someone else's story

talking on the phone like an unsure bride.

In the early summer of 2008 I still had a Myspace page. Once in a while I used it as a place to post a song or two from whatever album I was working on at any given time. One day I was floating around to see what I could scrounge up when i came across a music page for this guy named Joshua Jesty.

I had no idea what to expect. Thought I’d hit the little play button just for fun. I listened to one of the songs on his playlist.

“I like this,” I thought. “This is catchy. The kind of catchy where you want to get it stuck in your head. This is good.”

I listened to another song, and then another. The more I listened, the more I liked what I was hearing. I checked out his website, which was rich with information about all the different music he’d made over the years. His writing was like his songs — smart, funny, and full of life.

I wrote him a long, rambling email telling him how much I dug his songs and sharing a few of mine. I also told him I was his long-lost twin brother who looked nothing like him, and though he’d never been told of my existence, I’d been watching him with pride from a distance for all these years. As you do.

I have a long history of being ignored by most of the artists I try to start a dialogue with, whether they’re local or a thousand miles away. In those pre-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN times it was about as one-sided as it ever got. I kept trying to connect with people, and nothing would come back. It felt like I was screaming into a void. So when Josh responded to my goofy email, I almost fell out of my chair and broke my collarbone.

We started firing emails back and forth. We sent CDs to each other in the mail. Nine years later, we’re still sending emails and sharing music. We’ve had a lot of laughs, shouted about our triumphs, wept hot, salty digital tears when life has knocked us on our asses, and though we’ve only met in person once, Josh has become one of my favourite people and one of my most trusted friends. In a way he’s like the wise big brother I didn’t have growing up.

The outlines of our respective musical lives are almost mirror images. We both made a lot of wild and silly music when we were younger, on our way to finding our voices as songwriters. We both fronted bands that sometimes made pretty aggressive music and tested our vocal cords with the kind of screaming we’d probably be a little afraid to attempt now. We both turned to recording on our own at home and playing all the instruments ourselves when those bands broke up, making some of the most ambitious music of our lives when no one was looking.

Even now, we’ve both started bringing other singers and musicians into our solo music to introduce new textures, and we’ll both take on the occasional gig producing someone else when we really like them and their music.

We also both enjoy making videos that incorporate hand puppets.

Josh once told me if we traced our family trees back far enough we’d probably discover we’re related somehow. I believe it.

We have different approaches when it comes to live performance (he’s toured and played a lot of different places; I tend to play live about as often as it rains shrieking badgers from the sky) and distribution (he’s embraced the online tools at his disposal, while I’m too stubborn and set in my ways to let go of my physical-albums-only philosophy). But even twins who look completely different and were born on different days, in different months and years, and on different sides of the Canada/US border are going to have different philosophies now and then.

One other thing we have in common: we’ve both made a whole lot of albums. Visit the Joshua Jesty Bandcamp page and you’ll find a bewildering selection of music that touches on many different sounds and emotional states. All of it is well worth exploring, but the best starting points for my money are 2009’s Girl and 2011’s Portugal — self-described “big” albums that take in everything from power pop, to folk, to ambient interludes, to acoustic guitar-driven salsa, all without ever losing the feeling of being self-contained artistic statements pulsing with deep personal meaning. Girl remains one of my favourite albums by anyone.

Both These Violent Young Lovers albums are great fun. All four of the “Like Rabbits” EPs are full of beautiful songs. And the stripped-to-the-bone Skeleton makes for a harrowing but rewarding listen.

What I’m saying here is you should listen to everything he’s done, pretty much. In an ideal world, the man would be a household name.

The two of us have been talking for years now about making some sort of long-distance collaborative album. Life and other musical commitments keep getting in the way, but I’m pretty confident it’ll happen one of these days. We’ve at least taken care of some of the preliminary world-building, working out the kind of album we want to make and how best to approach it.

If/when that album comes to fruition, if someone writes a review they’ll probably tell you there’s a sort of Lennon-McCcartney dynamic at work, with Josh more of the thoughtful craftsman and me more of the anarchist. I’m not sure that’s true, though. We can both get pretty demented when the moon is right. For every “How We Float When We Shit” and “Mary Anne Says Grace” in my catalogue, there’s a “Freaky Sexy Clown Jam” and “Dirty Talk” in Josh’s. And while I think he tends to be more open-hearted in his songwriting and I tend to get pretty cynical in mine, we’re both serious fans of a good old-fashioned BSME (Big Sprawling Musical Explosion).

The first Joshua Jesty song to dig its fingernails into my ribs way back when was “From Invincible to Invisible”. The juxtaposition of sounds that might have been awkward in someone else’s hands — DI’d electric guitar set against a looped disco beat, weird underwater-sounding synth during the instrumental bridge, a lot of chord changes over an unchanging bass line — felt like the only arrangement that ever could have made sense, and there was something quietly devastating about the whole thing. It was like a naked admission of defeat made alone in the dark, with synthesized handclaps.

Late one night when I had a horrible sinus infection and Girl wasn’t finished yet and was calling itself Finally, Joshua Jesty is making a record with a short title, and the title of the record is “Girl”, I spent more time than most people would want to admit syncing up the music video with the rough mix of this song Josh posted on myspace, just so I could hear it in stereo on headphones while I watched. When I finally managed to time it just right, I forgot about being sick for a few minutes and lost myself in the music.

That music video proves you don’t need a big budget, a fancy setting, or a fifty thousand dollar camera to make something great. All you need is any kind of camera that shoots video, some open-minded friends, and your imagination. I keep holding out hope an HD version will sneak out into the world someday, with the mastered album version of the song on the audio track.

Though the final mix tightened things up and got a new vocal track, I’ve always been glad the soul of that rougher version I first fell in love with stuck around.

A few years back, when our projected Jesty Westy album came up again in conversation, Josh floated the idea of covering a few of each other’s songs. I reached for this one right away. In turn, he recorded a surprising, beautifully nuanced take on “Is You My Lover Still?” from IF I HAD A QUARTER.

I’ve wanted to return to my cover and give it a fresh mix for a while now. Today felt like a good day to give it a shot.

At the time I recorded this, I was going through a bit of a weird piano mic’ing period. I couldn’t seem to get things to sound right no matter what I did, when getting a good piano sound had never been a problem for me before.

Turned out the placement of the Neumann KM184s I use as piano mics was off in an almost microscopic way, just enough to throw things out of whack a little. You’ve got your sensitive microphones, and then you’ve got those guys.

It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong and set it right. At the same time, I was driving the mic preamp those mics were plugged into more than usual, hitting the transformers a little harder, again without realizing it.

Those two slight changes were responsible for a piano sound that was a little more bottom-heavy and compressed-sounding than usual.

The first thing I did today was strip away almost all of the effects. A few years ago I had a thing for using rhythmic delays all over the place. Here I had some pretty audible delay on most of the guitars and the drums, and it made things muddier than they needed to be. I got rid of the reverb on my voice too. Everything started to sound more intimate and better-defined.

The strangest thing was the piano. I was prepared to re-record it from scratch, but when I was working on making a new mix the existing piano track sounded better than I remembered. Maybe not quite as open as I might have wanted it, but more than good enough to do the job.

I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe the excessive delay was pranking my ears all this time.

The spastic-sounding piano-thing that kicks in during the instrumental bits is one of the first recorded appearances of my friend the Casio SK-1. I sampled myself playing a few notes at the piano, sped it up to an insane degree (before slowing it down at the very end), double-tracked it, and for some odd reason it felt appropriate. I wanted to respect the original spirit of the song, but I also wanted to put my own spin on it.

From Invincible to Invisible

When I was finished I noticed some extra tracks that weren’t in use, so I gave them a listen. There were a few takes I tried behind the drums with sticks before deciding on brushes. I also messed around with the flute sound on the SK-1 over the bridge before hitting on the idea of the piano sample, and recorded some clean electric guitar through the whole song that was later replaced with the acoustic guitar that shadows the piano and a bit of backwards electric guitar that comes in later.

I have no memory of recording any of these things. And I don’t forget a whole lot of musical details. So it was a fun little surprise to stumble across these unused elements.

I think the sounds I chose to use in the end were the right ones. At the same time, I think it’s interesting to hear the different direction things might have gone. If I’d forsaken the acoustic guitar for electric and the brushes for sticks, everything would have felt a little dreamier.

Like this:

From Invincible to Invisible (alternate mix fragment)

No regrets. But man, I have to say I kind of like that different slant on it. Maybe I’ll make an alternate mix along those lines so they’ve got something to tack on as a bonus track when the after-we’re-gone reissue starts making the rounds.

I don’t know if this is still my favourite Joshua Jesty song. There are a lot of contenders vying for the top spot. But it’s probably still the one that speaks to me the loudest.

know which way to go.

I’ve never owned a Tragically Hip or Gord Downie album. I never considered myself a fan. And yet the music Gord made with and without that band with the name we all wish we’d thought of ourselves has been a vivid part of the soundtrack to my life ever since I started navigating the strangeness of puberty.

I’m thinking now maybe that makes me a fan after all.

The first Hip song I was conscious of hearing was “Poets”. Seemed like that song was everywhere the summer I was about to turn fifteen. At first I thought it was a pretty typical rock song with a singer who didn’t feel like he really fit the music. He didn’t sound like a rock singer to me. He sounded like something new I hadn’t heard before.

Then I started paying attention to the lyrics.

Spring starts when a heartbeat’s pounding,
when the birds can be heard
above the reckoning carts
doing some final accounting.

Who writes words like that to kick off one of the catchiest songs in their catalogue and the leadoff single to their new album? That’s fucking insane. And it’s brilliant.

I have a memory that makes me smile every time it resurfaces, of dancing to that song at the campground in Lambton County and weirding out a girl who was a little younger than me.

“You like this music?” she said, making a face.

I guess I was supposed to be into Limp Bizkit or the Goo Goo Dolls or something. Who knows. I went on dancing and sang at her not to tell me what the poets were doing.

Not long after that, MuchMoreMusic developed a thing for playing the video for “Ahead by a Century” on an almost daily basis. If I timed it just right, my walk home from school would get me inside the house right around the time it started.

I loved that song. There was a hard-won beauty about it I didn’t know how to put into words then. All i knew was I could watch the music video a thousand times and never get tired of the music that drove it. When Gord smiled through his singing, it did something good to my heart.

I kept up with new albums from a bit of a distance, always drawn to the intelligence and surprising turns of Gord’s lyrics, but for some dumb reason never got around to buying a CD. I think I didn’t know where to start, when I should have just started anywhere.

Last year came the revelation that Gord had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He followed up that jarring news by releasing Secret Path, a collaboration with Jeff Lemire that has to go down as some of the most emotionally lacerating, compelling, commendable work of his life. Just weeks ago came an announcement that another new solo album was on the way. And now comes the news that Gord is gone.

I think we knew this day was coming. We hoped the man’s mental acuity and continuing drive to work were signs pointing to a postponement of the inevitable, but cancer is the ultimate asshole. Too often it takes good people away from us long before they should be going anywhere.

The minute I read the news, I scrawled out the words to what’s been my favourite Tragically Hip song for fifteen years, went downstairs, sat at the piano, and recorded it in one take (the harmonies were added a few minutes later and also done in one take). I wanted to get down an emotional response without over-thinking it. Almost like a prayer. With my next-door neighbour having a whole lot of noisy work done on their house, leaving me with only small pockets of quiet here and there, I didn’t have much choice anyway.

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken

I’m not one to record musical tributes. But there’s something in this song that’s always grabbed me.

It sounds simple. A few chords and a single long verse and chorus that come back a second time. Then you listen a little closer and notice the second time the verse comes around, there are subtle little changes that shift its meaning, and the second chorus is twice as long as the first, and then a miniature hook comes back and changes its colours too.

Great songwriters can do things like that without calling attention to the sleight of hand. Whether you knew it or not, Gord Downie was a great one.

romantic machinery.

wooden-stars-1

one of the most criminally neglected bands to ever come out of canada, the wooden stars made four full-length albums of original material and recorded an album with julie doiron. they were sometimes compared to the rheostatics, but sounded nothing like them. i’m thinking these two bands were each used as reference points for the other because would-be music journalists needed something to compare them to, and neither band sounded like anyone else. there are elements of math rock and post-rock in some of their songs, with tricky time signatures and unpredictable dynamic shifts, but the music the wooden stars made resists easy description or categorization. that’s part of what makes it so exciting to listen to.

in 2013, montreal musician and writer malcolm fraser released wooden stars: innocent gears, something of a biography of the band. i say “something of” because it’s a short book, and there isn’t a whole lot of deep probing into the personal lives of individual members. i get the feeling this was a deliberate choice the band and author made, to maintain some amount of personal distance and let the music speak for itself.

i’m still a little shocked the book exists at all, given how few people knew the band existed even while they were active as a touring, semi-regular-album-releasing unit. while there’s a part of me that wishes malcolm found a way to get at a little bit more of what made these people tick as writers, there’s a lot of information in there that was new to me, and i think he did a good job of articulating what’s special about the music, and what a difficult thing that is to put into words.

all the albums have their own distinct personalities. the very same is the most freewheeling, an explosion of manic creative energy. it’s a little staggering to consider that it was recorded by a group of musicians who were all still teenagers at the time.

the moon is the most conventionally “pretty” of all their albums, more accessible, and with somewhat more traditional song structures. but it’s not pop music by any means. it’s always felt like a winter album to me. i couldn’t tell you why.

people are different is the closest they ever came to straight-up rock. as of this writing, it looks like it might be the last wooden stars album we’ll get, though the band continues to materialize out of nowhere every once in a while to play the odd canadian music festival.

i’ve always had a hard time telling the voices of guitarists/songwriters mike feuerstack and julien biellard apart. those two guys were made to sing together.

the book has helped with that. the division is most notable on the last two albums, and it’s interesting to hear the way the two influenced each other even as their writing became less collaborative, julien’s songs growing friendlier to easy melody while mike’s grew darker and more literate. “the summer i drank myself to death” remains one of the most gorgeously depressing songs i’ve ever heard. and the way “outlaws” imagines the end of a relationship as something that’s happening on a film set, the intimacy dented by the presence of people who are only interested in capturing the mechanics of the moment, with nothing invested in the people they’ve made their actors…well, here.

