Q&A: Skye Wallace Song Inspired by Canada’s First Battered Woman Defence Case

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It’s not widely known but the story of Angelina Napolitano is a flashpoint in the early development of women’s right in Canada.  And it is the cornerstone of “Swing Batter,” the intense new single by Toronto’s Skye Wallace, who unveils the track and video, rather fittingly, with a local performance today (March 8), International Women’s Day. (Scroll down for details).

Napolitano was the first woman in Canada to cite her status as a battered woman as defence against the murder of her husband, Pietro, who was, by all accounts, a nasty piece of work. Not only did Pietro savagely and regularly beat his wife — who bore him four children and was pregnant with their fifth at the time of the murder — Pietro also insisted Angelina turn tricks for profit.

It was all too much one Easter Sunday in 1911. As Pietro napped in their Sault Ste. Marie home, Angelina killed him with an axe. The ensuing media hoopla — exacerbated by the death sentence meted out to Angelina and her status, if you can call it that, as a female murderer and an Italian immigrant (read: outsider) in prim Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario — drew global interest in the case.

Angelina Napolitano’s battered woman defence proved persuasive, galvanizing petitioners across North America and highlighting the unfairness of the original court ruling. She was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death. But her life after serving 11 years was doubtless ruined. The baby she was carrying at the time of the murder died shortly after its birth and her other children were placed in foster homes. Angelina reportedly died in 1932.

Such drama fires the swooping, kinetic “Swing Batter,” Wallace’s first new material since 2016’s Something Wicked and a tantalizing suggestion of what’s to come from the singer/songwriter described, rather aptly, as “what happens when a classically trained singer with East Coast roots discovers punk rock in [her] youth.”

Samaritanmag chatted with Wallace about the new single’s harrowing backstory and why Wallace, with those traditional roots and a keen eye for lyrical detail, is ideally suited to giving voice to the cruelly subjugated Angelina Napolitano more than a century after her tragic crime.

Kim Hughes: How did the story of Angelina Napolitano get on your radar?

Skye Wallace: I tend to gravitate towards women in history. There are just so many untold stories, especially in Canadian history. This one stood out to me because I just found out that some of my family would have been in the Italian community in Sault Ste. Marie around the time that this story unfolded. Plus, it’s just such an incredible story and a moment of change for women’s rights around that time.

From what I understand, being a woman wasn’t the only strike against Angelina Napolitano. Being an Italian immigrant in a xenophobic society was tied up in there as well.

Yes, it was definitely a loaded moment.

Does writing a song about a real-life person differ from your usual songwriting?

I have a bit of a theatre background and maybe as a result of that, I tend to write from the point of view of a character rather than just about myself. To me, it’s more interesting to get into the mind of a character within the context of these stories. So that’s a way of navigating the songwriting; it brings out different elements of language and emotion that maybe you wouldn’t come to on your own using only your own voice. You learn a lot about these stories when you dive into them. It’s a matter of storytelling. I have roots in Newfoundland which has a very rich storytelling tradition. And that plays into my preferences as well.

What do you think Angelina Napolitano would make of “Swing Batter?”

The song is very angry, but I hope she would be happy with it because the story has affected a lot of people. And her story got a lot of people at the time thinking about violence against women. What I wanted evoke was the sense of power I felt when I read her story. I hope this is the best homage to what Angelina had to go through and what she means in the history of women’s rights.

Angelina’s story is pretty nuts…

Yes, it is. Her husband wanted her to enter prostitution to raise money. At one point, the physical abuse was so bad that her husband stabbed her, like, 10 times [for which Pietro was charged with assault, ultimately receiving a suspended sentence.] An insane amount of physical abuse on top of the emotional abuse.

Does “Swing Batter” offer a window into your songwriting today following the Something Wicked album which you released in 2016?

It does. I just finished tracking the beds for the next record which I hope to release later in 2018. ‘Swing Batter’ is a good representation of the vibe of the new album.  I had the incredible opportunity to do residencies in rural Newfoundland and in Dawson City, Yukon. And that gave me access to stories about women, so I have been writing these songs which were inspired by women from these areas. I should mention that ‘Swing Batter’ was produced by Devon Lougheed and features Bryn Besse on guitar and Rachael Cardiello on viola.

You have a release show happening on International Women’s Day at Array Music in partnership with Toronto Women In Music and herHABITAT, in support of Sistering [a multi-service agency for at-risk, socially isolated women in Toronto]. What's your connection to Sistering?

It's been the place friends have always recommended when I had clothes to donate. I recently reached out to them and they’re just the most amazing and inclusive organization. A really non-judgmental space doing lots of good work in the community.

Had you always envisioned releasing “Swing Batter” on International Women’s Day?

Pretty much. When I first recorded the song, I didn’t have a clear idea when a new album would be finished or even whether I could take on an album yet. But I felt this was something I wanted to tie into International Women’s Day. It’s a message and a story I felt strongly about and that it would be amplified during this time, a time when the discourse about women’s issues is happening. The timing worked out perfectly.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.