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In Extremis

She Owns The Night: Vanessa Daou Interviewed
jonny mugwump , April 27th, 2010 08:38

jonny mugwump talks to the New York based songstress about speakeasies, rave culture and the poem/song divide

I first encountered Vanessa Daou in the strangest of situations. I had been aimless and adrift for a few years in Manchester in the north of England as I made a final attempt at finishing a degree. A shopping centre had been opened in Salford - pure chrome and harsh electric light, a giant bunker, a 'designer' fortress dropped in the abandoned centre of the town. The launch and subsequent management of the centre had been entirely botched. Nobody ever showed. I spent nearly two years working there in a bleakly over-lit trance, living inside a Ballard novel minus the violence and personal transformation. There was a music shop there specialising in discounted music; the usual array of budget classics - nothing unexpected, no surprises. One day, bored to the point of dementia, I wandered off my patch to leaf through the same CDs just for something to do and this one time, I found a new neon-blue artefact staring back up at me: Zipless by Vanessa Daou. I recalled seeing something favourable about it in The Wire magazine. There was one copy, it looked out of place, I snapped it up.

A collaboration between the New York-based Vanessa and her then husband Peter with words adapted by Vanessa from Peter's aunt, the pioneering Erica Jong, Zipless is a beautiful trove of sublime erotic electronic pop with strong elements of house and jazzy melodies. And as anybody who loves pop music knows, there can be more subversiveness in the space of a three minute adrenaline shot of pop than in vast swathes of the avant-garde. The almost surreal intimacy of Vanessa's voice and delivery (like Dali's melting watches, every vocal shape seemed to take on a slight alien quality) coupled with the intense sexuality of the lyrics and the accessibility and ingenuity of the music made for an entirely unique hybrid. Vanessa and Peter had previously released the highly innovative Head Music as The Daou, had worked with NuGroove and had had a huge club hit with a Danny Tenaglia mix of 'Surrender Yourself'. Originally released independently, Zipless led to the duo being signed to MCA and Vanessa toured with the legendary recently departed Guru and Jazzmatazz.

The follow-up album Slow to Burn saw her negotiating her way out of her own big label contract for a life on the independent margins where she could retain control. Cut to 2009, with a succession of always morphing productions exploring a weird ambient hinterland between ambient pop, jazz, soul and electronica, Vanessa returned after a hiatus, polymath-like moving into multimedia production, dance, computer coding and the release of her first self-produced album Joe Sent Me. "Joe Sent Me" was the coded phrase used to gain entry to speakeasys at the height of prohibition-era America and her latest work is both more sonically sophisticated and spacious yet also more dreamy. Each album has always had a loose kind of thematic concern but Joe Sent Me is different, creating a gently strange portal between now and then, constructing a distinctive world of its own but without sacrificing the depth of insight into what makes a heartbeat.

Perhaps it's not immediately obvious but I've always thought of your music as being quite surreal, primarily (until the current album anyway) due to your vocals. The voice is so intimately placed in the mix so that's completely inside the listener's head, and it puts me in mind of the beautiful paradox of the microphone and people like Frank Sinatra where a vocal can sit clearly on top of music that would otherwise completely obliterate it.

Vanessa Daou: When I first started singing, for me, it's this weird communication between a singer and a microphone. It's this object that is conveying your voice but the experience of being in a sound proof room singing a song, it is surreal - you're cut off from the music that's being played in your headphones and singing in to this object. Right from the offset, well, I had to work out what the relationship was with this object - the microphone - so I visualise it as an ear. I'm singing into an ear and I still carry that image with me now when I sing, never forgetting that I'm not singing out to the air but that I'm singing into somebody's ear who will be receiving my...message. This relationship, I don't know if it's a metaphysical thing that every artist goes through, but it's very profound.

Well it's taken me a long time to get used to using the microphone on the radio every week, especially when I started, as I would be sat in a room talking to myself which can be a little weird. Then I found myself twisting myself into an odd position just to talk...

VD: It's a very physical thing. Some songs I have to sit down for, other's I have to stand up or stand in a certain way and some songs I have to move a little. And at the beginning I had these rules for myself, but then I found that certain rules are good to apply for self-discipline or whatever but other times I found myself imposing them for no good reason, so I started to relax and decided well, if I want to stand then I'm going to stand. I prefer certain kinds of microphones, there are technical things, the shape is important [laughs] all these things... You know, only a singer or someone like you would think that, would imagine all these thoughts that go through somebody's head when they have to deal with this object. And then it carries over in too other things too. If I'm drawing I have to stand up. I can't sit down. Well, not that I can't you know, but at school I would be the only person standing up - it's just the only way I can do it.

One of the things that is really distinctive about your work is the mixture of spoken word (with music) and sung vocals. Do you make a differentiation between songs and poems? Is there a different approach because they feel like very different things? It doesn't sound like you simply choose to speak some and sing others?

VD: Yes you're absolutely right. It began a little with Head Music [released under The Daou] but really it was Zipless. When I started working with Erica Jong's words I really started to deal with the poem versus the song and what makes them different, cos you know I used her lyrics...well, I took her poems and transformed them into songs. 'Sunday Afternoon' for example is a dramatically different song to the poem. The lyric is condensed; the original poem was four pages long so I really started asking myself what these differences were.