one bit goes:

and we lose soft consonants 
the boom disturbed by every coastal breeze 
you lean in close 
“of course i love you” 
an empty screen 
a blank apparition 
and we can’t even really say goodbye here
’cause everyone will move in a little closer

and if that ain’t poetry on the page, then there’s no such thing as poetry on the page.

another thing malcolm’s book did was give me a deeper appreciation for julien’s brother mathieu and what he brought to the band. his bass-playing on the very same is jaw-dropping, and he’s responsible for some of the weirdest, most interesting songs on the first two albums. after reading about why he chose to leave before the moon was recorded and how he’s regretted that decision, and revisiting the albums he was a part of, there’s a new emotional kick to the mathieu-sung “country violins” at the end of mardi gras.

when the music fades back up after a false ending for one last syncopated drum pattern and some tentative guitar arpeggios, there’s no bass heard from that point to the final drum hit. it’s like the sound of mathieu’s absence fully felt, when he hasn’t even left yet, the rest of the band petering out, unsure of where to go without him.

wooden-stars-2

as solid as josh latour was in his absence, i’ve come to really miss mathieu on the last two albums. his unconventional way of playing created a great unpredictable rhythm section dynamic, and once he was gone, andrew mccormack’s drumming lost just a little bit of its spark. there never seemed to be any real friction between him and josh like there was with mathieu, where it sometimes sounded like a fight might break out between their instruments mid-song.

people are different is my least favourite wooden stars album, probably because it’s the slickest and least varied. having said that, i’m proud to say CJAM played the hell out of it when it came out in 2007. and it’s still a great album. in a perfect world, a song like “pretty girl” would have been a hit. an ode to obsession with the word “fuckers” in it and an instrumental bridge section in 10/8 time, on mainstream radio…can you picture it? kanye west would never have been able to let anyone finish anything again. those gorgeous sax harmonies at the end would have moved him to tears.

even if i like some albums more than others, this is a band that’s never made a bad one. the album they made backing julie doiron up is beautiful stuff, too — maybe the best thing julie’s ever done. but i think their 1997 album mardi gras may be their very best. the songs strike a perfect balance between chaos and beauty, the lyrics are cryptic, hilarious, heartfelt, disturbing, and sometimes all of those things at once, and there’s some of the best electric guitar interplay you’ll hear anywhere.

i was lucky enough to hear “cigarette girl” one late weeknight in 1998 on CBC’s bravenewwaves radio program, when patti schmidt was the host. i went out to buy mardi gras the next day and was told i had to order it on import. when it came in at HMV, the jewel case was broken. i liked the music so much, i waited fifteen years to replace the case with one that wasn’t falling apart, out of some sort of nostalgic impulse. had it been a vinyl record, i would have worn it out ten times over by now.

(if you click through to youtube and start to think some of the text in this video’s description reads like i’m lifting it for this blog post, it’s because i’m the person who wrote that description and posted the video…felt like that album deserved at least some representation there.) 

so why didn’t these guys gain a larger audience? i think it was a combination of bad luck (almost every album they released failed to get much of a promotional push because the small record labels they were signed to had a habit of going under as soon as a wooden stars record came out), a refusal to compromise their artistic vision, and making most of their music at a time when the internet was nothing like the powerful tool it’s become for independent artists over the last decade.

early on they were offered a deal by sub pop, but turned it down. concessions would have had to be made, and they weren’t prepared to make them. they thought there would be more opportunities that size down the road. there weren’t. some people would say they should have grabbed it when they had the chance. i say maybe the music they made wouldn’t exist as it does if they had, and that would be a huge loss. it seems a shame that they’re still so unknown, but i wouldn’t trade the music for anything.

something tells me if you asked them, they’d say the same thing.

it’s doomsday, doomsday.

alan

“where i grew up in brooklyn, man, a punk was like a wuss — the guy who ran away from the fight. ‘you’re a punk. you’re a weasel. you’re nothing.’ now it has this connotation of being the tough guy thing. the revolution. are you kidding? so i liked the word and used the term ‘punk music mass’ [on a flyer to advertise a live show in the early 1970s], maybe inadvertently trying to turn it into something else. one day i wake up and there’s the word ‘punk’ all over the place. somebody said that suicide had to be the ultimate punk band, because even the punks hated us.”

alan vega said that.

before it was even a little bit cool to be a synthesizer-based duo, there was suicide. there’s no guitar on their self-titled debut album, no bass, no acoustic drums, and it’s some of the truest punk music you’ll ever hear. it still sounds like nothing and no one else.

it’s hard to believe now, given the depth of the influence they’ve had on electronic, industrial, and post-punk music over the last few decades (and even on bruce springsteen — listen to “state trooper” on nebraska and you’ll hear him channeling alan vega something fierce), but for a long time people HATED these guys. there’s an EP called 23 minutes over brussels, available as part of the two-disc CD reissue of the debut album, and it might be the best aural evidence of just how reviled they were.

it’s a hissy bootleg cassette recording made the night they were opening for elvis costello in 1978. the audience booed. they heckled. they stole the microphone from alan vega in the middle of a song. the set ended after a little more than 20 minutes. elvis came on and played a very short, very angry set of his own to let the crowd know he wasn’t happy with the way they’d treated his opening act. they responded by rioting and breaking alan vega’s nose.

some bands would have been discouraged by a thing like that. alan and musical other half martin rev thrived on the contempt. they used it as fuel. alan would knock a chunk out of a club wall with a motorcycle chain and hurl abuse right back at a hostile audience. it wasn’t for nothing that they gave their two-man band such a polarizing name.

“suicide was always about life,” alan said. “but we couldn’t call it ‘life’. so we called it ‘suicide’, because we wanted to recognize life.”

on that first suicide album, with little more than a farfisa organ and a secondhand drum machine made by a bowling-pin-setting company, martin rev created rhythms that sounded like the steam-driven heartbeats of demon trains and married them to repetitive, hypnotic melodies that buzzed and throbbed. alan vega sang on top of those sounds in a menacing croon, kicking his rockabilly influences down to a hell gene vincent would never have gone near, bending his yelps out of shape with dub-like delay effects, turning every performance into a confrontation.

there’s the odd pretty love song on suicide like “cheree”, and a fun 50s throwback in the shape of “johnny” (hey, that’s me). but even on the more restrained tracks alan sounds wild, unpredictable, electric. “frankie teardrop” is one of the few songs in anyone’s catalogue that terrifies me every time i hear it. over a punishing ten minutes, alan tells the story of a factory worker who can’t keep it together after he loses his job and can’t support his wife and young child anymore. there’s no deep psychoanalysis. no poetry. just the awful, banal facts, until the facts break down and all that’s left is subhuman screaming ripping through a dense sonic nightmare.

every subsequent suicide album is a lot more polished, and the use of actual synthesizers and drum machines NOT made by bowling-pin-setting companies means they can sound a little dated in a way the first album never has and never will. the one exception to the rule is an album’s worth of demos pre-dating the first album, tacked onto the reissue of the second album as extras. there’s something eerie and magnetic in this music, lo-fi and murky as it is.

in what has to be the most bizarre soundtrack decision of all time, one of these demo tracks was used in a 2001 commercial for a dark liqueur that wasn’t kahlua.

i’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

alan and martin made more albums apart than they did together, and the crown jewel of the bunch — at least in my opinion — is alan’s self-titled first solo album, which somehow manages to capture some of the unsettling, hypnotic quality of suicide with a very different set of sounds. it’s another two-person affair, but this time it’s phil hawk filling in the blanks, playing guitar, bass, and an actual drum kit.

if suicide is minimal electronic proto-punk without much in the way of conventional electronics, alan vega is rockabilly on downers. in a good way.

“this music is long nights and cold sweat,” henry rollins wrote in the liner notes for the infinite zero CD reissue. “[it’s] a closer look at the enigma that is this shadow poet. you think you’re getting closer to him, but you’re only getting deeper into yourself. you’re on your own.”

i hone in on those two albums, and suicide in particular, because it’s desert island music for me. i didn’t have regular internet access or a computer at home until i was eighteen, so a lot of the music i got into as a teenager came to me from magazines, books, and rock and roll encyclopedias. i couldn’t audition anything before i bought it. i read about it, and if it sounded interesting, i went out and tried to find it. the more obscure and divisive it was, the more i wanted to hear it.

as great as i think it is that the internet has done so much to make a lot of music easier to access and put more power in the hands of the music-makers, sometimes i miss those days of uncertainty. i had no idea what i was going to hear, and no idea if i was going to like what i heard, until i sat down to listen to a CD for the first time. it was all blind fumbling.

some things kind of disappointed me. some things i liked, but i found i liked the idea of the music more than the music itself. some things i loved. that first suicide album grabbed me from the moment “ghost rider” came roaring out of my headphones, and it hasn’t let go since.

now the voice that drove that music is gone.

alan vega spent most of his 78 years making uncompromising art in one format or another. so you can’t say he didn’t live a full life. still, 2016 needs to lay off of this whole “shoving great artists off this mortal coil” thing already. it’s getting out of hand now.

one less beautiful one.

prince

i always had mixed feelings about prince. the talent and creativity were impossible to deny. “little red corvette”, “the beautiful ones”, “when doves cry” — those are flat-out great songs. his songs for tim burton’s 1989 batman film combined with danny elfman’s score to create the perfect backdrop for that dark cinematic vision. i lost count of how many times i watched that flick as a kid. and he had a kind of magnetism few artists are ever able to tap into. when you saw him in a music video or a movie, your eyes were locked on him. he was some sort of alien cross between sly stone and little richard, and he seemed dangerous. it was the kind of danger you wanted to follow, just to see what he might do.

there was always something that kept me at arm’s length. i don’t know what it was. maybe the feeling that there was more beneath the surface of what he was doing that didn’t always get brought up to where i could hear it (now i’m thinking maybe i didn’t dig deep enough; he was much, much more than just the songs we heard on the radio). and i thought he went a little overboard with the policing of his music being streamed or shared in any way on the internet (i’m not sure how your music videos being accessible on youtube hurts you when you’re filthy stinking rich).

but he was defiantly himself. he always said what was on his mind in his music. he didn’t care if people didn’t like it.

“all people care about nowadays is getting paid,” he said. “so they try to do just what the audience wants them to do. i’d rather give people what they need rather than just what they want.”

when he sang about sex, he really sang about sex. he didn’t mess around or half-ass it. “we can fuck until the dawn, making love ’til cherry’s gone” makes something like katy perry’s “i kissed a girl and i liked it / hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” sound as pathetic and bloodless as it really is.

there’s one little story i’ve always really liked. in an interview with rolling stone in 1983, prince said he played the album dirty mind for his father.

“you’re swearing on the record,” his father said. “why do you have to do that?”

“because i swear,” prince said.

two songs did a lot to unmix my feelings.

the first was “erotic city”. a DJ used to play that one at the loop on friday nights, back when that was my regular weekend hangout. once or twice i danced with a pretty girl while it was playing. the groove on that thing was unrealit was hypnotic. i wanted it to go on forever.

it was a b-side. figures.

the second song that changed my mind was this one. i’m going to stream it and not make it available for download, in case the ghost of prince decides to try and sue me. you never can be too careful. shared only as a demonstration of the man’s talent, or maybe i’m reviewing it, fair use, blah blah, etcetera bagel monster.


this one’s called “how come u don’t call me anymore?” and it’s another b-side. which is insane. because it’s one of the best songs i’ve ever heard, from anyone, in any genre. the alicia keys cover is nice and all, but it doesn’t even get close.

this is prince alone, in 1982, playing piano, tapping his foot, and layering his voice into a virtual gospel choir. i wish with every wish i’ve got he decided at some point to make a whole album of stripped-down songs like this. if he’d done that, it would probably be one of my favourite albums of all time.

no such album exists. one nite alone… gets close, but it’s impossible to find. at least we’ve got this tune.

oddly enough, both of those songs show up on the soundtrack to the spike lee film girl 6. so if you see that CD hanging out in a bargain bin somewhere, i suggest you snap it up.

a little shout-out to 2016: you can stop killing musical icons now. i think you’ve done enough in that department already. take the rest of the year off, okay?

ladies and talismans.

today is international women’s day. here are some albums you should check out by people who are not dudes.

mary margaret o’hara
miss america (1988)

1 m2oh

sister to actress catherine o’hara (she of SCTV and home alone fame), once called a “national treasure” by michael stipe, and a regular fixture on canadian “best cult artists” lists, mary margaret o’hara has only made one authorized full-length album. her date of birth is a mystery.

most people have never heard of her. most people are missing out.

an art student in the 1970s, she was signed to virgin records on the strength of some demo recordings made in the early 80s. XTC’s andy partridge got the call to produce her first album. depending on who you talk to, he either left or was fired after one day.

mary went on to produce the album herself, only to have the record label hold it back for four years when they decided what she was doing wasn’t commercial enough. in an interview on cbc radio one’s Q a few years ago, she said she was told by someone at virgin, “captain beefheart is weird, but he’s good. you are weird and insane, and you are the worst thing we’ve ever heard.”

virgin signed her with the promise of total artistic freedom. after hearing the results, they decided they weren’t interested in what she had to say as an artist. they offered to bring in someone else to write an album for her. they would arrange and record the music. she would only have to swing by the studio to lay down her vocal parts.

how do you even respond to that if you’re the artist?

mary stuck to her guns, and stuck with her own material. but she paid for it.

the songs were mixed with guitarist michael brook, some of them years after they were recorded, four of them vetoed by virgin for being “too weird”, and what was left of the album was finally released as miss america in 1988 to critical acclaim. in short order, the musicians who abused her and rebelled against her unorthodox methods during the recording sessions started thanking her for what she taught them.

there’s a story that she was slated to perform on saturday night live to promote the album, until one of the producers noticed her arrhythmic dancing when she was rehearsing and cancelled her appearance. their explanation: handicapped people in the audience might be offended.

joe cocker’s spastic arm movements were okay, though.

at least some work was done on a second album. but mary used her cash advance to pay the band for their work on the first one, felt strange about virgin suddenly treating her like she had some value to them, and the album was left unfinished. virgin threatened to sue her.

she released a four-song christmas EP in 1991 and waited for her contract to run out. she never signed another one.

in the years since, she’s been active as an actress in independent films, a guest on the albums of others, and an occasional contributor to tribute albums for the likes of kurt weill and vic chesnutt.

