Acts Of Faith: An Interview With Thalia Zedek

With her latest record Six just released through Thrill Jockey, Thalia Zedek speaks to Nick Hutchings about immersing herself totally in music in recent years, last year's acclaimed album Via, and reanimating her Come project with Chris Brokaw

Listen to the music of Thalia Zedek, you’d believe she’s full of mourning and love scorned, yet 2013 was a sociable year for her, full of dreams and schemes. She released her first Thalia Zedek Band record in five years, toured it extensively around North America with Low, and then had a fruitful reunion with Codeine’s Chris Brokaw as the band Come. They celebrated the 21st anniversary reissue of indie rock classic Eleven: Eleven with a tour that also took in an always appreciative audience in Europe. Buoyed by this flurry of activity, Zedek got the band in a room to harness her creative energies into a new six-track EP, her fifth record on Thrill Jockey that – as its title implies – is ferocious in its simplicity.

Like fellow Quietus writer Neil Kulkarni, I too first met Zedek on that same cold grey morning at the Columbia Hotel in Bayswater as part of a fanzine junket for Come’s second album Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 1994. I could see my own nervous breath in the cold air, but she was warm and magnanimous, and that has only increased two decades on. Musically, she has taken her dark reflection and turned it into more hopeful celebration. Last year’s almost triumphant album Via opened with ‘Walking Away’, a song metaphorically about living with ghosts and literally about leaving them behind. Its lyric "the future cannot change the past" suggests transience, as does the album name Via. The cover art features a partially obscured beach path, signaling a shift from darkness into the light. "I think you might be right," says Zedek, "maybe moving from a somewhat long phase of looking back and mulling over the past into one of living more in the moment and being open to new experiences again". And Zedek does have an undeniably rich past to mull over.

Incredibly, Zedek is now entering the fourth decade of a career that started off strongly influenced by Patti Smith, but which now arguably places her at a level of equal esteem. As a fulcrum within several cult bands, from fronting Uzi to adding a vocal embodiment to Live Skull, co-authoring the epochal Come, and now a spine-tingling solo chapter, Zedek is as relevant now as ever. Though the years have flown by, they have never dulled her timbre, a voice that belied her early years and one with which she has flourished.

Six begins with ‘Fell So Hard’ a song whose atmospheric density is cut through with that unmistakable voice like a sinkhole in the substrata. It has the air of instant classic that holds up alongside old standards ‘Car’ and ‘Fast Piss Blues’, and yet after the more upbeat tone of Via made me instantly think of regression, of an unforeseen and unfortunate change in personal circumstances. However, "the story behind that song spans a long period of time," she reveals. "It’s not about a setback actually, it’s about two different lovers".

Six is an emotionally winding journey. It crams a lot of twists and turns into a nuanced half hour of episodic songs. Lyrically they seem poignantly balanced between the darkness and demons of the past, with wisdom and hope for the future. "Well, I’m a Libra, the sign of the scales," Zedek agrees, "so I guess I am a bit of a balancing act myself."

Lyrically and tonally, Six feels more reflective than the optimism of Via. How much of this is to do with the re-evaluation of Eleven: Eleven and the reunion shows with Chris Brokaw last year?

Thalia Zedek: I am not conscious of any influence the Come reunion had on the songs that are on Six. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t one, but it certainly wasn’t what I was thinking about when I was writing them. The Come reissue and tour was a very positive and a very emotional experience. I appreciate what a privilege it was to have the opportunity to revisit and re-evaluate a period of my life that was very important to me. And to have the validation of other people letting me know how important it was to them as well. It was really, really fun but also pretty ‘heavy’.

Did being back on the road both for Via and Eleven: Eleven reinvigorate you to write again?

TZ: Yes, definitely. I hadn’t been so completely immersed in making music in quite a while, and it made me realize how vital it was to me on a very, very basic, almost cellular level. I decided that any frustrations or expectations that were getting in the way of me doing it, as much as I could needed to be thrown away. It was a very creatively invigorating experience.

You’re always going to attract an audience of ardent fans of your former bands. How important is it to keep appealing to them, and how important is it to reach a new audience?

TZ: I am very, very grateful to have the best and most supportive fans ever. It also is important I think, for me to reach a new audience, and I believe that I do now to some degree, and in time I hope to do so even more. But it’s certainly not something that I worry about. Every single record I make is an act of faith in a sense, and somewhere I also have faith that the people who need to hear my music somehow will.

You’ve often had a foil to your writing; do you have that now with the band?

TZ: I’ve never really had a "foil" to my writing in the Thalia Zedek Band the way I did with Come, and I do miss it. Though we do work on the arrangements as a band, I am the sole songwriter. Mel Lederman and Dave Curry both have their own solo projects that they write material for – MG Lederman and Empty House Cooperative respectively – and Winston Braman and Jonathan Ulman play bass and drums together in at least three other local bands. The last couple of years I’ve started writing a bit outside the band in more collaborative type projects. Recently me and a couple of musicians from Boston – Jason Sanford from Neptune and Alec Tisdale – finished recording four songs which I’m pretty excited about. We call ourselves E, and we’re going to release two of the tracks as a 7" on the Absolutely Breakfast label and have been playing around town a bit. And I’m going to Montreal to record with Wrekmeister Harmonies in a couple of weeks. I find that playing and collaborating creatively with other people really helps inspire me in my solo writing as well.