I don't usually start off writing a song. I'll start out writing a poem and then transform that into a song. On this album [Joe Sent Me] I have 'The Hook' the poem and 'The Hook' the song, because it started as a poem and as a song it's completely different. With a song you're dealing with different elements. The melody will alter the meaning and a song is something that is more digestible in a sense. People are more used to the singing of a song. It becomes a very personal thing to the listener but in a poem there's much more freedom, I think, because of the spoken voice - a person doesn't need to identify with it to understand it, to appreciate it, but with a song, if you can't identify with it or understand it on some level, it becomes a much more removed experience. I think [with] a poem, the ownership is more retained by the poet - you don't have to make that leap into the understanding so that's how I see it. With 'The Hook' the poem it's coming from a different place of understanding but with 'The Hook' the song, with a song I try and shape it into something that's more approachable.

This is entirely exemplified in 'The Poem' where both these disciplines become intertwined. Over a double bass and serenely meandering piano, Vanessa speaks in the first person “This is the poem I wrote last night" before switching into a reflexive reverie mediating on the power of the poem “to bewitch you/ to heal you/ to have you" revealing the words to be “black magic/ extortion/ a landscape/ a portrait". Then, she jumps into song form for the last couple of minutes with yet another change in tone. It does everything she describes and it's a brilliant lyrical achievement - paradoxically revealing the alchemical mechanics of poetry whilst simultaneously pulling off that very transformation. When Vanessa sings it feels like she's addressing you. On the spoken word pieces you become a witness to something that doesn't necessarily concern you.

You sing “We live in a dream/ no reality" on 'Black and White'.

VD: [laughs] That describes my mindset both creatively and 'in reality'. There's no separation between dreams and reality.

And the night seemingly plays an important part in your work - dreams, eroticism and now the speakeasy?

VD: To me, it's the most intangible, the most unknowable thing. The night: it's strong, powerful and provocative - the word has been diluted for the most part but it's such a powerful feeling and it's something I really try to reach for in my music. And in this album more than any of the others I did have a nighttime mindset from the visuals of the album to the idea of the nighttime permeating all the songs. That feeling - that's the thread running through the whole aura of the album and this time during prohibition when the phrase was used, the subversive life that was going on underneath everybody's noses. It's just... a really unbelievable time when all these people were mixing, everybody listening to jazz music and it's so powerful, and so yes, the idea of the erotic equals the nighttime equals the idea of the sublime to me, and this is what I was reaching for.

Well, I had planned to ask you about what the particular attraction of this era was for you, but what you've just said throws up an immediate parallel to me which is the emergence of dance music at the beginning of the 90s, which is something you were a hugely vital part of. In the UK the speakeasy could perfectly act as a metaphor for illegal events in warehouses or fields. Did that translate over to the States?

VD: Maybe somewhere in my subconscious I was making that connection. At that time in New York it was such an incredibly vibrant scene and there certainly is a distinction between what was going on here and what was going on in the UK with the rave scene. We performed at the first ever rave in LA [Stranger than Fiction] at the Shrine Auditorium [as Vandal] and it was an amazing time, and I think the connection is so accurate. It's not really the illegal and illicit nature that attracts people to these things I think, but more the opportunity for a rarefied experience which is unique and not offered up by consumer society.

The rave scene, prohibition - these are times when so many boundaries were being broken creatively that for the most part the mass media couldn't keep up with it and that's why it was so exciting. All this energy was bursting through the scene and to be part of that is so intoxicating and some people just really need to tap into that experience. The transmission - just that phrase - those three words are a portal to another world and now the irony is that this transmission of a message has now taken it far beyond what I expected.

And then the album led to the collaboration with the Mercer Dance Ensemble where you redeployed the album into an installation that was then choreographed. And you used to dance right?

VD: I used to dance but it can cause so much damage to the body. My degree was in Art History and the Visual Arts, which was mostly drawing, but really what I was interested in was a synthesis of the arts. The Joe MDE project was so exciting. The album became an adventure, a journey; it's not even an album anymore. And with the dance project we wanted to make it more of an evolved thing so we documented everything. And it's amazing to witness your own work being transformed into something else by these really talented people.

Joe Sent Me is your first truly 'solo' release and on your own label. You've become a hugely enthusiastic advocate of the internet and coding.

VD: Well so many things happened when I first started writing this album. It was after 9/11 and my very amicable split with Peter, and with the internet coming in to its own and my realisation that this was the realm I wanted to focus on. So it was no longer about making an album but really about understanding the internet and coding to this new language that's developing. There's still so much to learn, but for me I saw the whole project as a journey creatively and it was all about me making my own way, as I have collaborated for so many years and so my other connection to the prohibition era comes is through personal freedom. So I had in my head how I wanted it to sound and so making it was an adventure and this is it now; this is how I want to work from now on. Technology hung me up for many years until I started looking into it, and now there's actually so much I want to explore and learn and now I really have to rein myself in.

Thankfully, this reining in has not been applied to Vanessa's last sonic adventure. Late last year I put together a series of sonic fictions for radio called Weird Tales for Winter. In an effort to prevent it from becoming overly hauntological, I asked Vanessa if she might want to get involved. The entirely unpredictable end result of this was a magnificent gothic New York winter tone poem entitled Love Among the Shadowed Things, in which Vanessa entirely surrenders to all the strangeness that's more subtly implied in her albums - still concerned with meta/physical affairs of the heart and body, but taking lyrical jump-cuts across the globe. Musically, she takes some extraordinary leaps into the dark - abstract, adrift, littered with found sound and with an elliptical meditative narrative. This was immediately followed by a visual interpretation of one of the three sections and leaves me wondering what next, where now. Anything seeming possible...