2001’s apartment hunting soundtrack functions as an unofficial sequel to miss america. in keeping with the theme of nothing quite going according to plan, it was released without her permission. as far as i can tell, she agreed to act in the film and provide the soundtrack, but not for it to be sold. still, it’s an essential piece of the M2OH puzzle, as is the song “dark dear heart” on the henrys’ debut album puerto angel. it’s one of the most gorgeous songs you’ve never heard. she sang it at john candy’s funeral. i don’t know how she got through it.

she continues to play occasional live shows in toronto. they’re almost impossible to prepare for, because the dates are often announced at the last minute with little fanfare. that’s probably just the way she wants it.

mary hasn’t given many interviews over the years. in her 2009 appearance on Q, she makes me think a little of gena rowlands’ indescribable performance in john cassavetes’ a woman under the influence, and this is how: some of the youtube comments make it clear there are people who assume she’s a little crazy. those people are idiots.

that isn’t it at all. it’s that she has no filters. she’s honest, unedited, in the moment, and maybe still a little wounded by her experiences in the music industry, as anyone with a heart would be after going through what she has. everything she wants to say comes out of her at once. not in neat little soundbites.

in other words, she’s a human being, and when you talk to her, you’re getting all of her, in a way not many people dare to — or even know how to — present themselves. because on some level, we’re all acting most of the time, hiding something, shoving entire parts of who we are somewhere they won’t make too much noise. she doesn’t do that.

it pisses me off, the way she’s been treated. i bought miss america when i was still a teenager, expecting and halfway hoping to hear near-unlistenable chaos. that’s what i was led to expect based on what i read about her.

instead, i was bowled over by how beautiful it was. “to cry about” and “help me lift you up” are as deep and unaffected as love songs can hope to get, the first of them written for a boyfriend who thought it was about him when it wasn’t. then he died (an overdose, maybe), and it became about him without a word being rewritten. you can feel the truth of that change in the song without it ever being explained.

“keeping you in mind” sounds like some great jazz standard that could have been sung by billie holiday and was somehow lost for decades. “year in song” and “not be alright” are mutant rock songs that sound like no rock music anyone else has ever made. she uses her voice as an instrument, testing it, refracting it, making it bend and growl and short-circuit at will, and each time she opens her mouth she seems to be rethinking what words mean to her, which ones she wants to use, how to use them.

you can point to just about any singer and find someone they sound like on some superficial level, or someone they were influenced by. no one sounds anything like mary margaret o’hara. she invented her own musical and vocal language.

what really baked my brain was learning someone from the record label told her the album’s closing track, “you will be loved again”, was so horrible it made them sick. i’ll never understand that. what made them want to puke is one of the most spellbinding pieces of music i’ve heard in my life, just mary’s voice and an upright bass. it’s so pure and beautifully broken and somehow hopeful, it makes me feel like weeping every time i hear it.

the cowboy junkies cover version doesn’t come close. it’s not even on the same planet.

even if she never records another proper album, there’s more fire and beauty and invention on miss america alone than most people manage in a lifetime of making records.

this song plays over the closing credits to bruce spangler’s hard-hitting-but-little-seen film protection.

vashti bunyan
just another diamond day (1970)

a collection of music out of time, written while travelling to scotland’s inner hebrides via horse-drawn wagon. it sold next to nothing. discouraged, vashti gave up music to farm and raise her children. over time her album became a sought-after cult classic and a strong influence on the “new weird america”/freak folk movement of the 1990s and 2000s. when she re-emerged more than 30 years later to release her second album, neither her voice nor her songs had aged a day.

nico
the marble index (1969)

nico has always fascinated me. she seemed to take a perverse sort of joy in destroying her own physical beauty and living the most depraved existence she could carve out for herself. and she made some pretty unique music along the way.

chelsea girl is the most popular album she made outside of the velvet underground. you can put it on in the background when guests are over. it’s pretty and inoffensive.

it’s nice music. but it didn’t begin to reflect who nico was or who she wanted to be as an artist, and the flowery arrangements added by a producer with his own vision didn’t sit well with her. “the first time i heard the album,” she would later admit, “i cried, and it was all because of the flute.”

the music she made after that is a lot more complex and interesting, and not for dinner parties, unless you have some very strange and interesting friends. the three albums recorded with john cale as producer/arranger as the 1960s became the 1970s are some sort of pitch black neo-classical european art-folk brilliance that still sounds like nothing else.

encouraged by leonard cohen to write her own songs, nico bought a portable, hand-operated indian harmonium, taught herself to play it, and found a way to turn the weakness of english not being her mother tongue into an asset. it was as if approaching it from a slight remove opened the language up to her in ways inaccessible to most native english speakers. even when she made something like “rock” music with a full band in the 1980s, it was strange and edgy, and a lot of artists who were part of the gothic rock movement claimed her as an influence.

this has always been one of my favourite nico songs from my favourite nico album, a three-way dance for voice, harmonium, and viola. the instruments drift in and out of tune with each other, the lyrics read like poetry on the page, and the song sounds centuries old, and brand new.

laura nyro
new york tendaberry (1969)

like harry nilsson, laura didn’t get the respect she deserved in her lifetime. and like harry, her songs were bigger hits in the hands of other artists than they were in her own. too idiosyncratic to become a household name, she blazed her own creative trail, tossing elements of jazz, blues, gospel, brill-building style new york pop, show tunes, and soul into a blender, and spitting it all out as something her own.

in some of her songs i hear traces of tori amos and kate bush. then i remember neither one of them existed as commercial artists when laura was doing this.

new york tendaberry has to be her masterpiece. a loose love letter to her native city, and in many ways her most personal and adventurous work, the album was recorded over a year-long series of intense evening sessions. laura made the trip to the recording studio most nights by horse-drawn carriage through central park.

“laura was very theatrical,” producer/engineer roy halee said in a 2002 interview to coincide with the album’s reissue. “she would come to the studio dressed for the evening in a beautiful gown. and each night, she would have dinner brought in, and we would sit next to the console, eating by candlelight.”

the songs follow their own internal logic. there aren’t many typical verse/chorus/verse structures. everything is built around laura’s piano and voice, with halee and arranger jimmie haskell creating arrangements based on her instructions. she couldn’t read or write music notation, so laura communicated what she wanted in terms of colours.

“she would say, ‘here i would like some light blue, then go more pink over here,'” haskell said. “i interpreted light blue as middle-to-high instruments, playing softly. pink would be those instruments playing louder. if she went up to white, it was the loudest, brassiest sound i could think of.”

laura often spoke of the album being her “heart and soul”. when it was delivered to columbia records in the fall of 1969, friends sent her cards congratulating her as if she’d given birth to a child.

this particular song goes on the list of things that never fail to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. the way she howls “my man” at the very end, holding the last note with such force her voice breaks…”intensity” isn’t a strong enough word. and listen to the way the strings come in like a little explosion of sound in one of many semi-bridge sections when she’s singing, “never gonna make a move and make her.” that’s some great colour.

first aid kit
the lion’s roar (2012)

i am not a fan of modern mainstream country music. at all. i don’t think you can even call much of it country music anymore. it’s just a different permutation of pop music, with pedal steel guitar (a beautiful sound that deserves better) and a different set of narrow production touches.

these two, though…christ jesus. if this is what modern alt-country (or whatever it wants to be called) can be, sign me the hell up.

first aid kit is, at root, swedish sisters johanna and klara söderberg. they write their own songs, play their own instruments, and were 21 and 19 years old when this album was released.

some people were born to sing together. john lennon and paul mccartney come to mind. don and phil everly. ira and charlie loudermilk. paul simon and art garfunkel. gillian welch and david rawlings.

i think these two go on that list. the scary thing is, their best songs are probably still ahead of them.

stina nordenstam
dynamite (1996)

i have my great friend lucas (also known as the amazing flying raspberry) to thank for introducing me to this swedish songstress over a decade ago.

the best point of entry into stina’s world is probably the album that comes before this one, and she closed her eyes. that’s the first i heard of her, and it’s a gorgeous record. but this is the one that hooked me for good. it’s strange, dark, and deep as a well. on some songs she sounds a little like rickie lee jones in hell, the childlike quality of her voice adding an extra dimension to some disquieting material. i love that it’s her making all or most of that noise on electric guitar herself (the album credits are a little confusing and confused, depending on where you read them).

one to play on dismal, rainy days, maybe. not that it’s raining here today.

rickie lee jones
pirates (1981)

speaking of rickie lee, if you only ever own one of her albums, make it this one. it’s one of the only things i’ve heard that deserves comparison with laura nyro’s new york tendaberry, in the way the songs are all built around rickie’s voice and piano, and how the arrangements and dynamics shift on a dime from one song to the next. it’s also very much rickie’s own thing, and something of a breakup album, recorded following the dissolution of her relationship with tom waits. if you like pirates, pick up girl at her volcano and flying cowboys. and if you like all of that stuff as much as i do, well…marry me?

two ton boa
two ton boa EP (2000)

two ton boa is bassist/multi-instrumentalist sherry fraser’s baby. she writes and sings the songs, built around a twin electric bass assault (there’s very little guitar to be heard in her music), and arranges all the parts for the other musicians to play note for note. what you’re hearing on record is almost a direct line to the sounds she hears in her head.

her music is dark as all hell. there isn’t much humour or light to be found in it. when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, it can hit just the right spot. when you’re not, it can be a little overwhelming. i don’t think it would work well as background music.

maybe the best way to describe it is to take what sherry herself said about the internet, and apply it to her work instead: it’s “beautiful in an ugly way, and huge but dangerous.”

she has a touch of the theatrical about her, both in the way she uses her voice and in the melodies she writes, which are at once gothic and carnivalesque. for someone with a voice capable of such range and beauty, she isn’t afraid to make it sound ugly or menacing when a song calls for it. she doesn’t consider herself a gloomy person, but in an interview to coincide with the release of her 2006 album parasiticide she explained the music has given her a place for darker thoughts and feelings to go, calling it a “survival tactic”.

i prefer her first EP to the full-length album. the production isn’t quite as rich, but it feels like there’s twice as much going on in half the space. and then there are her lyrics, which could come off as melodrama in someone else’s hands, but the intensity of her delivery gives them some serious weight:

“my will is broken and my tongue has lost her feet.”

“she’s got an avalanche packed in a snowball.”

“who could tell? you can’t smell poison in a perfumed well.”

“your gold-digging bird will stoop to swallow more worms than you, as her priceless hole spits out the last of you.”

helium
the dirt of luck (1995)

mary timony’s made a lot of good music, but i don’t think she’s ever found a better outlet than helium for her husky, vibrato-less voice and her distinctive, jagged way of playing electric guitar. i used to listen to this stuff a lot back when i went out drinking. one friday night at the loop i somehow convinced one of the DJs (rob — a great guy, sadly no longer with us) to play “medusa” off of this album. that was fun.

some fans prefer the glossier, more layered sound of magic city. me, i’m kind of partial to the pirate prude EP and the dirt of luck, where mary’s guitar-playing takes center stage. it makes for a good soundtrack to a train ride, too.

broadcast
the noise made by people (2000)

there’s a definite feeling of kinship with stereolab in the music of broadcast, but trish keenan’s singing bends it into something unique. there’s an innocence and a purity to her voice that projects a strange power, never more so than when it’s cutting through claustrophobic and dissonant soundscapes. i don’t think she once came anywhere near screaming or shouting in any of the songs she recorded. she didn’t need to.

she passed away in 2011 after contracting the H1N1 flu while on tour. that shit still hurts.

i’ve always thought there was an eerie beauty to this song. if you’re into this sort of thing, the albums the noise made by people and haha sound come highly recommended, along with the compilations work and non work and the future crayon, both of which collect non-album tracks from EPs and singles — many of them the equal of anything on the full-length studio albums.

jane siberry
the walking (1988)

jane siberry has made some of the most wonderfully idiosyncratic music you’ll ever find in the pop/rock section of a record store.

“i started out in music,” she once said, “but switched to sciences when i realized how much more interesting it was to study than music. i would leave the classes ecstatic about tiny things.”

i think that quote goes some way toward explaining what’s so unique about her songs. she stopped studying music in university in favour of microbiology. then she found herself pulled back in the direction of music. but that interest in “tiny things” remained, and the songs she went on to write concerned themselves with the smallest things — which are often really the biggest things in disguise.

the golden period of siberry for me is the four-album stretch from 1988 to 1995, in which she moved from long, unclassifiable, cinematic songs delivered from multiple points of view (the walking), to something crawling toward country-influenced soft-rock, more accessible in sound but no less individual in approach (bound by the beauty), to the dreamy soundscapes, dance-influenced rhythms, and more spiritual and erotic themes of when i was a boy, to another complete stylistic curve ball with maria, most of it recorded live and unplugged in the studio with a jazz quintet.

the walking has become a real favourite over the years. almost every song on this album is like a little movie. there’s one called “lena is a white table”. it’s about a table. named lena. it’s brilliant. “well, maybe she should go to school,” goes the chorus. “no, no…she’s a table.” the production is very much of its time, but the songs are so unusual, they twist those 80s touches right out of shape until you don’t even notice they’re there.

erykah badu
baduizm (1997)

in his book fear of music, gary mullholland describes erykah badu’s debut album as “[the] missing link between ’70s street funk, basement jazz, bohemian hip-hop, and the blues reinventions of portishead”. without being able to quantify it in those terms, i always felt she was one of the more interesting voices and personalities to come out of the neo-soul movement of the 90s. still do. unlike so many people making music now, she takes her time with a song. it’s a wonderful thing.

my introduction to her was the music video for “tyrone”. back in the day, muchmoremusic used to play some interesting videos in the wee hours. you never knew what you might see when the rest of the world was asleep. sometimes it was roxy music. sometimes tom waits. one late night in 1998, it was lady badu, very pregnant, looking like a goddess in her elegant dress and tignon, just destroying a freeloading boyfriend on top of a great jazzy groove.

she had me at “i’m gettin’ tired of your shit”.

oumou sangare
worotan (1996)

back in my weekend drinking days, i would have a drink or three at milk every friday night before heading to the loop for the rest of the night.

