a selection from the drop-down list.
Ships That Pass in the Night is the favorite song of a lot of people on the Sprawl album. What was the background to writing it?
I was asked to write music for a show called The History of Pornography, and was sort of given a free rein to do whatever I wanted within the show. Unfortunately, the show was not a big hit. It ran for about a month. But the music was nice, and Ships That Pass in the Night, was a pet song of mine. It was a song that I wrote pretty much for myself and was sort of an experiment; I had five women singers that were all pretty good and I wanted to work with them.
The concept is about lonely people in a state of compulsion and fear of human contact. For me, the five voices, each with their clashing harmonies, and the drums with that march-like feel, captured a stark, night-time quality that I wanted to express. It was a wonderful moment in the show because it was just five women on a dark stage, and I was singing in that song. I also conducted the rest of the show, which is amazing because I am not a conductor. As I was singing, I was also hitting a microphone that had a delay on it--sort of sounding like a heartbeat. That was pretty much the only percussion along with the voices until later on in the song when a drummer came in with that march kind of a sound - a very stark quality.
How did the song fit with the rest of the music in the show. Where does it fit with the rest of your output over the years?
As far as the show went, I wanted a pre-Berlin cabaret feel to the music. I also wanted a pretty eclectic mix of things. Ships That Pass in the Night was sort of an anomaly in that it had a very original, stark quality which fit with the other music in its own quirky way. Im very interested in "the voice" and exploring qualities of "the voice." In that respect it is definitely an exercise in what "the voice" can do to express whatever it wants. I havent had the luxury of four backup singers too often. As far as the exploration of the clashing harmonies, I dont do that live that often.
I try to do something different every time I write a song. I try to explore a different
It is a very distinctive song, which leads me to the subject of one artist covering anothers songs. Do you think artists are the best singers of their own songs?
I definitely dont think that an artist is necessarily the best interpreter of their own song. Thats part of the problem with Pop music today because there are a lot of really wonderful singers that are just singing their own songs, but their songs arent necessarily that interesting or strong. What you get is a lot of recordings that are not just that interesting, although the performances are. Its often been in the way of wonderful things that could have been happening or could be happening in music right now with singers. There are plenty of wonderful songwriters that probably shouldnt be singing, and their songs arent getting out there as much as they might. I like the way I interpret my own songs, but I also feel that songs sort of become their own thing and take on a life or a spiritual quality of their own. Its up to another artist to bring out their own spirit in that song.
When you look for a song from somebody else, as you do every so often, what sort of songs do you gravitate towards? What makes you choose them, and which songs have you chosen?
Well, I love singing songs by other people, and I am very selective. I always try to record or sing songs by other artists in my own performance work. Currently, I am singing a song by Joe Primrose called The St. James Infirmary, which is an incredibly haunted song, and I love to sing it. I sort of put in a little Theramin type part, which is another thing that you can do-- put in your own part and somehow change it, which Ive done a lot. I also do a cover of Dr. Johns, I Walk on Gilded Splinters, which has always been one of my favorite songs. I do a cover of I Put a Spell on You by Screaming Jay Hawkins. I am very fascinated with the idea of magic and Voodoo in this very technological culture that we live in-the juxtaposition of magic. Its a pet subject of mine. These songs deal with the magical, and they can be magical when theyre
I also do a cover version of a wonderful song by Jesse Winchester called Black Dog. I do a version of The Ramones, I Want to Be Sedated. Its an arrangement that my bass player thought of at the last minute during our last recording session, and it is sort of a dirge version of I Want to Be Sedated. I think it is quite hilarious.
You seem to be going in the opposite direction from the modern technology with the insistence on magic. Do you think it is increasingly necessary to balance ourselves that way now?
I dont believe in magic, but I want to believe in magic. Im an atheist. I dont believe in God, but I am fascinated with the concept of magic and the spiritual. In art, that is what moves us as artists--the spiritual. I guess I shouldnt really say that I dont believe in it, but I believe in something that sparks us. The concept of magic, to me, is sort of the spark. I find it fascinating that so many people are preoccupied with buying lottery tickets and seeing therapists. I feel that is sort of the same. What motivates them is perhaps the same root that motivates people to seek magic. Maybe its just wanting to control reality, and thats one way.
What is your current group line-up?
Right now I have a bass player, who also is experimenting with different kinds of processed pedal and bass pedal sounds. My drummer also plays various percussion instruments while hes playing a standard kit--like bells and horns, and the whole thing has a sort of wind-up monkey kind of feel. My current saxophone player uses a lot of different sound processors that alter the sound of the saxophone quite a bit from song-to-song. I was performing with an electric harpist, but unfortunately that didnt work out, but I do record with her. I play guitar, and I sing, and I started working with something that I call the electric baritone kazoo, which doesnt look at all like a kazoo. It looks more like some strange horn from another planet and I put different sound processors on it. Its sound is sort of a cross between a whale and Miles Davis.
By what process does a group like this evolve? You didnt wake up one morning and think the perfect ensemble for me is.... How did it all come about?
I do a lot of performing in New York City. The most important thing for me has been to have a kick-ass rhythm section and then a very strong lead player. I tend to go with the saxophone because it makes a nice contrast with my voice, and we can do all kinds of tricky sonic things together. Thats what led me to the saxophone. In my most recent recording, My Life as a Singing Mermaid, I was fortunate to work with a producer, Bradford Reid, who has invented this very unusual instrument called the pencilina. Its sort of a cross between a koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument), a slide guitar and drums. I was able to get a unique lead sound with that instrument. As far as keeping things pared down for live performance, thats always worked the best for me--that sort of a line-up.
