I Got Style: An Interview With Baby Dee
, March 23rd, 2011 09:43
Baby Dee offers Ben Graham peanuts while she tells him all about her new album Regifted Light and working with Andrew WK. Photo by Tore Hallas
"Are ya sure ya don't wanna peanut?"
Baby Dee waves the bag of KP towards me and jangles the ice in her generous early evening scotch, her Midwest-via-the-Bronx accent as caustic but warm and welcome as the whisky itself. Filling this elegant London hotel room with her presence, the 57-year-old musician-singer-composer is physically imposing - a good six foot from her flats to the crown of her ginger curls - but her personality is larger still, the survival mechanism, you suspect, of a Cleveland native schooled on the streets of New York, where she busked for years in a variety of outlandish guises: cigar-chomping Shirley Temple tribute, Bee Girl, riding a customised tricycle with a harp on the back while playing the accordion, and so on. On the one hand, she had a passion for classical and particularly Gregorian music, the harp and the piano, that led to her being a church organist for several years; on the other, she toured with such outfits as the Voluptuous Oddballs and the Brindlestiff Family Circus, and worked a season as a bilateral hermaphrodite in Coney Island, where she fell in love with the angry young dwarf whose act included being crucified, crushed beneath slabs of concrete and broken glass, and dragging huge weights around with his penis.
Dee worked the New York clubs too, on the same performance art and gay cabaret circuit as her good friend Antony Hegarty, and ended up providing the orchestral arrangements and playing harp on the first Antony and the Johnsons album. And when Dee quit performing at the end of the 90s, returning to Cleveland and an ill-fated career as a tree surgeon, it was Antony who passed on the tapes she sent him - her first serious compositions, bar the bawdy ditties and ribald rhymes she was singing in the Big Apple- to David Tibet of Current 93, who eventually asked Dee if he could release her music on his own Durtro record label. A series of very limited release albums followed, but it was only when Dee accidentally dropped a tree on one little old lady's house ("Wonderful woman- I was in tears and she came straight out of her wrecked house to comfort me! God bless you, Mrs Ferrara!"), that Dee decided she really needed to get back into music urgently, and to make a living out of it. She had cats to feed, after all.
Dee's new album, Regifted Light, is a collection of eight instrumentals and four songs with vocals, and was produced by the always intriguing Andrew WK, who also provided the Steinway D Grand Piano on which the songs were written and performed. Quietus readers will doubtless be aware that the sometime gonzo rocker of I Get Wet infamy is also - besides being a successful motivational speaker and nightclub owner - an experienced producer, accomplished classical pianist and multi-instrumentalist, who had previously played bass and drums on Dee's 2008 album, Safe Inside the Day. That record was produced by Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney, the latter of whom first introduced Dee to his former roommate. Characteristically, Dee was completely unaware of the notoriety WK had garnered through hits like 2001's 'Party Hard', and only knew him as a talented and sensitive musician who was soon playing alongside her as part of David Tibet's ever-shifting Current 93 collective.
It was when visiting WK at his New York home that Dee first had a chance to tinker around on his giant Joanna, the Steinway D being the Rolls Royce of concert grand pianos. Mightily impressed with what he heard, WK claimed that the piano actually sounded better once she'd played on it, and when he had to move to a new apartment where the Steinway just wouldn't fit through door nor window, he gifted the leviathan to Dee, who gratefully installed it in her Cleveland home, and began writing the music that would become Regifted Light.
One can only wonder at how she found the time, as since Safe Inside the Day, Dee's barely been off the road. She's seemingly always in Britain and Europe, if not playing her own shows then guesting with Current 93, or Marc Almond, on whose recent tour she was also the support act, performing a stunning set partnered by Little Annie (formerly legendary punk-reggae prodigy Annie Anxiety), with whom her onstage chemistry was palpable. "Yeah, we've got a lot in common," Dee says of Annie. "We're both kind of scruffy, we're both old and falling apart…! We've both got dodgy pasts… heh heh! Yeah, Annie and I really get on well, we're good friends. Little Annie and I are definitely gonna do a record together; it's just a matter of finding the time to make the songs, but that's gonna happen, for sure."
In the last year she also played a series of shows in collaboration with Tin Angel label mates Black Carrot, and will be back on tour later this year, with long-time associate Alex Neilson (Trembling Bells) on drums. Now that she's found her audience, it seems like Dee has no intention of letting a single moment go to waste.
So, when was Regifted Light recorded?
Baby Dee: It was like, a year ago this last January. It was really wonderful. I wanted to do it in the wintertime, so everybody got there and then it snowed like crazy, and we were snowed in for most of the time. There was like a couple of feet of snow outside, and it made everything outside like a big blanket of white. And my house has a couple of wood-burning stoves, and so it's a really cosy place to be in the winter, it's really nice in there! Heh heh!
