the fire baptism and the personal ecstatic experience, there is violence and there is, in others, a physical reckoning which can be an indication of having the Holy Spirit move through you.”

On the album closer “HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING,” the Holy Spirit moves through Hayter as she delivers a very angelic and operatic singing performance. But, beneath that beauty is a backtrack of her speaking in tongues. If you’ve been following her since the genesis of Lingua Ignota six years ago, you might be in the same company as me—in that this song very well might be the single greatest thing she’s ever produced. It’s upsetting, but in a way that’s deliberate. I mean, death metal is upsetting music to me that makes my brain burn. What “HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING” accomplishes is a mark of healing—which, by all accounts, is an upsetting transformation that is necessary in its own right and not as euphoric as a pop song might try to suggest. If you aren’t squeamish at the end of SAVED!, then you will be by its conclusion.

“HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING” is a bookend of the album’s arc, and it was a bizarre thing for Hayter to work on. In the studio, she and Manchester recorded nearly three hour’s worth of material—and it’s what they wanted to release initially. But the music industry’s current state doesn’t give much room to expansive, gigantic, unwieldy productions, and Hayter’s DIY budget couldn’t cover such a risk. There is almost an hour of her speaking in tongues in total, even though less than 10 minutes of it is heard on the album. I can’t even begin to explain what happens to Hayter when the glossolalia begins. To get to that mode, she deprived herself of sleep and began fasting. Manchester would blare other people speaking in tongues at her in the studio while she sat on the floor, until she felt that, just maybe, she had that language within her.

“It was a very strange, emotional process, and it really felt like a lot of stuff that I just needed to let go,” Hayter explains. “I read a lot about glossolalia being when normative language fails. So, just working on repeating language that I wanted to believe, but removing my brain from the process of communicating and just allowing my body to do whatever it needed to do, something definitely happened. I’m not really sure what. Seth found it terrifying and he was like, ‘I would really expect you to take a shit on the floor at any moment.’ It’s very odd to listen to it now. I sometimes find it very funny. And, sometimes, I find it incredibly sad. And, sometimes, I find it very upsetting and scary. I think that people will have a gamut of responses to it, and I’m looking forward to that, because I’m not trying to tell anyone how they should feel about it. It was a true, objective documentation of that process. We didn’t take stuff out that we thought didn’t sound cool. It’s a full section that we didn’t edit at all.”

The comedown from “HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING” wasn’t as grim as you’d might expect. Yes, Hayter lost her voice and became emotionally overwhelmed. But that’s a crucial part of fasting or depriving yourself of sleep for religious purposes; it’s meant to get you to a place that’s so raw and histrionic that the chances of having a spiritual encounter become more likely. You might be wondering if Hayter will be performing this song live when she takes SAVED! on the road, but the jury is still out. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to turn it on and off,” she notes. Hayter has talked before about the conversation around “enlightenment vs. insanity.” When you listen to SAVED!, the lines of which label she belongs to get blurred, though she’s in great spirits now. “It’s a thing where I don’t know the answer. I don’t know where one begins and the other ends,” she adds. “I feel like, perhaps, I have lost my mind. But I also feel like I am a very happy person these days, so I don’t know. I think the rigor of putting your body and your mind through some sort of wild, spiritual quest can create a state that is, perhaps, both.”

Hayter’s dedication to the pursuit of ecstatic encounters and a closer, more intimate and liberating relationship with God is so immense that it, sometimes, takes an extra effort to remember that Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter is a parable for her own closure of suffering and not so much a fixture of her everyday world. But who she is on SAVED! is not that of a character, either. The religious, apocalyptic nature of the album is supposed to be a metaphor and analogy for her personal life, but it isn’t a tried-and-true portrait of who Hayter is beyond the tongues she speaks. “I’m most attracted to the aesthetics of certain aspects of these religions and the visual or sonic qualities of them that I can incorporate into my own work,” she says. “I was looking at a way to talk about my experience, and using religion to obfuscate that and create a buffer between. I wouldn’t say that I have actually become a doomsday prepper in my basement surrounded by religious artifacts, but it’s kinda close. I kind of have left society and I don’t really talk to people anymore. I choose to lead a more monastic life than I did before. There are parallels, but it’s not exactly the same.”

What the Reverend honorific is for Hayter is a rebirth. Where Lingua Ignota was an entity that became validation for the traumatic angles her life had taken, Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter is a balm for her own healing. When you’re on stage singing about the very details that have augmented your own despair, it’s impossible to see it as anything but something that must be shed and retired. This new chapter, however, is something for her to seize. If Lingua Ignota meant “unknown language,” then Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter must be a talisman for something much more resolute and befitting to her own clarity. SAVED! is an uncomfortable listen that led to Hayter finding her own enlightenment, and you might hear these 11 songs and be mortified by their strident, bone-dry accruements of piano arrangements draped in heavy chains. But Kristin Hayter has given us a rubric not just for us to use against all other music, but for us to use against the catacombs of our own disbeliefs.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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