for the longest time i tried to get a show at milk. back then, no one in windsor knew or cared who i was as a musical entity. i was told the guy who ran the place was the “music coordinator” and the person to talk to about getting a show.

the thing is, he didn’t seem to exist. to this day, i’ve never once spoken to him or seen him in the flesh. i know he’s real. he has a facebook page. but it’s difficult not to think of him as a sort of ghost.

he tried to add me as a facebook friend once. i ignored it, because fuck him. he couldn’t be bothered to give me the time of day when all i wanted was to network, connect with people, and get my music heard. i don’t want to be his fake internet friend now that i’m cool enough to acknowledge.

i don’t know how many CDs i went through back then, giving them to whoever was working behind the bar at any given time and asking them to pass the music on to him. but it was a lot. no matter how many times i followed up, i never got an answer from anyone. and the turnover rate in that place was so ridiculous, someone i gave an album to one friday might not be there the next friday, and then they might never be seen again.

after a while i gave up on getting a show. i started giving music to whoever was behind the bar and saying, “please don’t bother passing this on to your fabled music coordinator. this is for you. give it a listen if you like. let me know what you think.”

i just wanted to share music with people, whether i knew them or not. i figured there were worse ways to go about it. it wasn’t like anyone would give me a gig anywhere.

that didn’t work out so well either. but i did get one person to listen to a CD. she had short dark hair and black rimmed glasses. her name might have been nancy. i’m not sure. she was pretty, and friendly, and we struck up a nice little friday night rapport. i gave her the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP. she listened to it, and she told me she liked it. my heart did a little celebratory dance.

and then i never saw her again. another one out the revolving door.

one thing i enjoyed about spending time at milk was never knowing what i might hear. whoever was working there would throw whatever they were listening to at the time on the sound system. on any given friday i might hear al green, or blonde redhead, or simon & garfunkel, or interpol, or scratchy old blues recordings from the 1930s, or the band.

i heard pieces of one specific album bubble up from the ether two or three times. some kind of ethnic music with a powerful female voice. i had no idea who or what it was, or what the woman was singing about, but i loved it. i could feel it in my bones.

the blonde-haired girl who played this music lasted longer than most bartenders seemed to. so i had that going for me. one night i heard that familiar-and-unfamiliar music again. i walked up to the bar and asked her what it was. she told me it was this. i wrote down the name of the album and ordered it the next day.

i now know oumou was born in mali, west africa. as a child she sang to help her mother feed the family after being abandoned by her father. many of her songs feature pointed social criticism, a lot of it to do with the treatment of women in african society. she owns and helped build a hotel in bamako that doubles as her performing space and a refuge for musicians.

she can also sing like nobody’s business.

valery gore
avalanche to wandering bear (2008)

valery gore kind of makes me think of what might have happened if feist decided to make the piano her main instrument instead of guitar and let her mind drift to some darker places. there’s a somewhat similar tonal thing going on with their voices, though not to the point that you’d confuse one for the other. they both make music that is tangentially “pop” in nature but tends to slip into more interesting and esoteric crevices when your back is turned. and hey, they’re both canadian.

i like feist. but i’d take valery to have my back in an ice cream bar fight.

valery describes her music as “jazz- and classically-influenced piano pop”. i think that does a decent enough job of encapsulating her sound, at least in a superficial way. but she sneaks some pretty dark and interesting lyrics in between the pretty melodies. and every once in a while there’s a song like this that doesn’t sound like any kind of piano pop at all.

here there’s no piano, her voice supported only by a horn arrangement. the lyrics seem to be a description of a somewhat abstract, unsettling dream. there’s something disconcerting about the image of the dream’s main character “[folding] like a dress”, and the way that phrase serves as the hook/chorus. it’s good stuff.

memphis minnie
queen of the country blues (1929 – 1937)

a multiple-disc collection of some of the best blues music you’ll ever hear, for a price so low it’s a little ridiculous. you should buy it.

cat power
moon pix (1998)

the last few cat power albums haven’t really connected with me on any deep emotional level. the last one that really gut-punched me was you are free, and the last one i loved all the way through after i warmed up to it was the greatest. but chan marshall has one of those voices i could listen to all day, even if the songs she’s singing don’t feel like they’re up to snuff. i’d listen to her sing junk mail.

her earlier work occupies a special place for me. there’s a rawness there that feels like it’s missing from her more “mature” songs. there’s also a sense of heaviness.

everything seems more urgent when you’re young and angry and you feel attacked from all angles. not so much when you’re a little older and calmer.

this was the first cat power album i bought. i heard it at a friend’s house one night fourteen years ago. it didn’t do much for me as background music, but something in that voice made me want to dig deeper. when i sat down and gave the album my undivided attention, it mutated into something different, and i could hear how great it was.

the greatest works well as background music. something like moon pix doesn’t. you need to give yourself to it, and then it gives itself back to you.

half the album’s songs were written in a single night, in the aftermath of a vivid hallucinatory nightmare chan had while staying in her then-boyfriend’s farmhouse in south carolina by herself. maybe it makes sense that i’ve reached for it some nights when i haven’t been able to sleep. it’s not music to listen to when you want to cheer yourself up, but every once in a while it’s just right.

the way chan sings “hope all is well with you / i wish the best for you / when no one is around, love will always love you” in this song cuts like a very deep thing.

scout niblett
kidnapped by neptune (2005)

emma louise niblett took her stage name from the protagonist in harper lee’s to kill a mockingbird. she has an unusual way of playing guitar, incorporating a lot of open fifths where most musicians would play major or minor chords. she speaks in a british accent and sings with a scratchy southern lilt. she’s either an american pretending to be british, or a brit whose accent ceases to exist when she sings, or else she’s neither, pretending to be both.

it doesn’t really matter what the deal is there. she makes cool music, and steve albini records it in his usual upfront, dynamic way. emma has a deep interest in astrology, which she relies on to determine when and where she should record new music. sometimes — like at the end of this song — she taps into a grungy energy that makes me think of kurt cobain just a little bit.

i’m still kicking myself for missing her when she played a show right here in windsor eight or nine years ago.

bent by elephants
BBE EP (2009)

i got this EP when it was first released, in what looked like homemade packaging, from bent by elephants guitarist luke fowlie. i sent him some of my music and a handwritten letter along with payment for the EP. he wrote me a letter back. i fainted. then i came to and listened to the CD.

there’s a different version of this song (and EP highlight) on the 2010 full-length this is water. the production there is a little “better”, but i prefer the rougher magic of this earlier version. that floating little bridge section before everything explodes is so much more effective here, with those violin harmonics and the drums dropping out for a bit.

you dig?

wye oak
civilian (2011)

wye oak are a duo from baltimore, maryland. jenn wasner sings and plays guitar. andy stack plays drums and keyboard at the same time — a cool thing to see live.

i played a show on the same bill as jenn and andy once. this was back in 2008, before they became “popular” and before i heard a lick of their music. i left before their set got started. i had sleep issues to deal with, and i was just window dressing at that show anyway, backing someone else up, not playing any of my own stuff. now i kind of wish i stuck around, sleep be damned.

i like bands that feature women ripping it up on guitar, and jenn creates guitarscapes with the best of them. she’s also capable of writing lyrics that stop you dead in your tracks. like so: “i wanted to give you everything, but i still stand in awe of superficial things.” there’s a shoegazey energy to the music, but strip it down and most of the songs are folk tunes at heart. that’s a neat thing. i like how the melodies never get lost no matter how noisy things get.

i still think this is the best wye oak album.

nina simone
little girl blue, aka jazz as played in an exclusive side street club (1958)

nina simone was a singer, songwriter, arranger, civil rights activist, and one hell of a piano player. this last bit seems to get lost in the shuffle too often. there might not be any better place to hear just how good she was than on the very first album she ever made, recorded live off the floor in the studio, with no overdubs and no fussy arrangements. just a woman, her piano, her voice, the fire in her belly, and a rhythm section keeping her company.

linda perhacs
parallelograms (1970)

linda perhacs has only released one album. but it’s quite the album. think folk-period joni mitchell if she dropped acid before heading into the studio. it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t really sound dated at all, fitting right in with the psych-folk music it predated by decades.

at the time of its release the album sold very little. a poor-sounding vinyl pressing and the record label’s lack of interest in promoting the music didn’t help. linda put music aside and worked as a dental technician. it took a long time for people to catch up with what she was doing. shades of vashti bunyan there.

this song features someone playing “amplified shower hose”. and if that isn’t one of the best album credits of all time…

yma sumac
voice of the xtabay (1950)

yma sumac was either an incan princess descended from the last incan emperor, or a brooklyn housewife named amy camus who was living a double (and backwards) life. all i know is, i’ve never heard anything else like her voice. her vocal range was astonishing, moving from low rumbling tones to theremin-like warbles.

some people call this stuff “lounge music”. if that’s what it is, it must be the weirdest, most otherworldly lounge music anyone has ever made.

annie
anniemal (2004)

some albums are worth buying just for one track. here’s one.

it’s a pop song that’s just a little off-kilter, with its over-saturated sledgehammer beat, annie’s odd pronunciation of the word “drumming” (she sings it “drooming” and comes down hard on the d), and an unshakable feeling of melancholy for a song that is, on the surface, about inhibitions sloughing off on the dance floor and a good memory being made.

annie’s voice has been described as “thin” and reminiscent of kylie minogue. while she might not be capable of vocal pyrotechnics, she knows what she’s doing with what she’s got, and i don’t think she’s ever done it any better than right here.

shannon wright
over the sun (2004)

you want a new guitar hero? you got one. shannon wright is intense.

this is another steve albini recording, and a two-woman show, with christina files seated behind the drums and shannon doing everything else. there’s no bass. that’s shannon holding down the low end with her thumb on the guitar. lots of unique borderline rock songs here, and then a song like “avalanche” comes along and takes your breath away.

björk
homogenic (1997)

i’m convinced björk is made of magic. she does this thing sometimes where she sings like she’s trying to wrap her arms around something much larger and slipperier than she is. it makes me want to hug her. she does that here.

vespertine is another great, great album. but homogenic has “jóga”, so it wins by a hair.

kate bush
the dreaming (1982)

i don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say without kate bush there would probably be no tori amos, no bat for lashes, no annie lennox, no björk, no pj harvey, and no (dogs help us) lady gaga. there can’t be too many female artists in the slippery world of “popular music” who’ve wielded the kind of influence and commanded the kind of respect she has while creating art that’s justified every bit of the acclaim she’s received.

kate was writing songs from the perspectives of an irish mother mourning a son lost to war, the widow of harry houdini, a possessed house, an unborn child experiencing a nuclear holocaust from inside her mother’s womb, and penning an entire song cycle that took place within the mind of a drowning woman, all at the same age our current pop stars are churning out drivel with the emotional and intellectual complexity of a toddler’s runny morning shit.

i first read about kate when i was fourteen years old. i found her fascinating in theory but had no idea where to dive into her discography. the dreaming, her first self-produced album, was described as her most difficult, polarizing work. so i decided to start there. it’s still probably my favourite album of hers, though most days it’s difficult to break the three-way tie it holds with never for ever and hounds of love.

in a 1985 interview for french magazine guitare & claviers, kate had this to say about the album:

“if a single theme linked the dreaming, which is quite varied, it would be human relationships and emotional problems. every being responds principally to emotions. some people are very cool, but they are silenced by their emotions, whatever they might be.

to write a song, it’s necessary that i be completely steeped in my environment, in my subject. sometimes the original idea is maintained, but as it takes form, it possesses me. one of the best examples would be this song that i wrote on houdini; i knew every one of the things that i wanted to say, and it was necessary that i find new ways that would allow me to say them. the hardest thing is when you have so many things to fit into so short a space of time. you have to be concise, and at the same time not remain vague, or obscure.

the dreaming was a decisive album for me. i hadn’t recorded in a very long time until i undertook it, and that was the first time that i’d had such liberty. it was intoxicating and frightening at the same time. i could fail at everything and ruin my career [in] one fell swoop. all this energy, my frustrations, my fears, my wish to succeed — all that went into the record.

that’s the principle of music: to liberate all the tensions that exist inside you. i tried to give free rein to all my fantasies. although all of the songs do not talk about me, they represent all the facets of my personality, [and] all my different attitudes in relation to the world. in growing older, i see more and more clearly that i am crippled in facing the things that really count, and that i can do nothing about it, just as most people can do nothing. making an album is insignificant in comparison with that, but it’s my only defense.”

“suspended in gaffa” was the moment i knew i was all-in. i think it was kate shrieking “NOT UNTIL I’M READY FOR YOU-HOO-HOO!” that sealed the deal.

i’ve loved her ever since.

marie queenie lyons
soul fever (1970)

marie queenie lyons is a mystery. she was born in louisiana, raised in ohio, worked with king curtis, jackie wilson, and james brown, recorded a few singles and an album, and then she vanished. no one seems to know what happened to her.

one sure thing: she could sing the roof off of a soul song.

joni mitchell
the hissing of summer lawns (1975)

joni had a remarkable run of albums in the 1970s. this one feels like it gets overlooked. it’s a shame, because it may be the most effective distillation of her jazzier sensibilities, outside of hejira (which has the peerless bass-playing of jaco pastorius to recommend it, among other things). the album was kind of savaged in rolling stone magazine at the time of its release, only to be recognized in later years as one of joni’s greatest artistic achievements.

take that, rolling stone. you’re 80% advertisements now anyway. does anyone even read you anymore?

emmylou harris
roses in the snow (1980)

you probably know how i feel about emmylou already. but bluegrass doesn’t get better than this.

sibylle baier
colour green (recorded 1970-1973; released 2006)

in the early 1970s, sibylle baier acted in a wim wenders film and recorded some songs she wrote at home, on her own, with just her voice and guitar for accompaniment. then she abandoned any aspirations of a career in music or film and devoted her life to raising a family.

her son robby writes in the liner notes to this album of her music released more than thirty years after it was recorded:

in a particularly dark and moody period of sibylle’s young life, her friend claudine dragged her out from under the bed and took her on a road trip to strasbourg, ending up across the alps in genoa.

upon the return from this trip sibylle felt her spirits renewed and she set out to write the song ‘remember the day’, grateful for being alive. it was the first song she ever wrote. my mother’s music is simply amazing in its intimacy and closeness. recorded in the early 70s in her home on a reel to reel recording device, the songs on ‘colour green’ are intimate portraits of life’s sad and fragile beauty.

though she never thought to share her songs with anyone outside of friends and family, and their eventual commercial release was almost an accident, i think this puts a lot of current alt-folk/singer-songwriter stuff to shame. it doesn’t sound affected in any way. sibylle sounds a little like a darker vashti bunyan, but different. she’s herself.

this is music as an extension of the artist, with no commercial considerations at all. it’s really pretty, too.

aimee mann 
bachelor no. 2 [or, the last remains of the dodo] (2000)

who writes catchy songs with big brains? aimee mann does! try to find someone else who’s written a song with the word “caveats” in it. there can’t be too many.

on a random note, i’ve always really liked aimee’s vibrato. now there’s a different idea for a pickup line. “hey, singer — i love your vibrato. wanna sing a duet?”

neko case
blacklisted (2002)

i bought this album a few months after it came out, my faculties and sex drive dulled by wisdom teeth removal drugs. the guy behind the HMV counter expressed his approval, back when the people who worked at the HMV in this city knew a thing or two about music outside of top 40 radio and weren’t just nice-looking robots.