And we had this beautiful piano, and a cello, and these guys from Chicago - did you ever hear of the band Mucca Pazza? They're really amazing. It's a thirty-piece marching band from Chicago, and every one of those thirty people is totally ace. Nobody's just sort of going along for the ride, everybody in that band is really, really good. And they play, well, they play like marching band music, they write their own and they play that whole like, Eastern European kind of tradition of marching band stuff, and kinda like gypsy-ish kinda things. But they'll also play like, Bartok, like note perfect, and everybody thinks it's just them acting crazy, but actually it's really, really, really tight. So they're a lot of fun. And the guy who does that band, his name is Mark Messing, he's the one who plays tuba and sousaphone and bassoon on the record.
So I got him, obviously I didn't have room for the whole thirty-piece band, it would've been fun, but… so I had Mark come, and he brought a percussionist named Jon Steinmeier who plays, well he's a great percussionist, but he's really good at tuned percussion, like the glock and marimba and that kind of thing. And he brought this wonderful thing called the danmo. It's a traditional Vietnamese instrument, and it's like a tuned woodblock, and it's got these kind of gourd-shaped wooden bell things that are on what are like pipe cleaners, these thick bendy things, you know? So you can position them where you want, but it looks like something that Pee-Wee Herman would've designed, you know, with these weird things on these bendy things, and then there's like, bamboo I guess it is, on ridges that you can scrape and… anyway, it's an incredible instrument. So he had that, and then Andrew WK was there and he was producing, so he was the one who kept everything going. We had a studio come in, and they spent a day just running wires, they set up a studio on the second floor of the house and then ran wires down. Just microphones, no headphones, no nuthin', we did everything live, all in like, one or two takes. So we just kept it moving. We did the whole album in three days, and I had a ball.
How much influence did Andrew WK have as a producer?
BD: Andrew really wanted it to be live and spontaneous and moving, and anyone who's recorded lots, what you really want to avoid is 'well, let's go back and take it from the B section, or fix this or fix that or listen to this take and listen to that take...' and we didn't do any of that. I didn't like the idea of doing that and Andrew didn't like the idea of doing that, so we did it without doing any of that kind of thing. Which was great fun, but the only reason we could get away with it was because Andrew is so good at what he does.
He's the one who mixed it and did the edits and all that, and he's so good at that that he could listen to us do two takes and say, well, I can work with that. We don't need to do anything more. And he could commit to taking what we did and making a recording out of that, no matter what. And he has the chops to be able to do that, so that made it a lot easier, because even though it was huge fun and very spontaneous, I think it was a lot of work for him. Because it doesn't sound like something done in somebody's house, it sounds really produced, I mean it's really symphonic, and that's all because Andrew's so good.
With the instrumental compositions, one thing that strikes me is that you've got a very recognisable - I don't know if it's your playing style or your composing style, but certainly I can hear you on the piano and it couldn't be anybody else.
BD: That's nice. Yay! I got style. Heh heh!
Who influences you as a pianist and composer?
BD: Hmm. I'm trying to think… I was never really good enough to have any really great classical influences, except like, Bach. I love Bach but I wasn't very good at it, I mean I could hold down a job as an organist, but I could only do what I liked to do and I couldn't really impress anybody wildly, since a lot of things I really loved or would've loved to be able to play, I just didn't have the chops. Because some of that stuff is horrendous. But I could play most of the stuff I really wanted to play, and what I mostly wanted to play was a form called the chorale prelude. Do you know what a chorale prelude is?
BD: A chorale is a hymn, and a chorale prelude is, you take a hymn and you embroider around it, you embellish it, but you stick to the simple hymn. And sometimes just in really long notes, you could play it with your feet, that's the cool thing about the organ, you can play it like, if the hymn goes da-da-da-da dee dee dee dee, your feet can go, baarm, baaarm, you know, baaaarm, and your hands can be playing all kinds of things, you know?
Almost like jazz, in a way.
BD: Kinda, yeah. It's improvisatory, basically. A chorale prelude is something a decent organist ought to be able to just create. And it's just a way of playing, a musical form that I totally fell in love with. So that had a big influence. I'm not sure that it had an influence on my piano playing, but it had a huge influence on the way I hear music unfolding, the way it sort of comes about. I did study classical music, but just with teachers as a kid, mostly. So I think I probably did get things, influences, but I can't even tell you who or what they are.
There's a kind of playfulness to the music, and I notice with the titles, there's this ongoing cowboy theme running through it. How much should we read into the titles?
BD: Well, the way the titles came about, a lot of the music was written with Matthew Robinson, who plays cello on the album, and a lot of it came out of the piano, because there are things that you would do on a huge piano like that, like nine or ten feet long, it's like it takes up the space of two grand pianos, you know, it's not a normal grand piano, it's like a monster of a thing, like a car, a big car…! And on a thing like that, there are sweeping big things that just have to be done, that you wouldn't do, that would sound really stupid on a little spinet or something. But on a Steinway D it sounds stupid not to do that, I mean it's just built in, this grandness, I guess they don't call it a grand for nothing, it's like wooah, very symphonic. And so I guess there's classical music and gestures that sort of go along with that, right?