Six is not your first record as the Thalia Zedek Band, and yet it definitely feels like a new beginning. Why is that? Or is that just me?

TZ: It is definitely a departure in a number of ways. It’s the first record that I’ve really changed up our song arrangements. On two of the songs it’s only me playing and singing, on another it’s me on guitar and vocals with a bit of viola and a bit of drums. There are only two full band songs. It’s also probably the most spontaneous recording I’ve made with the Thalia Zedek Band so far.

I’d had to postpone a tour that I was planning for last November until this March, and Bettina at Thrill Jockey suggested that maybe I use the time to record some of the more recent things I’d been writing. I had recently done some vocals at Andy Hong’s studio for Geoff Farina’s new record. Andy’s an old friend and we’ve worked together before, but he’s usually running all over the world doing stuff. Unfortunately he had badly broken his leg and was housebound for quite a few months, so I asked him if he would want to record us. I guess I was kind of taking advantage of his misfortune, but he was pretty eager for new projects at the time and he is an amazing engineer with a great studio, so how could I not? Everything was done pretty quickly, including the cover photo which was one of a series that an artist friend of mine, Lana Caplan, did for promo for Via.

Why is it important to have a band rather than flying purely solo?

TZ: I feel like the songs that I write are best when they are performed by an ensemble, rather than by one solo instrument. I don’t consider myself a skilled enough instrumentalist to be able to create the atmosphere that I want with just my guitar by myself. That said, Six actually has two songs that I recorded completely alone, ‘Midst’ (though I added some guitar overdubs) and ‘Afloat’. That is a first for me, and probably the result of doing a few more solo shows lately. We’ll definitely be performing them as a band though, when we tour.

On Six you seem more playful in terms of musical style – ‘Dreamalie’ has a real folky, nursery rhyme-ish quality, and with the Freakwater cover of ‘Flathand’ there’s a pleasing country twang – are you a little bit country as well as rock & roll?

TZ: I’m not really very country, though I do enjoy some music that might loosely fit that description, like Will Oldham, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Graham Parsons and of course Johnny Cash. I don’t think that qualifies me as "a little bit country" though, at least not by the standards in the US.

Lyrically ‘Dreamalie’ is fascinating – in my mind it’s the difference between perception of your rock iconography and the real you – you talk of someone "doing their research" (nerve wracking for a writer.) How widely have people’s interpretations of you varied from reality over the years?

TZ: Well, ‘Dreamalie’ is definitely not about a rock writer, so don’t worry! It’s about something completely different. But since you asked, I think I’ve gotten a pretty fair shake in the music press over the years. The only think that kind of irks me is when people assume that I must be really depressed person because they find my songs to be sad. Just because I write in the first person doesn’t mean that all my songs are autobiographical.

Has the gap between perception and reality narrowed, now that it’s all about you at the forefront of the music rather than a constituent part of a band?

TZ: That’s hard to say. I think I’m a lot happier than people might think from listening to my songs. Though the inspiration for my songs almost always comes from things that are happening around me, I am definitely not always the protagonist in the songs. There is usually a grain of fact in there, but there’s also a lot of imagination and seeing things through the eyes of different characters.

Even if it is heartfelt and personal, it’s always poetic and open to interpretation. These days so many people just lay themselves and their whole personal lives completely open for all to see via digital media ad infinitum. What do you think about this explosion of instantaneous expression, and what are the long-term consequences of it?

TZ: I think it’s great in a way, because I think it makes people feel like they are able to express themselves in a way that they weren’t before, and to know that they have a chance to be heard! It also enables people to present themselves as they want to be seen, and as they see themselves. Of course it also gives them the opportunity to make an ass of themselves in front of far more people than they ever could before.

When you started out obviously Patti Smith was a beacon of inspiration; how much of a responsibility do you have as a role model to others?

TZ: I don’t think being a musician makes me a role model at all. But I do believe that I have responsibility to offer people a helping hand when and if I can, just the same way that others have helped me. I think that it’s important to keep that cycle going, and to give back to whatever your personal definition of community is.

Your songs seem so cathartic in themselves, but is there less emotional music that you listen to when you let your hair down?

TZ: Yes, definitely. I like a lot of instrumental music actually. Stuff like the Kronos Quartet, Dirty Three, as well as a lot of traditional music from other countries. And of course the Ramones, and garage rock like the Subsonics and Kid Congo and the Pink Monkeybirds.

What other artists do you think a potential new audience might be listening to at the moment who should give Six a try?

TZ: That’s a hard one to answer. I think we kind of occupy our own little spot in terms of "musical style" these days, and I can’t really think of any other band that sounds like us. I can name some bands that I really like, for example Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra, Evangelista, and Low, to name a few. Maybe some of their fans could find a connection with us the same way that I connect with them.

You’re about to embark on your biggest European tour for years. What are your hopes and expectations for it? Where are you looking forward to playing most and why?

TZ: Both the band and me are really, really excited to be playing in two countries that we’ve never been played before, Slovenia and Israel. We have a show in Ljubljana on March 10 and one in Tel Aviv on March 21st at Third Ear.

Thalia Zedek’s Six is out now via Thrill Jockey

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today