“have you heard any of it yet?” he asked me, noticing the CD i had in my hand.

“no. i just read about it and thought it sounded interesting.”

“you’ll like it. it’s really good. a lot darker than her earlier stuff.”

he was right. i liked the whole thing. but her spooky cover of “look for me (i’ll be around)” and the self-penned “deep red bells” have always been twin highlights for me. “deep red bells” in particular has a certain beautiful haunting something about it — even more so now, after i’ve learned it was written for the victims of the green river killer in an effort to give them back some of the humanity and dignity that was stripped from them in death.

neko sings to one of the women:

where does this mean world cast its cold eye?
who’s left to suffer long about you?
does your soul cast about
like an old paper bag
past empty lots and early graves?
those like you who lost their way
murdered on the interstate
while the red bells rang like thunder

deep red bells
deep as i’ve been done

marla hansen
wedding day EP (2007)

marla hansen has played viola, occasional violin, and/or provided backup vocals for the likes of sufjan stevens, kanye west, duncan sheik, my brightest diamond, jens lekman, the new pornographers, the national, and others. but the best thing she’s been involved in may be her own music.

it’s a crime she’s only released one six-song EP. i keep holding out hope there will be a full-length album someday, or at least another EP. one of my favourite things about her songs is the way she tends to pluck the viola instead of bowing it, almost treating it like a guitar. something comforting lives inside that sound.

this song is too beautiful for words.

dark dark dark
who needs who (2012)

dark dark dark are a minneapolis band whose songs blur the lines between folk, jazz, blues, and indie-pop. this one is made up of just three chords. sometimes three is the perfect number. nona marie invie has some kind of magic voice, bending upward like something grown out of the earth and craning its neck to see the sun.

the caravelles
you don’t have to be a baby to cry (1963)

lois wilkinson and andrea simpson were co-workers and friends in london, england. they were encouraged by others around the office who heard them sing to pursue a musical career as a duo. they chose to call themselves the caravelles after the french jet powered airliner. they almost topped the charts with their first single, “you don’t have to be a baby to cry” (discovered as the flip-side of tennessee ernie ford’s “sixteen tons” single), but were hard-pressed to follow up that success.

a few attempts at changing their sound to appeal to a different demographic met with middling results. after a while lois took off for a solo career. andrea continued as the caravelles with various replacement singers. though she never had another hit, she still plays the occasional live gig.

i first heard this album’s title track on the wolfman jack show, via satellite radio. there’s something a little eerie about it. maybe it’s those breathy, perfect vocal harmonies, the way they’re bathed in reverb, and the way the happy-sounding music is set against lyrics that are all about heartbreak. it sounds to me like something that belongs in a david lynch film.

come on, dave! make it happen!

eva cassidy
live at blues alley (1996)

i heard about eva cassidy not long after she passed away. i would have been about fourteen at the time. i read a review of a posthumous album. as soon as i found out she just sang cover songs, i lost any interest i might have had in checking her out. at the time, the concept of a song interpreter was lost on me. if someone didn’t write their own material, i couldn’t fathom what artistic merit there might be in what they were doing.

holy shit was i wrong. when i heard eva sing for the first time more than ten years later, i almost fell over. she may not have been a songwriter, but she had that rare ability to take any song and make it sound like it belonged to her. her range was incredible. and it was what kept her from getting signed to a recording contract.

rejecting an artist because they refuse to flatten out the diversity of their talent is pretty pathetic if you ask me. but there’s the music industry for you.

eva self-released live at blues alley in 1996. she almost didn’t put the album out at all. she had a cold when the songs were recorded and wasn’t happy with the way her voice sounded. friends had to talk her into letting it see the light of day. it was the only album she would release under her own name in her lifetime. she died later that year of melanoma, a virtual unknown outside of her hometown. the fame came later, as is the case all too often when talented people die far too young.

listen to this woman with a cold singing a buffy sainte-marie song, and tell me if it isn’t one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever heard.

picastro
whore luck (2007)

to my ears, picastro frontwoman liz hysen has always sounded something like a sad, beautiful ghost. with time her haunting only grows more resonant. she also has a way of writing brutally honest (or brutally honest-seeming) lyrics. the opening lines here are:

i’m left because i’m never leaving
and i don’t want the things i have

choosing a favourite picastro album is difficult. but i enjoy the way whore luck feels like it’s split into two distinct halves, starting out in pretty-but-dark territory and then making a sharp turn into some sort of corrosive, delicious sonic and emotional hell.

the be good tanyas
chinatown (2003)

i first heard blue train at milk, in its entirety, on one of those friday nights. i was convinced it was a rusty halos album for a while, because they did “rain and snow” live on the regular and erin sounded an awful lot like frazey ford. then chinatown played all the way through as a second course, and i said, “this is the be good tanyas. i need to buy this stuff. god, this is good.”

is it ever.

pj harvey
uh huh her (2004)

this isn’t my favourite pj harvey album. i’m not sure what is. rid of me, maybe. but i like that polly jean produced this one herself and made every sound on her own, drums aside. there’s a gritty, lo-fi quality to the music that appeals to me as well.

in an interview with tracks magazine, she explained: “i was looking for distressed, debased sounds. so all of the guitars are either tuned so low that it’s hard to detect what notes they’re playing, or they’re baritone guitars, or they’re played through the shittiest amps i could find.”

there’s no guitar at all in “the slow drug”. there’s just a synthesized loop whirring in the background, the cheesiest, least realistic pizzicato string sound on any keyboard ever made playing a few simple chords, and her voice. there’s no chorus or “hook”. the chords don’t change. the vocals sound like they were recorded in a nicer-than-usual shoe box, bathed in a thin blanket of hiss. it’s the definition of a “deep album cut”, sitting around the halfway point of the record, easy to overlook, there until it isn’t there anymore and the next song comes in to take its place.

it’s my favourite pj harvey song of all time. so there you go.

cocteau twins
heaven or las vegas (1990)

i once read a review of a cocteau twins album that said something to the effect of, “if you don’t hear music like this on your way to heaven, you’re headed for the wrong place.” i think that’s about right. i always thought elizabeth fraser sounded a bit like kate bush as an angel, singing beautiful gibberish.

liz’s lyrics in most of the cocteau’s songs are either made up of neologisms and old scots vocabulary, or english that’s so well-disguised by her diction it might as well be a foreign language. i have no idea what she’s saying 90% of the time, and when the odd recognizable phrase pops out (in this song i can make out “everything else” and what sounds like “good news”), it’s a little startling.

it doesn’t matter. you can still feel what she’s singing, even if it’s impossible to sing along.

regina spektor
soviet kitsch (2004)

i think this is the best regina spektor album by some distance, because it sounds the most like her, and it’s full of songs like this one that are beautiful and beautifully quirky.

i remember reading a pitchfork review of soviet kitsch. i think it was the same day antics, the second interpol album, was reviewed. antics was praised for being a near-facsimile of turn on the bright lights, demonstrating no palpable creative forward movement short of a somewhat different sheen to the production. regina was denigrated for having a personality and indulging her more whimsical impulses.

that criticism made me want to hear the music, so i went out and bought the album. while i did (and still do) like turn on the bright lights, antics — aside from a few good songs — has always been kind of boring to me. i haven’t been moved to pull it out for a listen in years.

not so with soviet kitsch. it appealed to me, and it continues to appeal to me, for the same reasons that pitchfork writer didn’t care for it.

different strokes for different cowpokes, i guess.

yoko kanno & the seatbelts
cowboy bebop soundtrack (1998)

there are a lot of CDs that make up all the music yoko kanno wrote for this brilliant anime series. they’re all worth hunting down. this little piece of music right here is just yoko on piano and one of her fellow seatbelts playing tenor sax, and if you’ve seen the show and you want to stir up some of the feelings it gave you but don’t feel up to making a proper visit, i don’t think you could do much better.

those shots of faye sitting at the bar and smoking, looking lost, while gren makes his saxophone weep — that’s one of the most evocative bar scenes i’ve ever seen. and it’s from what some people would call a “cartoon”.

bat for lashes
fur and gold (2006)

bat for lashes is the stage name of english singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist natasha khan. i’m a fan of everything she’s done so far, and couldn’t really pick a favourite song or album. depends on the day and mood, i s’pose. but if you only ever grab one, this is the one it should be. “tahiti”, “sad eyes”, “bat’s mouth” — these are songs with a beautiful darkness to them. they weave a spell.

grouper
ruins (2014)

liz harris makes some sort of strange and beautiful ambient/drone/noise/lo-fi music that’s difficult to describe. she’s stripped away the effects and layers a little at a time, and on her most recent album it’s just her voice and a piano for the most part. this is stuff that will kick you in the heart and leave a welt there that takes a while to fade. you’re either into it or you’re not. but if you are, it hits a spot not a lot of music can get to.

liz grew up in a commune in northern california known as “the group”. “the kids called each other and the parents ‘groupers’,” she said in an interview, “sort of as a defiance. it was us making our own identities inside a pretty controlled environment, and sort of lashing back maybe. when i had to think of a name, i felt annoyed at nothing sounding right. i wanted something that referenced me without referencing ‘me’. i felt like the music was at its barest just a grouping of sounds, and i was just the grouper.”

the shirelles
baby it’s you (1962)

always end with a classic girl group.

there’s not much to say about this one. the title track is a classic. as many times as it’s been covered over the years, i’ve yet to hear a version as good as the original. it was used to bizarre-but-powerful effect in jane campion’s 1999 film holy smoke — you know, that other movie where harvey keitel gets naked and weeps.

where did you go to (my lovely)?

this is about two very talented women who pulled very different disappearing acts. both remain somewhat unknowable. both left behind unique, compelling bodies of work.

connie 2

connie converse grew up in concord, new hampshire as the middle child in a baptist family. back then she was called elizabeth. she stunned her parents by dropping out of college, flipping a full scholarship the bird, and moving to new york to pursue a career in music. she got a job at a printing house, adopted the nickname she’d been given by her new york friends, and started writing songs, having taught herself to play guitar.

she played for friends in casual settings. one of those friends was artist and film director gene deitch. he recorded a few dozen of her songs at her apartment and in his own kitchen with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. he was able to get her a spot performing on “the morning show” on CBS in 1954, but all that survives of the television broadcast now is a few photographs of her and walter cronkite. reusing tape was common practice back then, and the station recorded over her performance, not thinking it was anything important.

her parents refused to support or acknowledge her musical aspirations. her father died without hearing a note she wrote.

with gene’s help connie pounded the pavement, trying to drum up some industry attention. but new york in the 1940s and ’50s wasn’t interested in what she had to offer. after years of getting nowhere, connie gave up on music and moved to michigan. her younger brother got her a job as a secretary at the academic journal of the college he was teaching at. she worked her way up to the managing editor position in 1963. she still played for friends once in a while, but she never wrote another song.

for ten years she did that job and grew more and more demoralized by her failure to succeed in new york, until she was outwardly depressed to the point that friends at work paid for her to take a leave of absence and spend the better part of a year living in london. she came back no less depressed. a trip to alaska with her mother, during which she couldn’t drink or smoke, only made things worse.

her mother thought distraction was the answer to whatever connie’s problems were. she started planning another trip. meanwhile, connie was wrestling with the discovery that she would need to have a hysterectomy.

no one can remember seeing her on a date or in the company of anyone who wasn’t family or a friend from work. she doesn’t seem to have ever had a romantic relationship. there’s some speculation that she preferred the company of women at a time when she wouldn’t have been encouraged to act on her feelings. even if that were the case, i don’t think it would make it any less unsettling to be told a part of her body needed to be removed, and any hope she might have had of having biological children was going to vanish along with it.

in 1974, around the time of her 50th birthday, she wrote goodbye letters to family and friends, packed what she owned into her VW beetle, and drove away. she was never seen or heard from again.

in an unsent draft letter she titled “to anyone who ever asks”, connie wrote:

this is the thin hard sublayer under all the parting messages i’m likely to have sent: let me go, let me be if i can, let me not be if i can’t. for a number of years now i’ve been the object of affectionate concern to my relatives and many friends in ann arbor; have received not just financial but spiritual support from them; have made a number of efforts, in this benign situation, to get a new toe-hold on the lively world. have failed.

as an overeducated peasant i’ve read a good bit about middle-age depression and know several cases other than my own. i know there are temporary chemical therapies and sometimes “temporary” is long enough. experts agree it’s not a single isolable mental disease. probably it’s a few simple humanities mixed up in a pot of random concomitant circumstances.

in the months after i got back from my desperate flight to england i began to realize that my new personal incapabilities were still stubbornly hanging in. i did fight, but they hung in. maybe my time in england, financed largely by my friends, was too benign a treatment. at any rate, it’s the only sustained period in my life that i now look back on in the silliest detail as “fun”, unproductive fun. not getting anything done. i did sit in my bedsitter very often in bemused despair, but also i had fun.

