Baby Dee: "Don't allow yourself the luxury of feeling even a little bit bad about anything."
Wouter van den Brink
Baby Dee (due Tuesday, July 3, at the Walnut Room) has been recording music for over a decade, and her music defies easy classification. A multi-instrumentalist, Dee's songs are driven by piano, harp and various other instruments that accompany her unique, sometimes haunting voice, which also manages to be curiously warm, rich and inviting.
A street musician and performance artist in New York in the 1970s, Dee had a stint playing organ for a Catholic church in the Bronx and once led the sideshow troupe, Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. In the late '90s, Dee became friends with Antony Hegarty (she performed on the debut album of Antony and the Johnsons), and, through Hegarty, she met David Tibet, one of the pioneers of industrial music and neofolk. We caught up with Dee recently via email and spoke with her about growing up in Cleveland, her musical associations over the years and her advice for enduring personal success as a touring musician.
Westword: What kinds of creative activities did you get into as a kid and what kind of environment existed for you then in terms of an outlet for creativity? Were you encouraged by anyone or did you have any mentors?
Baby Dee: When I was a small child, my father, a fire chief in Cleveland, was doing lots of carpentry work on the side, and he would give me bits of wood and nails and old linoleum, and I would build little boats out of them. I don't think they floated so well, but I took the work very serious. In terms of music, I was encouraged to play the piano. My grandmother played in the silent movie houses when she was young and my mother loved to sing. She sang non-stop all day long.
You were growing up during an interesting and turbulent time in the USA. Being in Cleveland, what kind of impact did the Kent State shootings have on you?
The thing I remember most about that time was how angry my father was about everything. When you live in the house of a man like that, just consumed with anger all the time, whatever happens in the world is filtered through the fear that you feel all around you. I suppose my predominant impulse was self concern. Fear is a terrible thing.
I was sixteen years old when that happened. I just remember sitting at the kitchen table having to listen to my father ranting about everything: The students, the blacks. It was so poisonous. Children love their fathers. In that time, in that situation, your love itself becomes poisonous. I'll bet the boys who did the shooting sat at kitchen tables with fathers like mine.
What prompted you to move to New York, and how did you find it to be in terms of what you wanted to be doing with your life at the time?
It must have been around that time that I had actually run away from home and tried to get to New York. A cop dragged me off the bus at the depot in Cleveland. But only a few years later, I got out of high school and went to art school there.
You were encouraged by a composition teacher to get a job as an organist and you did at a Catholic church in the Bronx. What did you take away from that that you've kept with you in terms of your own art since?
I think the way it works is that people get obsessed by this or that kind of music, and it just becomes a part of you -- so much a part of you that it's hard to even see it in yourself. But yes, I suppose I got a lot of different influences out of that time. Actually it was my obsession with ancient music -- Gregorian to Renaissance -- that caused me to become inadvertently employable in a church.
But the influences that I got once I started working were different: gospel, of course; also one of the most unlikely was Cuban stuff, the sacred music of Santeria, the Yoruban stuff. I was totally obsessed with it, even went to Cuba to study it back when that was not an easy thing for a U.S. citizen to do. It might not be an obvious influence when you listen to my stuff, but I'm sure it's definitely in there somewhere.
After that incident with the tree that you've talked about a bit, you ended up working with Will Oldham. How did you meet him and Matt Sweeney? What convinced you past your reluctance to get back to making music and what do you feel Will was able to bring out in your work as a producer?
Will Oldham and David Tibet were friends, and when the tree business became untenable, I decided it was time to go back to music, and David helped by putting a little notice up on his site that I was in need of work. That was around the time when Will and Matt were touring the Superwolf album and came through Cleveland. He asked me to open for them. It helped a lot. I remember I was so broke back then.
I ended up having to do one more season as a tree climber for another company and when they closed up for the winter, that was it for me. I haven't been up a tree since. I don't even like to think how hard it would be to drag my sorry old ass up a tree now!
Will and Matt were amazing and wonderful as producers for me.
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They made all the decisions for me and brought together the most wonderful musicians to play on it -- played and sang wonderfully themselves. Everything about that album that's good is good because they made it good. Having people do that for me freed me from all the usual problems of self-loathing and defeatism and made something that I could be proud of. I'd never had that before.
Later, Maxim Moston and Andrew W.K. did it for me again on Book of Songs and Regifted Light. You'll never catch me trying to self-produce anything again! I'm spoiled now.
You met David Tibet through Antony. Did he tell you why he wanted to work with you? What is it that you think you brought/bring to Current 93 both musically with piano and harp and otherwise?
David and I hit it off right away. I always enjoyed playing with Current and still do. It's just such a nice bunch of people. I just ran into Keith Wood here in Calgary. I've met so many wonderful people through David. Alex Neilson, Michael Cashmore, Andrew Liles, James Blackshaw, Ben Chasny, John Contreras, Simon Finn, Julie Wood, Marc Almond, and Eliot (Oudie) Bates -- with whom I just recorded an instrumental album -- the wonderful Sebastian Horsley. There's lots more. Knowing David has been so providential when it comes to making friends.
When you tour, what kinds of equipment do you bring along to properly present your music the way you prefer?
Well, the best thing is a really good piano. Short of that, I can always bring my harp. The problem for me is that I can't stand playing on an electric keyboard. It makes me sad that people don't always appreciate the difference between the real thing and an electronic approximation of the real thing. How can people not hear that? It mystifies me.
One thing every critic seems to agree about is the unclassifiable quality of your music because it doesn't really fit into a genre. Is there anything of late that has sparked your creativity and what sorts of things have you done lately to feed your imagination?
I want to do music for films. I find films very inspiring.
What's something someone has told you or that you experienced and learned from that has stuck with you over the years that perhaps informs what you do in life to this day?
Okay, here's my words of wisdom for anybody that wants to be a touring musician:
The tiniest little bit of negativity can go a long way. Entire bands, good talented people can run aground on their own anger. Some tiny sense of dissatisfaction over nothing can multiply itself into deep-seated animosities that can wreck everything. Too little sleep, too much booze, etc.
I've heard so many horror stories about bands that have big success and have to keep playing together even after they've gotten to the point where they're no longer even on speaking terms off stage. That kind of thing can happen to anybody. And it's almost inevitable unless you make an effort to prevent it, and the way to prevent it? Stay happy. Don't allow yourself the luxury of feeling even a little bit bad about anything. It works.
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