It all sounds very integrated on-stage, but do you find any resistance in the audience or from club owners because you do have such an unusual line-up?
sometimes feel like the club scene is a problem, and has been for at
least the last ten years. The bottom line is how many people you can
bring to the club when you do a show, which perhaps puts the wrong kind
of pressure on
the artist because she is responsible for everything--putting the band
together, promotion and doing their thing on the stage. It becomes not
about art--it becomes about, you know, dollars, filling a club.
The job of an artist is, obviously, to communicate, just as some peoples job is to sweep the streets or drive a taxi. At which point does the promotion get in the way of what you want to say? At which point does the efficiency of the message just become a little too mechanical?
As far as Im concerned, it puts a lot of added pressure on me, and there have been plenty of days when I feel like, instead of sitting down and trying to write, I have to worry about how Im going to promote myself and all these things. If I had a manager, I think that I wouldnt have to worry so much about things like that. Theres a lot of my time spent doing them when I should be working on my art or craft.
Would it be ideal for you to get a major record deal, or do you think that would provide even more distractions?
Im a typically lazy artist. Id say I spend maybe an hour a day staring out the window. Then I make some phone calls. I make lots of lists; I have lists all over my apartment. Fortunately, I have a really good view. So, when I stare out the window, Im staring at the river--the Hudson River. Its worth staring out the window. I make lots of lists, and I make lots of phone calls. Each phone call is stressful, but I have to make it. I try to put aside time everyday to practice and to do some writing. Thats my life.
How do you go about writing a song? Some people sit down and write a song by nailing themselves to a chair and waiting until it comes. Some people seem to put it out fully formed. Is there such a thing as a song which just comes in ten minutes?
Ive had really wonderful experiences where I picked up the guitar and just started singing into a microphone and tape recorder--and the entire song came out--everything. I just had to hone some lyrics here and there. But thats very, very rare. Usually, theres no set way, but a lot of times whatll happen is a phrase will come into my head. I got a phrase in my head a couple of days ago--the secrets of the sideshow--and I thought, "Wow, that is going to make a great song." Then you think, "Well, what should the song be about--what are the secrets of the sideshow?" Should they quite literally be the secrets of the sideshow? Should I do some more research into the jargon of sideshow, or should it be about something else and then this is like a mysterious thing that you cant quite decipher? Or, should it be about sex.
I sit with my notebook, and I just start writing. Lyrics start to take shape, hopefully, and then maybe Ill plug in my guitar, and just start playing, which I did in this instance. And, I came up with a really interesting riff, and I thought, "Okay, wow!" So, maybe, in a week or two, Ill have a great, new song, or maybe itll take another year or two. What Im saying is that these are seeds. I think great songs usually come from seeds, and a line or a riff is usually a good enough seed to grow a great song.
What would be your great songs of all-time list, and why would you think they were great songs?
I love the song, I Walk on Gilded Splinters, and the thing that I love about that song is the mysterious quality. It’s got a very dangerous quality, like there is something very dark. I would like to say "evil," but I don’t know if it is. It’s more like-- a living thing--which for me it is--the song. There’s a menacing quality to it; the same way that you might look at a cloud over the Hudson River. It might look very menacing, but it’s beautiful at the same time, and there’s a spirit that lives in that song. I think there are spirits that live in all great songs.
It’s funny that you should pick that song, because, when Dr. John sings the original, he mumbles so much, and has such a thick accent, so many people sing many different lyrics. What sort of mistranslations have you experienced when people get the mood of a song and then start imposing their own words on it?That particular song? Well, theres the famous, "Tell Alberta" part, and Ive heard, "Did I murder?" I guess the funniest one is, "Did I murder?" But, the actual line is, "Tell Alberta," which is a prison code for "somethings up," and what it is thats up, cant be good, and you can just leave it to your imagination what that might be, which adds certainly to the uneasy feeling of that song and its mood. But, you know, somethings always up in life.
That song now must be thirty-five years old. What do you think is it that makes a song timeless and that can enable it to exist in different surroundings and different social circumstances?
Certainly, a song needs to have its own integrity, and not be trying to please, but just beexpressing. Most timeless records dont have a particular sound of a particular time. They just exist as beautiful works of art. Think back even to Miles DavisKind of Blue, that album. You wouldnt listen to it and think, "Wheres it from--sixty-three?" You wouldnt think of it and say1963. Youd listen to it and youd enjoy it for what it is. I think that its the same with any great song. Like that song that I mentioned before that I cover, I Put a Spell on You, by Screaming Jay Hawkins. His version has just an amazing feeling and an amazing mood that he gets in that recording of that song. It doesnt have anything to do with trying to fit in with a certain market to sell a record.
In order to communicate there has to be some common point between the audience and the artist. How far do you think its possible to push an extreme style to, say, a typical downtown audience before they dont get it? You mentioned earlier about the timeless quality of certain songs which can exist in different styles, but we see a lot of songs just emerging within a style because that happens to be it at the moment.
I find myself in the last few weeks buying new records just to hear the production of the record. I think weve come so far away from the song, and its perhaps like marketing an artist by getting a wonderful production happening. That has nothing to do with the content. There are a lot of really beautifully and interestingly produced records coming out right now that are kind of lightweight as their songs go. I dont really want to name names.
Do you think that recently there has been much more of a tendency to gift-wrap rather than to have a real thing inside the box?
Yes. Definitely. But there are beautiful gift-wrap papers around.
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