since then i’ve watched the elegant, energetic people of ann arbor, those i know and those i don’t know, going about their daily business on the streets and in the buildings, and i’ve felt a detached admiration for their energy and elegance. if i ever was a member of this species, perhaps it was a social accident that has now been cancelled.

to survive at all, i expect i must drift back down through the other half to the twentieth twentieth, which i already know pretty well, to the hundredth hundredth, which i have only read and heard about. i might survive there quite a few years — who knows? but you understand i have to do it by myself, with no benign umbrella. human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; i just can’t find my place to plug into it.

so let me go, please; and please accept my thanks for those happy times that each of you has given me over the years; and please know that i would have preferred to give you more than i ever did or could — i am in everyone’s debt.

there’s a terrible weight of loneliness and isolation in those words. her brother thinks she drove her car off a bridge. you read a thing like that and think he’s probably right.

she left behind a meticulous filing cabinet full of letters, drawings, personal writings, and those reel-to-reel tapes of her songs, along with several more recordings she made herself. that’s either the sort of cleaning-house someone will engage in when they’ve given up on life, or an affirmation of what they’ve created, and something they mean to return to. you can’t know. there’s no way to know.

what bothers me is how little recognition and respect connie was given for her talents. she wasn’t just a great songwriter. she was an activist (she marched for women’s rights). she wrote poetry. her letters and private writings hum with a fierce intelligence. and she was a brilliant visual artist. i wish i could buy a book of her “educating henry” cartoons.

educating henry

it’s clear she was wounded by the lack of anything like support from her contemporaries (if she even had any — she was doing the “folk singer-songwriter” thing before it even existed as a concept) and the indifference of the people who could have helped to give her musical career some legs. i know what it’s like to try and connect with people only to be ignored, slapped away, marginalized — to put everything you have into the art you make and to have the message keep coming back at you that it doesn’t matter, and by extension you don’t matter. i know what that feeling is.

not everyone is lucky enough to find a way to re-purpose that rejection as fuel.

i think the problem was, she was so far ahead of her time, no one knew what to make of her. you look at her comics and it’s striking how “modern” their humour is. her songs feel divorced from time altogether. there’s nothing dated in anything she did, nothing tying it to the time in which it was made. and to be a woman on top of everything, at a time when sexism was much less interested in trying to camouflage itself and women were not often encouraged to be creative or to operate outside of the roles they’d been slotted into by men, well…you can feel it in her “explanation of what all these goodbye letters are really saying” above. she felt like she didn’t fit.

depression isn’t always caused by something off-balance in the brain. sometimes it’s just a side effect of what life does to you.

there’s a wonderful moment early in andrea kannes’ criminally underexposed documentary we lived alone. connie’s brother and sister-in-law tell a story about their son. when he was a kid, he hated his piano lessons so much he ran away from home so he wouldn’t have to suffer through them anymore. connie found him, brought him home, and told him she would be his new piano teacher. instead of trying to strong-arm theory into his brain, she taught him how to improvise and write his own songs.

that’s beyond forward-thinking. most music teachers today (and aunts, for that matter) wouldn’t dare throw the template away. the more things like that you find out about her, the more remarkable you realize she was, and the more you wish you could have had the chance to know her.

connie’s music was unheard and unknown outside of her family and closest friends until the 2009 release of how sad, how lovely. what’s most interesting to me about her songs is not their timelessness, but the trick they play on you. they sound simple. then you listen a little deeper, you start paying attention to the way they’re constructed and the way they move, and you hear all kinds of complex, unusual harmonic things happening. there’s a lot going on inside of them. i’ve never heard anyone do anything quite like what she did with just her voice and an acoustic guitar.

there are also things like this:

she did that in the 1950s with an archaic home stereo, finding a way to overdub and layer a home recording at a time when such a thing shouldn’t have been possible. wrap your mind-noodle around that for a second.

connie would be 91 years old today. we can only hope she drove her car to a new, happier life, and not into the huron river. but maybe that was the ending she wanted. i’m both compelled and frustrated by mysteries like this. each answer you manage to unearth only leads to five more questions that rise up like hairs on the back of the neck.

bobbiegentry

bobbie gentry vanished under less troubling circumstances. she was an only child, born in chickasaw county, mississippi. back then she was called roberta lee streeter. her grandmother noticed roberta’s love for music early on and traded one of her cows for a neighbour’s piano so she’d have something to learn on.

roberta took her stage name from the film “ruby gentry”, studied philosophy at UCLA, did clerical work during the day and performed at nightclubs after hours, and later studied music to hone her songwriting skills. her first single in 1967 was a blues song.

but it was the b-side that got everyone’s attention. “ode to billie joe” is one of the all-time great story songs, and at its heart is a disquieting two-part mystery: what did billie joe mccallister and his girlfriend toss off the bridge, and why did billie joe kill himself?

bobbie knew the answers to those questions, but she wasn’t telling. when the record company forced her to chop out half the verses to shorten the song and the explanations evaporated, she noticed it had the strange effect of strengthening the story. sometimes you can say much more by saying less.

“the song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty,” she explained. “but everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. what was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important. everybody has a different guess about [that] — flowers, a ring, even a baby. anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. they sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that billie joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”

the record company didn’t expect much to come of the song. the a&r man at capitol records told arranger jimmie haskell, “put some strings on it so she won’t be embarrassed. no one will ever hear it anyway.” but radio DJs spun the b-side until it became the a-side, and in a week it sold three quarters of a million copies, kicking “all you need is love” off the top of the charts. it stuck there for a month and won three grammy awards.

bobbie was an outspoken feminist, and an unapologetic glamorous woman in an era of singer-songwriters who were eschewing big hair and makeup. she had strong ideas about the direction her music and career should take. she produced her own nightclub act in vegas and said at the time, “i write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing. i’m completely responsible for it. it’s totally my own from inception to performance. i originally produced [most of my records], but a woman doesn’t stand much chance in a recording studio. a staff producer’s name was nearly always put on the records.”

after an ambitious self-produced album was a commercial failure and a few singles failed to make an impression on the charts, bobbie decided it was time for something else. she made one last public appearance in 1982. then she receded into a private life.

not much has been heard from or about her in the years since. maybe she married a wealthy man involved in real estate. maybe she had children. one sure thing: she’s been turning down every interview request for thirty years running.

a recent radio documentary revealed she phoned haskell sometime in the last few years, telling him she’d written a new song. she asked if he was interested in producing it. he blew her off and suggested someone else. when he decided maybe he was interested after all, she wouldn’t return his calls.

served him right.

she was one of the first female country artists to both write and produce the bulk of her own material, though i think to stuff what she did into the country genre does it a disservice. as far as anyone can tell, she’s happy with the life she’s built for herself away from the spotlight.

connie might as well have driven her car into thin air. bobbie’s still there. she just chooses not to be seen.

sad songs say so much.

idaho

there’s a lot to say about the recent passing of david bowie. maybe at some point i’ll ramble about that a little. but someone else who had just as much of an impact on me as an artist passed away not twenty four hours before bowie did. this is about him.

i’ve never been a fan of the “what are your favourite bands?” question. for me it’s up there with “do you have air miles?” and “can i mow your lawn with a toothpick for fifty bucks?” in the pantheon of annoying nothingness.

if i wanted to be flippant, my answer would be, “how many days worth of free time do you have lined up?” because i love a lot of music, and it’s difficult to quantify it in terms of what speaks to me the loudest. what i want to listen to and why i want to listen to it changes all the time. i don’t want to pancake my taste in music into something easy to digest and reproduce on command.

but if you held a squirt gun loaded with liquefied liver to my head and forced me to play the favourites game, one band near the top of the list would be idaho. jeff martin (not the tea party guy) has made a lot of music over the years that’s gone a lot of different places, sometimes with others, sometimes alone, and he’s never done anything that’s failed to grab me. i don’t think there’s one idaho song that doesn’t do something for me. that’s pretty rare.

early idaho is a world away from the music jeff makes now. these days his albums sound like a series of perfect soundtracks to kaleidoscopic independent films that are projected onto your brain while you listen.

year after year and the palms EP, meanwhile, are full of intense, wounded-sounding music. it was labelled “slowcore” at the time. i’m not sure that quite fits. i don’t know if any label fits.

i do know this: i read a review once for one of the early idaho albums that said, “don’t listen if you’re depressed.” i’ve always felt it was the other way around. for my money, there isn’t much music out there that’s a better blanket when you feel defeated and angry with the world. it might move slowly, but there’s real fire and life in those songs. they refuse to curl up in a ball and admit defeat. they give you a place to wallow for a while, and then they hand you a length of rope to pull yourself out of there.

there’s a message board on the idaho website i used to frequent. it’s still there, and i still pop in once in a while.

john berry, who co-founded idaho with jeff and played drums and some beautiful, evocative lead guitar on year after year and palms, is the guy wearing glasses in that picture up there. he was around quite a bit in the run-up to 2005’s the lone gunman, acting in more of a managerial capacity by then, fielding people’s questions on the message board.

i didn’t have paypal at the time. i wanted to know if i could send him a money order to pay for the album. so i emailed him.

we struck up a dialogue. he ended up sending me more than just the new idaho album, and i sent him some of the music i was making at the time. re-reading those emails from eleven years ago, what strikes me now is how angry i was. not at him, but at everything. i couldn’t pay people in my own city to listen to my music. i kept trying to connect with other musicians only to get ignored or slapped away. nothing i did made any difference. i didn’t know the right people, i wasn’t cool enough to pay attention to, and that was the end of it.

it was pretty demoralizing. i didn’t see it at the time, but the bitterness that grew out of all that coloured everything i wrote.

he had no real reason to acknowledge me beyond giving me an amount and an address to send the money order to. but john kept talking to me. he was always kind, witty, and full of good humour. a little later, we became facebook friends when facebook became a thing in our lives.

when i posted something here a few years back about retiring from making music (an april fools’ day joke i was sure no one would be fooled by — i thought the “essay by bono” bit on the fake greatest hits album cover was a dead giveaway), he popped up to tell me i better not stop making music. and he said some really kind things about a song i sent him, at a time when i was about as depressed as i’ve ever been. i could tell he meant it. he had no idea how much that meant — to have someone like him, one of the architects of some music that’s been important to me, offer encouragement and take the time to let me know he really liked what i was doing.

i always figured we’d end up meeting face-to-face someday for a jaws-of-life handshake and some laughs. that’s not going to happen now. learning he’d passed away in his sleep came as a bit of a shock. i was aware of some of his health problems, but i thought he’d find a way to beat them, the same way it seemed he’d managed to beat or hold at bay everything else that tried to pull him under. i didn’t know him on an intimate personal level, so i don’t know much about the demons that dogged him, but he was never anything but a positive force in my life. it seems wrong that he wouldn’t be here anymore.

these days i know a lot of good people and have some actual support for the music i’m making, even if i’ve done my best to keep it a small-scale, low-level thing (one person’s “shooting yourself in the foot” is another person’s “holding onto sanity and weeding out the stupid crap”). but i’ve never forgotten the way john took the time to connect with me at a time when so few people bothered, and the way he kept that connection alive.

i still can’t believe he did this — when he sent me the lone gunman, he also burned me a CD of a soundboard recording of a live show and tacked on a few demos. there were a lot of songs i knew in there, and then there were about half a dozen things i’d never heard anywhere. pieces of an idaho album that never quite happened, from a time when he was playing guitar with jeff again for a while. i listened to those songs again when i found out he was gone, and was knocked out all over again by what he played on them.

there are things about the way i play electric guitar now — the “ambient” stuff, when i’m not playing straight chords — that likely wouldn’t exist if i’d never heard what john did on the fret board way back when. i arrive at it in a different way than he did, because i don’t play at a high enough volume to generate any actual feedback. still, i like to think there’s a little bit of john berry in there every time i do something with distortion and volume swells that straddles the line between dissonance and melody, slicing open the belly of a song without making it bleed out all over the place.

i’ll miss him.

all night long blues.

for his third recording session in 1930, bluesman charley patton brought some talented friends into the studio with him at the urging of paramount records. he got son house, willie brown, and louise johnson to tag along, convinced gospel singer wheeler ford to be their designated driver, and they all got drunk on corn liquor en route to wisconsin. at the beginning of the drive, as they were leaving the mississippi delta, louise was charley’s girl, or one of several girls he called his. by the time they got to grafton, she decided she found son house more appealing. in later years he would brag that he “stole” her from charley.

this was to be the only recorded work by willie brown under his own name, the only known recorded work by louise johnson in any capacity, and the second-last recording session of charley patton’s life. son house’s “rediscovery” in the 1960s grew directly out of the powerful songs he recorded at this single-day session. bernard klatzko, owner of the origin jazz library record label, once called it “the greatest country blues recording session” of all time. maybe that’s a hyperbolic statement, but it’s hard to argue against it.

enough information exists to form some picture of who the other musicians were and the lives they led. the question of louise johnson remains all but insoluble. she sang and played piano in a saloon. she was introduced to patton by willie brown. he liked the way she sang and played. he liked the way she looked. in 1930 she was somewhere between nineteen and twenty four. as son house told it, “she didn’t do nothin’ but drink and play music. she didn’t work for nobody.”

back in mississippi after the recording session, the group (minus wheeler ford) performed in a saloon near lula. then they split up. supposedly louise was seen playing on a plantation near clarksdale later in the 1930s before moving to memphis in the early ’40s. nothing else is known about her.

a decade or two after the fact, clarence lofton claimed he was the one who’d played the piano on this session, accompanying louise while she sang. no disrespect to clarence’s estimable talent and influence, but he was full of shit. the four lusty songs louise recorded with the men clapping and shouting in the background are the highlight of a session packed with great music (“on the wall” is ferocious — some of the best barrelhouse piano i’ve heard anyone play), and there’s no doubt she played that piano herself.

it’s just a shame her recorded legacy is so slim. because man, could she play.

karen dalton (an oral history, sort of).

karen dalton

a while back i was trying to write something about karen dalton, when it occurred to me that there are so many different stories out there, and stories that contradict those stories, the best approach might be to just use the words of people who knew her, sourced from as many places as i could find them — album liner notes, interviews, articles, scans of decades-old typewritten press releases and clippings, and the like. the idea was to try and arrange and edit everything so it reads in a linear way, with the least amount of exposition between quotes possible, in an effort to finally arrive at something close to the full story, if that’s even possible.

this is my attempt at doing that. my own additions and interjections are in italics.

karen was born in 1937.

