To the millions who adore her, Jewel Kilcher is America's songwriting sweetheart, a musical soulmate with an angelic face and karma to match. A look from her baby-dolled eyes or a note from her pouty lips can send legions of fans into swooning fits of "oohs" and "ahhs." But for Boulder singer/songwriter Marie Beer, the mention of Kilcher's name elicits another response: "Ugh."
Beer comes to this conclusion not through overexposure to Kilcher's music or from seeing her face on everything from Rolling Stone to Reader's Digest and a recent you-too-can-heal-thy-soul hour on Oprah. No, Beer comes to her assessment firsthand. Long before Kilcher was asking the nation "Who Will Save Your Soul?" she was a classmate of Beer's at Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy. After the pair graduated, Kilcher followed Beer to her hometown.
"We were really close friends and played some music together," recalls Beer. But the pair's alliance went flat in Boulder. "My parents," Beer recalls, "were under the impression that I was being taken advantage of, and they encouraged me to reassess the situation. So I told her she had to leave, because she was essentially living in my house rent-free and everything. It wasn't a good situation."
The friendship continued to disintegrate after Kilcher's debut disc, Pieces of You, was released. This time, though, the friction was based on music. "I listened to her debut album," Beer remembers, "and the music sounded very familiar to me. There were a couple songs on there where the guitar music, it was mine -- I mean, note for note. And, no, the melodies weren't mine and the words weren't mine, and, granted, they weren't either of her hits. But I just felt like, 'Oh, my God,' like somebody had just taken something that I'd made and just capitalized on it." So much for the endearing image of America's sincere songbird. "I think it's a big scam," Beer says. "I really think that she's the kind of person that takes things from people in order to get where she wants to go."
Beer hasn't talked with her ex-roomie for over three years and says that taking her beef before a judge would be futile, since her claims would be hard to prove (though she says she has tapes that would aid that step). She's also quick to credit Kilcher with being a compelling performer with a positive message.
On her own debut disc, Cherry Tree, released in April, Beer shows glimpses of a similar optimism but with a healthy dose of spit and sneer to match. A fine collection of spare, acoustic-based songs (smartly produced by Wil Masisak and fleshed out by a number of Boulder musicians), the CD is impressive on many counts. For starters, there's Beer's voice, a wet-sandpaper instrument, all damp and husky, that purrs in the ear and whispers on the neck. With looping falsettos and languid spoken-word passages, Beer's vocals are a breathy match for the undressed slo-core of her compositions and drip like oil down a lover's back.
The title track is a steel-stringed creeper of shadowy guitars that bristle in the limelight in short bursts. Like the rest of the numbers on Cherry Tree, the song never rocks, opting for a darker, slower power. "Rainbow" is typically sparse, its haunting melody hiding the sinisterness that lies beneath its surface. Beer's classical piano in "House of Love" brings to mind visions of a quiet Sarah McLachlan or a pensive Tori Amos. "Christian's House" is a sensual, midnight-skinny-dipping exercise marked with pulsing cellos, while "Ankle Bells" is a moody narrative in which mothers drown their children, funeral pyres flare and the air is filled not with patchouli, but with the bitter scent of burning hair.
The disc's molasses-like rewards, Beer says, are an attempt to duplicate "the same feeling that I get when I go out into nature. There's this beauty and power, but it's not screaming at you like a billboard or television. You have to really look; you have to really listen for it. But it's there, and you could almost miss it if you wanted to." Beer peppers her musing interludes with welcome dashes of humor and irreverence, though. In the sarcastic romance of "Starboard Side," a shipboard encounter turns hollow. When the singer laments her broken soul, her partner asks her to "climb up on my lap and let me see what I can do," just before the song leaps into a refrain of "Que Será Será." On "Allen Ginsberg" (in which the singer snips, "That man is one serious asshole"), a modern dancer bemoans "losing my jobs to the boy on the right, when the director says, 'Mm-hmm, he'll look good in my tights.'"
The song's theme is one close to Beer. Long before she launched a music career, she pursued a career in dance, even doing a one-year stint at the Juilliard School in 1994. Unfortunately, it wasn't what she expected of her childhood dream, says Beer, who twirled on Boulder stages at the University of Colorado's Macky Auditorium and Irey Theatre in the early Nineties. "They had this concept that they break you and then remake you in their image," she says. "It destroyed my body, and it did a good number on my spirit, too. It was very disillusioning, because I was getting injured all the time, and I felt like it was all about your body and aesthetics and athletics, not expression or artistry or musicality. For me, dance was always very internal, a connection and an expression of something divine and kind of being in a different realm from the everyday. But when I was there, it was incredibly material, more so than anything I've ever experienced."
After returning to Boulder in 1995 (Beer took a year of medical leave from Juilliard after sustaining a hip injury that she's still nursing today), she began scribbling lyrics to songs and pairing them with piano parts. She met Masisak in a local studio in 1997 and the two joined forces to record a demo before she left for a "Summer at Sea" cruise, which fulfilled a requirement toward the completion of a dance degree at CU. The cruise wasn't the thought-provoking experience she expected, however. "Have you ever seen MTV's Beach Party?" she asks. "It was just like that." Happily, Beer's ship didn't sail in vain, as the experience gave her plenty of ideas for songs. When the ship reached its final stop in Japan, Beer bought a four-track recorder and spent the last ten days at sea recording eight songs, reproducing them one at a time and selling them on board before reaching dry land and the U.S. When she did arrive back in Boulder, she and Masisak went to work on Cherry Tree. (The disc is available at Bart's CD Cellar and Warehouse Music in Boulder or through the Underworld at P.O. Box 1653, Boulder, CO 80306.)
The past year has been a busy one for Beer. In May, she graduated from CU as well as from Boulder's coffeehouse circuit, moving to a slot with Women From Mars, a rotating collective of women artists who perform in the Denver/ Boulder area. The group's current compilation includes a track from Cherry Tree. This summer, Beer and her band performed before a hefty crowd at the Fillmore Auditorium as the opening act for Joan Armatrading, and on October 4 she will perform live on radio station KGNU in Boulder. She's also getting feelers from a few major-label A&R people, thanks in part to help from local singer/songwriter Celeste Krenze and her husband, Bob Tyler.
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In September Beer will begin working with independent filmmaker D.K. Scheffer on his new film, A Thousand Buddhas, which will be filmed locally. Beer will have an acting role in the flick, and songs from Cherry Tree will appear on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, she's thinking positively, despite suggestions from allies and industry types that she pick up the pace of her songbook and "meet the listener halfway" by making her sound a bit more accessible. "I feel like it's the same story I heard at Juilliard, just being retold," she says. "I wouldn't know how to write songs from that place. How would I go about doing that?"
Beer is also considering another major career move: changing her name. "Every time I say my name, somebody has some smart-aleck remark," she says, "and half the time, they don't think it's my real name. Like, why would anybody choose the name Beer? And I think the things that are associated with beer -- barbecues, frat parties and football -- are so incongruous with my music. But it is my real name, and if anything, what I want to do is portray real experiences, so I decided to keep it, even though it might cause a little flak."
But what about the merchandising opportunities here? Why not capitalize on the surname with, say, a bottled version of "Marie Beer"? She laughs. "I don't know, I haven't really thought about it," she says. "Besides, with some of the subjects of my songs, I'm not sure any brewer would want to be associated with me. But there is something kind of twisted about that, isn't there?"