By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
By A.H. Goldstein
I'm cleaning my apartment as we speak, if that's all right with you," says Chicago's Edith Frost. "I've got to do it sometime."
That Frost, whose singing and songwriting is among the deepest and most emotionally resonant on the current scene, must squeeze tidiness into her schedule represents something of a change for her. Of late, she's been "kind of just fucking around," she allows. "I've basically taken it slower than I had for a couple of years. I don't know why. But I'm getting it together now, finally cranking it up again."
Indeed, Frost has scheduled her first extended tour in ages; during her shows, she plans to preview new material for an as-yet-unnamed disc that should reach stores by the first half of 2005. She feels that recent compositions such as 'Mirage,' 'It's a Game' and 'What's the Use?' are typical of her previous efforts: "They're, like, saddish and bummed out. There are a couple of angry ones, too. But most of them are pretty and give off that introspective, resignation kind of feeling. Same old same old."
It's important to note that Frost laughs as she offers this description. In contrast to her music's melancholic reputation, she comes across in conversation as good-humored and witty, if substantially more self-deprecating than is strictly necessary. When she's quizzed about the difficulty critics have in pinning her down stylistically, for example, she says, "I don't want to be called country or alt-country or rock or folk. Anyone in those camps is going to be disappointed if they buy my music, because it's not going to be totally a rock record or totally a folk record or totally a country record.
"I don't want to be pigeonholed," she adds. "I just want to be good. I just want to be interesting."
She needn't worry about that, as her most recent recording, 2001's lovely Wonder Wonder, demonstrates. "True," the opening track, sports some C&W touches, among them plaintive strings and colorfully pensive lyrics such as "Blue -- like your eyes, you left me blue." Yet the torchy sufferance of Frost's rich, throaty crooning and a dramatic arrangement that creates an air of beautiful gloom result in a number that would lead to the instantaneous firing of any hot-country DJ with enough nerve and taste to spin it. Other songs are even tougher to categorize. "Cars and Parties" is majestic pop that recalls the work of Chestnut Station, whose frontman, Rian Murphy, produced Wonder Wonder and heads Drag City, the independent record company that released it. For its part, the title cut is a musical merger of Irish melodiousness and oompah-band flourishes, while "The Fear" emits a haunted-house vibe that avoids novelty status because Frost insists upon taking anxiety seriously.
Frost hails from Texas, and she refused to abandon her roots after moving to New York as a young adult. There she performed as part of the Holler Sisters, who specialized in old-timey music; the Marfa Lights, a country-swing combo; and Edith and Her Roadhouse Romeos, whose up-tempo twang led to Frosts's being tagged as a rockabilly singer, to her lingering dismay. She was given a chance to combine her various influences circa the mid-'90s, when reps from Drag City finally listened to a demo tape that had been sitting in a slush pile for the better part of a year. Four songs from the cassette wound up on 1996's Edith Frost, an EP that immediately turned the heads of renowned performers in the indie community. Freshly minted fans such as Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs of Gastr del Sol, the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan and Rick Rizzo from Eleventh Dream Day turned up on her first long-player, 1997's Calling Over Time, and the list of contributors continued to grow with each passing recording.
Favors like these have been returned many times over. In recent years, Frost has contributed to a plethora of platters by the likes of Royal Trux's Neil Hagerty, Birddog, Jenny Toomey, the Mekons, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and Sigmatropic, a Greek act whose 2003 disc, Sixteen Haiku and Other Stories, brought together a slew of guest vocalists. On Haiku, Frost shares the spotlight with Robert Wyatt, the American Music Club's Mark Eitzel, Cat Power's Chan Marshall, Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, and other performers with tony credentials.
Although she's comfortable in such artsy company, Frost retains her down-home sensibility even in cyberspace. A onetime Internet professional, she's represented by an excellent site, www.edithfrost.com, that's highlighted by one of the warmest, friendliest and most interactive blogs on the web. Maintaining this tone is usually, but not always, a snap. "I do have some weirdos I don't like -- trolls who say, 'You suck!' So I delete them," she concedes. "But 99.9 percent of people are totally nice and totally cool and treat me like a human being -- just like everybody else."
Better, actually. Because so much time has passed since her last CD, Frost decided this spring to put together Demos, a collection of exquisite work tapes that prefigured some of her best songs. In spite of the fact that visitors to her site can download the songs at no charge, one correspondent sent Frost a post inquiring, "Can I send you some compensation?"
This question raises a vexing ethical issue for Frost, who sees file-sharing from two distinct vantage points. "I love downloading stuff, and I used to file-share a lot," she says. "I was heavily into Audiogalaxy when it was up, and Napster before that. I collect stuff that's mainly out of print -- weird-ass records and stuff like that. And there's no way, unless it's on eBay, that I'm going to find it, so there's really no alternative to file-sharing. But I finally stopped anyway, because I got scared of the RIAA" -- an organization ostensibly devoted to helping artists just like her. As for Frost's own material, she asks, "How can I not have mixed emotions? I'd go to Audiogalaxy, and my entire life's work was up there."
She knows from personal experience that her music's availability may not translate directly into rent money. After all, she admits, "I don't buy nearly as much stuff as I used to before I could download. A lot of people say the opposite; they say they buy more things. But for me, it's so rare when I find somebody out there who I like enough to actually go buy something. I did that with Jolie Holland, but it doesn't happen very often." When it comes to her music, she wishes she "could control it and say, 'This is the stuff I want to give away for free, but please don't give away the whole album' -- but it doesn't seem possible, the way it is now. I mean, I could write to sites and say, 'Hey! Stop it!' But then they'd think I was a dick, and I don't want that. Besides, I think for indie artists, file-sharing probably helps more than it hurts, because it gets my name out and gets people to hear my music who otherwise wouldn't."
Playing live beyond Chicago's city limits accomplishes the same goal. Still, performing her sometimes delicate material in venues more accustomed to hosting punk-rockers can be a trial. "The only time in my life that I've screamed at the audience was in Denver, at the 15th Street Tavern," she recalls. "They have this crowd of regular pool players, and this one time, they were really cracking the pool balls and going, 'Woo-hoo!' It got louder and louder, and finally I just yelled, 'I can't hear myself think!' Everybody laughed, and it was funny, but Jesus!"
Fortunately for Frost, she'll be accompanied on her current jaunt by several members of Manishevitz, which is joining her on tour; the group's latest album, 2003's City Life, on Jagjaguwar Records, is first-rate. "When it's a rock club, I do so much better with a band. It's kind of hard to hold my own otherwise," she says. "But I want to do some solo stuff, too, because I feel really strong, playing-wise. I've been practicing a lot by myself -- getting myself ready to get back out there again."
No wonder her apartment's such a mess.