PETER STAMPFEL:
karen grew up in oklahoma. her grandmother was a fiddle-playing, gospel-shouting baptist, and karen grew up with musical family get-togethers. the fiddle was her first instrument, and her first guitar was a plywood gene autry model from the sears catalogue.

JOE LOOP:
they say [she was] half-cherokee, which is what she would always say, but it isn’t quite the truth. she did have some cherokee blood in her — but according to her daughter, not enough to qualify for benefits.

ABRALYN BAIRD (KAREN’S DAUGHTER):
her dad was a respected welder. her mother was a nurse. not terribly “grapes of wrath”.

1969 CAPITOL RECORD PRESS RELEASE:
karen grew up in oklahoma, left home to sing in kansas city and san francisco, and became the fourth member of a singing-songwriting pack whose other members were [tim] hardin, [fred] neil, and dino valenti. individually and collectively, they peddled their wares to an uninterested music industry during the legendary pre-60s folk era, and starved with fellow musicians bob dylan, dave van ronk, john sebastian and others.

BOB DYLAN:
she was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry. karen had a voice like billie holiday’s and she played the guitar like jimmy reed and went all the way with it. i sang with her a couple times.

JOE LOOP:
it’s amazing how many musicians would go out of their way to play with her back then. she played with all the best people. all those people loved her and loved playing with her, but it wasn’t the kind of stuff the record labels were looking for.

1969 CAPITOL RECORDS PRESS RELEASE:
the way karen tells it, she played every coffee house in the village and when she first met dylan, he was only 17 and couldn’t play in some of the clubs she worked without lying about his age. karen even formed a group called the trio which featured hardin on guitar but [the band] broke up when karen married bassist richard tucker, the third member of the trio.

RICHARD TUCKER:
if you saw her on a stage in a small club and heard her voice, it was just awesome. my favorite was when she did blues, really slow. the slowest blues i ever heard in my life.

karen had already been twice married and twice a mother by the time she was 17.

ABRALYN BAIRD:
my mom was kinda headstrong. she wanted to get on with stuff. in most states then you could get permission to marry before you were 16; it wasn’t a total scandal or anything.

PETER STAMPFEL:
karen was the first person i knew who was raising a child on the scene, the set, or whatever it was called at the time. two years before abby was born, she had a son named lee, but lee was raised by her mother evelin. abby had a reputation for being a very cool little girl.

JOE LOOP:
it’s true that she did lose custody of lee sometime before abby was born, back in oklahoma. i don’t know why exactly. that was before I knew her. but she had lost custody of him, and her mother raised him. she said she always sang [“red are the flowers”] when she started thinking of her son. when he got old enough to be on his own, he and karen got together, and they were living together most of the time after that, actually. i don’t know how much of that time abby might have spent with them.

karen lost custody of abby when she divorced her second husband, a literature professor. she reconciled with him, and then left him again — this time with abby in tow.

ABRALYN BAIRD:
yeah, she took off with me. but remember, she was a 19-year-old girl. they had the same temperament, my mom and dad. they were very forthright. quick to anger. very stubborn.

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LACY J. DALTON:
her soul was very deep and powerful. she was tall, willowy, had straight black hair, was long-waisted and slender — what we all wanted to look like. [she had] a voice for the jaded ear. there’s a horn quality to it and her phrasing is exquisite. i once heard it described as cornmeal mush, but it’s more than that. when she sang about something, you believed her.

she was also missing two of her bottom teeth.

ABRALYN BAIRD:
the man she was living with at [that] time, he came home and found her in bed with my soon-to-be stepfather. and yeah, and a fight ensued. and she got punched in the face. she always said, you know, when she got that big recording contract and became famous, she was going to have teeth put in.

1969 CAPITOL RECORDS PRESS RELEASE:
new york city was the marketplace where you could see the greatest things happen, if you could stand to hang around that long. karen couldn’t, so she and richard moved to boulder, colorado, gigged locally, and gradually became the social centre of a hip community that included hardin (again), singer judy roderick and filmmaker stan brakhage. back in new york, they forgot karen “just because i disappeared”. what really happened was that it was great living in the mountains and even though the living was poor, everything was groovy. [but] not all of it. richard had to trim trees to make a living. and karen found herself working as a maid for $1.25 an hour. part of the time it was for people in their homes, part of the time for a fraternity.

KAREN DALTON:
you think it’s temporary and…suddenly…it’s your life.

PETER STAMPFEL:
karen and abby, during those years, lived in a small series of cabins — typically renting for about $15 a month and furnished with objects such as an old rocking chair found in the trash and an old orange crate with a head of cabbage on it. but in typical karen style, they were a perfect old rocking chair, a perfect orange crate, and a perfect head of cabbage — all in exactly the right place.

JOE LOOP:
one morning i drove up to karen’s and found her tearing out the wall between the cabin and the tool room built on the back of the cabin, and burning the wood in the wood stove. the roof of the tool shed was lower than the cabin ceiling, so karen tore out the wood floor [and] burnt it in the stove too. she then carried stones up from the creek and made a stone floor so she would have enough head room to stand up in there, and turned the tool shed into her kitchen. i had never known another woman that would have or could have done that.

PETER STAMPFEL:
she was the only folksinger i ever met with an authentic “folk” background. she came to the folk music scene under her own steam, as opposed to being “discovered” and introduced to it by people already involved in it. by 1960, there were a number of young folksingers who had listened to folk music all their lives, but that was due to the academic, bohemian, professional, or political orientation of their parents. karen was the real thing.

RICK BOLSOM
(from a 1971 just sunshine records press release):
karen is part of the generation of writers and musicians who came to the village in the early sixties, and played at the pass-the-hat clubs, at the gaslight, at the bitter end when it was still called the cock and bull. that was in the days when dylan had just arrived, when tim hardin, dino valenti, fred neil and the rest — and karen dalton, too — were all learning together, influencing each other. if it is not far from the truth that you had to be one of those people to know about karen, it’s probably because she had a way of packing up and heading back to texas or to colorado, to spend a couple of years in the hills…

KAREN DALTON:
i like being alone. if you don’t like solitude then colorado will drive you nuts. you can go for days without seeing anyone, when you don’t go out and nobody drops by. i like that.

JOE LOOP:
karen knew that she had to be in NYC to further her career, but she didn’t want her daughter in the public schools in NYC. so she would go to the city for a while and then retreat to the mountains to rejuvenate.

FRED NEIL:
i first picked up on her one night in the village at cock and bull, which later became the bitter end. her voice grabbed me immediately. she did “blues on the ceiling”, which is my song, with so much feeling that if she told me she had written it herself, i would have believed her.

1969 CAPITOL RECORDS PRESS RELEASE:
neil, who had spoken of her to capitol producer nick venet, found her in boulder and asked her to audition for venet in new york. eight bars of neil’s “a little bit of rain” led to a recording contract.

FRED NEIL:
her voice is so unique that to describe it would take a poet. all i can say is that she sure can sing the shit out of the blues.

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in 1969 karen’s first studio album “it’s so hard to tell who’s going to love you the best” (a line from blues singer leroy carr’s song “in the evening”) was released. stories have been circulating for years that she had to be tricked into recording it.

PETER STAMPFEL:
[that album] certainly never would have happened without the brilliant sneakiness of nick venet. nick had wanted to work on a karen dalton record for quite some time, and he had made four previous attempts, which karen had thwarted in one way or another. finally, she was invited to a fred neil session and required to bring along her instruments. nick asked if karen could, as a personal favour, record fred’s song “a little bit of rain”, for his private collection. the ice was broken, and the rest of the album was recorded in a single session. most of the cuts on this album were karen’s first and only takes.

in the press release that went out with promotional copies of the album, karen told a different story.

KAREN DALTON:
the album took three days, three separate sessions. we knew what we wanted and we went in and did [it]. i like it a lot and nick venet is a great producer. i’m happy with it. it shows how well i play the guitar.

there are also stories that karen didn’t know she was being recorded until after the fact. it’s hard to say what the truth is. what everyone can agree on is that karen was not at her most comfortable in a studio environment.

PETER STAMPFEL:
like many instinctual musicians, karen tended to freeze up in situations involving recording or playing for people in the industry. she did some harmonies with me on a holy modal rounders album in 1972, and everyone had to wait over an hour for her to “prepare” herself, a complicated procedure which concluded with her ripping the bathroom sink off the wall.

JOE LOOP:
she had a way of carrying herself and an aura about her of strength that made it surprising that somebody who had such a strong personality would get in a situation like a recording situation and be really shy and intimidated by the whole thing.

HARVEY BROOKS:
she didn’t like pressure. she was a very intimate performer. we didn’t have the word “stress” then.

one fan at the time was cheech marin. seriously. cheech.

CHEECH MARIN:
karen dalton i heard when i was living in vancouver and i was reviewing records, and this record came through, and i heard this voice. it was the most incredible voice i’d ever heard. i go, “i gotta find out some more about this woman.” when i came to LA and i was reviewing records for magazines here, i asked them…they said, “who would you like to interview?” i said, “karen dalton.” [surprised voice] “oh…she…really? karen dalton?” so i knock on the door. they told her i was coming. it’s karen dalton. and i was looking for a place to stay at the time, ’cause i was getting kicked out of wherever i was, and they had a room there to rent out, and i rented the room. so i lived with karen dalton for maybe six months, and i got to see [her] up close. she’s the most incredible voice. and then there was this other person there that lived in the house named jill byrem, who later became lacy j. dalton [she took her stage name in tribute to karen, who she saw as something of a mentor].

karen never recorded any of her own songs. though some people feel that hurt her career at a time when audiences wanted to hear singers perform original material, she felt more at home interpreting the songs of others.

PETER STAMPFEL:
although she had written poetry for years, karen never became a songwriter. but she gave everything she sang a singularly haunting, bluesy touch. almost everyone used the same two words to describe her voice: billie holiday. i sometimes referred to her as hillbilly holiday, but never to her face. she didn’t like the comparison at all. i think she just happened to sound more like billie holiday than anyone else. karen simply sounded like karen.

JOE LOOP:
she’d take some old blues song or spiritual you’d never heard before, and just make it devastating. it was all in her voice. and it worked in harmonies too.

HARVEY BROOKS:
she had an advanced understanding of time and phrasing. she knew she was going to get there eventually.

PETER WALKER
she wanted to pay tribute to the other people that she thought were great, and she wanted to do that before promoting herself.

PETER STAMPFEL:
she tended toward the more obscure, unknown songwriters, but occasionally she would take on something more familiar. her version of the walker brothers’ pop hit “the sun ain’t gonna shine anymore”, which she did in an open guitar tuning, is one of the most stunning pieces of music i’ve ever heard, and i never cared much for the song during its top ten heyday.

KAREN DALTON:
(from a poem)
the singer strums a chord, and bends
the silent after-drum
into the singularity of my mind.

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she picked up live gigs where she could. things didn’t always go well.

PETER STAMPFEL:
in 1969, michael lang, one of the organizers of the woodstock festival, lined her up a european concert tour opening for santana, of all people. she had a stellar backup band and great support, but she was difficult to travel with. by the end of the tour, she had missed at least one date by simply refusing to come out of her dressing room.

JOE LOOP:
she didn’t have much of an act at all; she didn’t get up there and try to entertain like most people did. her music was, of course, some kind of communication, but she didn’t get up there and talk very much or anything like that. she just sang. and she had quite a bullshit detector. she didn’t care much for bullshit and bullshitters, and that’s most of what you get. that’s pretty much the world she had to live in, and she just wasn’t commercially oriented at all. she was real laid back, and shy, actually. she was a really strong woman, but in a lot of ways, she was shy. it was just a foreign thing to her to go out there and say, “hey, i’m great.”

DAN HANKIN:
before we went on this european trip, she bought me a guitar. after that trip, she went back to woodstock and was trying to get another band together. she invited me to join her, and after several weeks with nothing happening, i started saying, “when are we gonna rehearse?” i had to leave because i had a life elsewhere, but she didn’t want me to leave. after i got back, she called me up in the middle of the night and demanded that i send her the guitar back. i sent it back and never spoke to her again.

the album sunk without a trace, given no promotional push by capitol records. her second studio album was released in 1971 on a different label. it was called “in my own time” — as perfect a title as you could give a karen dalton record.

RICK BOLSOM:
fall, 1970, mike lang is in the process of putting together his record company, and hears that karen [is] out of her earlier record contract. fred neil calls to tell her to expect michael’s call. karen’s mother once saw a picture of lang and thinks he looks like jesus, so she approves. karen talks to harvey brooks (another of the old gang — he played bass on her first album), and she comes into woodstock to do some demos, with harvey as producer. she went back to enid, oklahoma, to pick up her two teenage kids (lee and abby), her dog (shalom, a poodle-chihuahua), and her horse (who shall remain nameless).

KAREN DALTON:
this trip to new york was the first one for my son. i told him it was a lot different from LA but when we got off the plane and stood on the bus and saw all those cemeteries you pass on the way into the city, it just blew his mind. i don’t blame him. i think that shit is worse than air pollution. the indians used to just bury their dead in a tree. just put them up in a tree and soon there’s nothing.

the process was very different this time around. the album was recorded over a period of six months.

HARVEY BROOKS:
the fact that she wasn’t a writer meant that we really had to create something for her. it was a lot of work, because her emotional personality had to be dealt with every step of the way, and respected. this was a folk-rock record that tilted towards pop, and on pop records you concentrate on getting the performance out of someone. on folk records you accept what it is. with pop, you have to work the singer. so i worked her. it took some cajoling, but she let me do it, and she liked the idea of the more pop-sounding record. but she made sure that she had “katie cruel” on there.

ABRALYN BAIRD:
she wanted to have her sound. that’s what they told her they wanted to hear. and then she’d get in a recording studio, and they’re like, well, we’ll just add a couple of tracks to this. and she’s like, no! you know, she’d get — just get furious. my mother was the kind of person who would scream at bank tellers.

RICK BOLSOM:
the musicians on the back cover are very well known to regular readers of back covers. she does a valenti song, a butterfield song, a richard manuel song, several blues standards and traditional songs. her next album will include several she’s written herself.

there was no next album.