And I'm not really a classical musician. People talk about classical training; I mean, anybody who has any archaic influences, or influences from classical music, they always say that they have classical training, you know. That's a bit of a stretch for me. My background is very, very scruffy. I'm not a classical kind of person, really. I mean, I've got, in some ways I'm a classicist, in the sense that I know what a chorale prelude is, or a parody mass, you know. Old, old, old music I love, and I was influenced by, but I'm not classical in the sense of somebody who went to a conservatory and that kind of thing. So the titles were a way of poking fun at that, because it felt like it was too classical, so we used to laugh and say, well, let's play some classical music, you know! Because it was this sound, some of that stuff sounds more like classical music than classical music, you know what I mean? So that's when I started calling it classical music for cowboys with cowboy hat hair.
So it's just a kind of way of deflating the pomposity that the instrument could easily encourage.
BD: Yeah. But I have to say it though; there is an inherent pomposity in a concert grand piano. It's like, built in, you know what I mean? It's a little unavoidable.
You say you're not classically trained, but you were good enough to be the musical director at a big church in New York for a few years, weren't you?
BD: A big church in the Bronx. It was the biggest church in the Bronx; it wasn't the biggest church in New York. And it was a wonderful place, but it wasn't a fancy place, or at least it wasn't by the time I got there. And it sure as hell wasn't when I left! Heh heh heh!
Safe Inside the Day was the first album you did for Drag City, and then last year you released A Book of Songs for Anne-Marie, which was a re-recording of an album you'd previously released in a limited edition on David Tibet's Durtro label. Was this all part of a long-term plan, like, we do Safe Inside The Day, then I want to get A Book of Songs for Anne-Marie out properly, and then I want to do this album of piano songs… or was it more spontaneous than that?
BD: Well, I'm not a planner. I'm so not a planner. That this was being recorded before the release of another record was just, you know, that's just the way it fell out. I never plan a fucking thing in my entire life. Or if I did it came out badly. I mean I had a plan, like twenty minutes ago I had a plan to go over to the bar and get myself a scotch on the rocks, right? But you know, then the plan changed, and we got peanuts, you know…! But I did achieve the scotch on the rocks, so I guess… I guess I do plan some things. But only on that level; short-term planning.
All the music was written. One song was just finished within days of recording… even hours… but yeah, all the music was written. But it wasn't, like, formed. A lot of it was just this one big sprawling mess that we made into several smaller pieces. And that worked well, that was a good way to do it. Because usually, a lot of the time the way I'll work is I'll just play the thing and play the thing, and then it just sort of assumes its own shape. It just sort of takes care of itself in that way, and becomes what it is almost by default, because of this lack of planning thing again. The song takes over for itself, or circumstances, or the fact that you have to get an album done, that kind of helps too, because then you have to stop just playing around, you have to say, oh, okay, it starts here and it stops there.
And did you always know that you were going to do an album that was three-quarters instrumental pieces?
BD: The thing that holds it all together is the piano. And I wanted to do an album of all the music that I wrote on that piano. So thematically you could say that's what the album's all about; it's all about the piano. And that'd be true. But then there's also the thing about the lyrics, which is kind of different, I don't know… there's only four songs, two of them are about slugs, and one is about, I don't know what, and the other is about pies.
Was that your selling pitch to the label? There are only four songs, two of them are about slugs, and one of them is about a pie…
BD: Yeah, they're gonna love it! They're gonna love this in Vegas! Heh Heh Heh Heh Heh! Sure you don't want a nut?
BD: It's funny, cos every time I give him an answer I take a mouthful of peanuts, and then he asks me the questions and I can't hear em! All I can hear is chomp, chomp! I'm sorry, Ben!
It's okay…. So… can you tell me about the notion of the Regifted Light? Is this partly about the piano being a gift from Andrew that he passed on to you?
BD: I never thought of it that way, but yeah, that's funny, it does work like that. But the name Regifted Light came from the other side of the album, which is the lyrical side of what the songs are about. I mean, I said, yeah, it's just a couple of songs about slugs, but the slugs actually are really important to me. Because they represent the discernable bottom of what it's like to live, right? I mean, there's other things that are smaller and squishier I'm sure, but the slugs are an animal that I can look at and I can say, okay, I kind of get what it must be like to be you. And the first song that I wrote about the slugs, the first lyric that you hear on the album, is, erm, the words are something like ‘I count the hours by the night and never by the day, for I cannot perceive the light,' right? And I started to write it, and that's as far as I got. And that's like really terrible, you know, that's as far as it went. There was nothing beyond that. And I found that very sad and depressing, so I stopped writing. For like, a year. Right? I started writing this song, I got like, a line and a half done, and then I just stopped because I thought well, this is just too… dark, would be the word. Because the life of a slug is kind of a dark thing. I mean they crawl at night, they're all slimy… it's not nice!
And it wasn't until over a year later that I had the next words that would enable me to keep writing the song. Which was just simply… because the slug cannot perceive the light, except in gentle ways, right? And then all of a sudden you have this thing of like, well, it can perceive the light, but not so much light, you know? So it was a way of looking at the dark, but instead of the dark becoming overwhelming and taking over everything and just everything becoming black, instead of that I started to think of it as the light becoming more gentle. So that's what it's about, and so that's what the re-gifting of light is, because the moon is a gentler light. And the light that's reflected off the back of a slug is gentler yet.