PETER STAMPFEL:
always brutally honest, she never went out of her way to ingratiate herself, and she nonetheless expected the whole world to acknowledge her musical brilliance. unfortunately, that attitude only works after one has become very famous. she disliked performing almost as much as she loved music; she once told me that, in a perfect world, she wouldn’t ever have to be onstage. she could just play music with friends in her living room and (magically) there would be a large audience, rapt, silent, and enthralled, which karen could then completely ignore.

DAN HANKIN:
her music was so personal that she couldn’t just put it out there the way most performers can. she knew how talented she was. i think she longed for the kind of recognition she’s only beginning to get now. all these home attempts at recording that we’ve begun to gather from various sources represent her interest in her own music. but she didn’t have the personality to be able to follow through, so these private tapes are like her dreams of what she wanted. that living room was her only real comfort zone

HARVEY BROOKS:
it just didn’t work out for her. for some people it’s just like that; they give, but they don’t get. and it just broke her heart. after that, she couldn’t get her life together, and in the music business you have to be able to promote your product. that album didn’t sell, and nobody was gonna put the money up to make another.

RICHARD TUCKER:
she wasn’t seen as very commercial. the people in charge didn’t get it.

JOE LOOP:
she had a lot of success as a musician. she just didn’t have any commercial success. she got probably $20,000 for that second record. that’s not a lot of money, especially for someone who’d been broke for such a long time. i’m sure that didn’t last a long time at all. and the only other income she had was from singing in coffee houses, and stuff like that.

she continued to play the odd live show for a year or two. the fear of performing and unwillingness to do things at anything other than her own speed and in anything other than her own way persisted.

JOE LOOP:
i know she got fired from one gig for sitting and tuning too long. she wasn’t gonna play if it wasn’t in tune, but sometimes it takes a while to tune a twelve-string guitar. and back then there were lines of people waiting to come and play for nothing, just passing the hat, you know? so there was a lot of competition.

PETER STAMPFEL:
in the early 70s i was proud and happy to be a member of her backup band, but an unfortunate pattern emerged. we would rehearse madly for a couple of weeks, and on the night of the gig, karen would be too exhausted to get out of bed. and there she’d stay.

ED OCHS:
(from a review of a november 1971 live performance at new york’s gaslight au go go)
[karen is] a blues singer who picks the dust of ruins for traces of dreams without bothering to refine the raw or real for those who prefer their blues polished and protected. her cry comes in an inside, subterranean and colourless language, pulled from the hollow, the hell-hole where the blues are incubated. applause for her short set only drove her from the boiling gaslight platform, her two guitars crashing into each other in her confusion for something missing.

not much is known about her life over the next twenty years.

RICHARD MANUEL:
(lyrics from the song “katie’s been gone”, written about karen)
katie’s been gone
and now her face is slowly fading from my mind
she’s gone to find some newer places
left the old life far behind
dear katie
don’t you miss your home?
i don’t see why you had to roam

KAREN DALTON:
(from a poem)
in reflection the singer seeks only own eyes, reaching away memories,
the whale buoyant, curving suspended
huge flesh of life, breathing begin and stop,
first and done.

LACY J. DALTON:
she was of the old beat generation that felt you had to be burning the candle at both ends and dying of hunger to call yourself an artist. i’ve always called them canaries in the coalmine, because they were in some ways hypersensitive to what was going on in the world. they were expressing their feelings of powerlessness and they felt they should live, do drugs, drink, whatever, to take the pain away.

HARVEY BROOKS:
i only knew her as an addicted personality. she had drug problems the whole time i knew her. she had a painful personality and i think she did drugs to soothe the pain.

CHEECH MARIN:
she had drug problems, and, you know, that can slow you up a lot…and it did slow her up a lot.

PETER WALKER:
i knew her for – what? 30 years? and i never saw her take any dope. i never saw her with a needle in her arm. she’d maybe smoke a little pot or have a beer, but beyond that i never saw any drug-taking, drug-buying — none of it. and i spent a lot of time with her. that’s an assumption that people make based on rumour and because the rumour get legs, it’s assumed that it’s fact. like all of us from that generation, she had a private life and she experimented. what she experimented with and how far it went, I don’t know. i don’t know what she did at night in her bedroom. or what she did with her life when I didn’t see her. whatever she did, it was private, and it certainly wasn’t who or what she was.

RICHARD TUCKER:
[we had a] very tumultuous relationship. karen was strong-willed but she wasn’t self-confident. there was a fragility there. i remember having an argument in the middle of denver and me getting out of the car and walking away and never seeing her again.

LACY J. DALTON:
you could never take anything for granted with karen, even her love. when she granted it, it was not given lightly. she was judicious with her affections, and knew who she was.

karen_dalton_montreaux1_courtesyofdanhankin

PETER STAMPFEL:
i’ve noticed something obvious that i missed all the years i knew her: she had always been what we now call clinically depressed, and that may have been the main factor that fuelled her extreme and obsessive need for drugs and alcohol.

JOE LOOP:
i don’t remember karen being a depressive person. you know, what was going on in this world was enough to depress anybody. also, of course, i know she was frustrated by her lack of recognition and success. and it was hard for her to do much about that. all those things added up. and i think what was happening to our planet affected her more than most people. so it wasn’t just her personal life, and anyway, i don’t think she was more depressed than just about anybody else who was living in poverty, broke and hungry most of the time. it’s not a real happy existence for a lot of people.

her response to being saved from an apparent overdose during these “lost” years, if it’s true, is telling.

LACY J. DALTON:
she called me up after [i called the ambulance] and she said, “i guess it’s been three weeks. it’s taken me this long to call and say i guess i oughtta thank you for something.” she was furious at me for bringing her back.

PETER WALKER:
the last performance i ever saw her do was at the joyous lake in woodstock. it must have been the early ’80s. she was trying to get her shit together and she was in fragile but functional form, so the owner of the place, ron, went around all the tables, shaking his fist in the noses of everybody in the audience and saying, ‘i don’t wanna hear any wisecracks, any talking or any sound while this lady is performing.’ so, that was the sort of feeling that karen inspired in people.

as with her music and the earlier parts of her life, different people tell different stories about her final days.

LACY J. DALTON:
we got her guitars out of the pawnshop, we got her damn cat from pennsylvania, and we got her on a plane to texas. there was a recording session set up for her for when she’d finished [rehab]. she called me when she got there. she said, “i oughtta stick my cowboy boot up your ass! one of us oughtta change her name. get me a plane ticket home now!” i said, “karen, stay long enough to get your teeth fixed.” but what i didn’t realize at the time was that her teeth [were] how she was getting access to codeine. and so she went back to new york and died on the streets a year later.

JOE LOOP:
the last time i saw her was probably about the mid-70s sometime. i did talk to her in the early 90s, i think a few months before she died. i don’t know exactly how long before.

PETER STAMPFEL:
towards the end of her life, when she was too sick to do music anymore, she told [a friend] that music had been the only way she could relate to other people, and now she had to find some other way to do it. i don’t know if she ever did.

KAREN DALTON:
(from a poem)
the singer strings a song
some window reflecting my eyes
opens.
a feather flight, dreamfloating my heart away
hanged in space, a white cloud
torn on winds of birdwings.

JOE LOOP:
i guess you’ve read all the stuff about her dying homeless on the streets of new york? well, i’d like to correct that. that isn’t true. she was actually staying in a house owned by peter walker — a guitar player who lives up in woodstock — and he also has a place in new york. she was staying at his house — had been for quite some time. she was there when i got ahold of her. and, she told me, matter-of-factly when i called her, that she was “staying in this cabin this guy got me to croak in”. those were her words. we chatted and all that. her son lee was with her, taking care of her. and, actually, when she passed away, peter walker was with her in the room, and he didn’t realize she’d gone for a while. anyway, [that’s] a little bit of a different story than the one you usually hear.

PETER WALKER:
she was perfectly functional mentally. she was living in hurley, in upstate new york between kingston and woodstock. she lived with AIDS for more than eight years, but with an excellent quality of life considering the disease.

regardless of what the truth is about her drug use and supposed periods of homelessness, it would be a mistake to paint her as nothing more than another drug casualty, as some writers have.

LACY J. DALTON:
the thing i remember most about her is a certain gentle warmth and, in her best moments, a sort of cleanness that you don’t see very often in this world. she was a wonderful cook, and she could make anything grow. she was magical.

ABRALYN BAIRD:
she was really intelligent and really well-read. i mean, our house was always full of books. she knew what was going on in the world. she knew, you know, how things worked. she knew literature, the whole bit. when people approached her as being the stupid farm girl from oklahoma, it could really piss her off in a hurry.

RICHARD TUCKER:
karen was a paradox. she thought of herself on a really high level. she considered herself great, which she was. but she didn’t approach things that way. she approached things as if she felt the opposite. i’ve known people who weren’t good, but they had complete confidence. because they could do their not-so-good thing with such confidence, they had long careers. karen was a strong person, a strong personality and artist, but there was an inner fragility that i can’t begin to explain to you. and i was married to her.

PETER STAMPFEL:
only those who jammed with karen in completely recreational circumstances know how talented [she] could be. karen and hunt middleton shared a loft on 33rd and seventh avenue in manhattan during the 70s and 80s. one evening when i was there playing with them, we were joined by perry robinson, who dropped over after a gig with dave brubeck, victor ortez (a cuban conga player from the lower east side who had once played with tito puente), gino biando (who brought his double bass from his regular gig with the american symphony orchestra), chris anderson (a blind piano genius who had taught herbie hancock, and whose life karen had once saved, but that’s another story), and rock/fusion drummer frank steo (who had played with larry coryell). everyone’s common bond was that they loved playing with karen.

orig_karen_dalton_2

JOE LOOP:
i can still see her in my mind, sitting in her rocking chair with that longneck banjo, rocking back and forth playing.

LACY J. DALTON:
i think her time is coming now, because people are fed up [with] slick, over-produced voices. and this old world is not a child any more. we need the truth. it doesn’t need to be in words. it needs to be in delivery.

CIRCUS MAGAZINE, JULY 1971:
[karen] speaks quietly when she [talks]. she’s not saying [these things] for anyone to hear especially, just ’cause they’re true.

KAREN DALTON:
why do you think you have to sing so loud? if you want to be heard, you have to sing softer.

so there’s that. a few more thoughts:

karen could play the hell out of the acoustic 12-string guitar and a longneck banjo someone carved from a bedpost. her career was over before she was much older than 30, but it’s easy to guess at what she might have sounded like as an older woman. she already sounded ancient when she was in her early 20s — and in a sense, given how much she’d lived in such a short time, she was.

her dark muted trumpet of a voice imbued everything she sang with a gravity most voices with wider ranges and prettier tones never get close to. listening to her sing tim hardin’s “reason to believe” after growing up hearing rod stewart’s famous cover version on the radio is a revelation. maybe the reason she disliked performing so much (unless it was in a living room with friends, or alone, where she felt in her element) was because she didn’t know how to perform. she didn’t sing songs. she lived them, for as long as they took to sing.

hers is a rare case where i would recommend the albums that have been released since her passing over the two that came out while she was alive. on in my own time, something about the arrangements doesn’t sit right. it’s as if the producer and the other musicians are trying to pull things in a more radio-friendly direction, and karen’s voice and personality won’t be bent that way, so what you get is a weird middle ground that doesn’t always work.

when it does work, it’s fantastic. “something on your mind” might be the single best example of what she could have sounded like with a sympathetic full-time band behind her. but i think trying to turn her into an upbeat soul singer was a mistake. it says something that the songs where she’s practically alone with either her longneck banjo (“katie cruel” and “same old man”) or her 12-string (just the closing track; her guitar-playing is barely heard throughout the album) stand out by miles and miles.

it’s so hard to tell who’s going to love you the best is much more like her, and that was my introduction to her voice. i’m a little proud to say i got into karen before devendra banhart (who was aping her singing style, which for her wasn’t a style but just the way she sang, pretty hardcore for a while there) and nick cave and bobby dylan started name-dropping her and she became “cool”. i read a tiny sidebar in a magazine that mentioned her, tracked down the 1997 reissue of it’s so hard… (before it was reissued a second time), and it blew me away.

but it’s on the live album cotton eyed joe and the home recordings green rocky road and 1966 that she comes into full focus for the first time, playing and singing for herself, by herself (1966 features some duets with richard tucker, but otherwise it’s all karen on her own). she slips into this gripping “dark night of the soul” thing on some songs, like in her weightless, mournful version of ray charles’ “it’s alright”, and it’s a thing i’ve only ever heard one other singer swim around in. that was tim buckley in 1969 and 1970. maybe it’s an acoustic-12-string-guitar-playing, indescribable-voice-having thing. i don’t know. hear for yourself:

the strangest thing is that all these recordings, made on joe loop’s reel-to-reel tape machine, predate both of her studio albums. the latest of them was recorded when she was still in her 20s. and yet she already sounds fully-formed. if anything, her range is revealed to be much wider than anyone would have guessed based on either of her “proper” albums.

in a DVD that’s available in a few reissued album packages (i got it with cotton eyed joe), you can see some footage of her playing and singing. seeing her smile to herself, eyes closed, immersed in the music, you realize that as sad as some of the songs she chose to sing were, there was joy in that music for her. she knew who she was as an artist and what she wanted to do long before she set foot in a recording studio. she just wanted to do it on her own terms, in her own time.

supposedly there’s more material that might see the light of day at some point, including a recording of that walker brothers song, presumed lost forever until some vault-combing for a documentary about radio pioneer bob fass uncovered two performances karen gave on his show that no one knew about, one in 1976, the other in 1980. in most cases my feelings about posthumous releases are mixed and medium-cynical at best. not so this time. i say bring it on. the more of karen there is to listen to, the better.

(update: for years the story has been that karen never wrote a song of her own. turns out that isn’t true after all, because now we’ve got a book of lyrics, poems, and writings of karen’s published by friend-til-the-end peter walker, and an album called “remembering mountains: unheard songs by karen dalton”, which features a host of idiosyncratic female artists giving voice to her lost songs, “mermaid avenue” style. it’s worth picking up just for the opening title track, sung by sharon van etten. if i hear a more beautiful song than that anytime soon, i’ll eat my own invisible hat.)