EMP Pop Conference 2009 — Thursday keynote presentation with Nona Hendryx

Nona, Sonnet and Daphne

Greetings everyone — this will be my first of the liveblogs from the EMP Pop Conference, and the anticipation at seeing Nona Hendryx here is pretty damn incredible. I will try and capture what I can, but cannot promise I’ll be able to get everything! Will try and send an update every few minutes or so.

7:40 — opening acknowlegments are being made by EMP staff, deservedly so — lot of behind the scenes work goes on at this thing!

7:42 — Daphne and Sonnet are being introduced by Eric, and they in turn offer further thank-yous in turn, before introducing Nina and the conference theme of ‘dance music sex romance’

7:46 — following a celebration of LaBelle’s place and work and Hendryx’s solo work, mentioning her breadth and range in many musical fields and their personal implications, ‘from beats to soundscapes,’ her many collaborations and the ‘centrality of women of color,’ Nona appears to cheers and applause.

7:51 — a brief video presentation covers the history of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, LaBelle the group and more besides. Wonderful stuff.

7:54 — into the questions! Daphne asks about the LaBelle reunion and Nona speaks of getting to ‘that place of songs –what they meant then, what they mean now,’ as well as finding their balance again in rehearsing, ‘to find our voices…you have to find a place to blend again.’

7:58 — Daphne asks why a focus on new recording over their live ability, Nona answering about the desire to present new work, but mentioning songs like “System” and “Candlelight” as having first been written for LaBelle in 1978 — and that they were recorded because they were not ‘too now.’ “System” requires three lead voices, ‘the song makes you come together, serving what the story is.’

8:07 — after brief discussion of Lenny Kravitz’s involvement we move into a PowerPoint presentation of various images and figures from Nona’s past. She speaks movingly of Mrs. L. Dinkins, her English teacher who taught her poetry, and the early support of Vicki Wickham and Dusty Springfield in England.

8:11 — Daphne asks about girl group culture with reference to the Bluebelles and being able to express ‘powerful feelings’ in that context. Nona describes it as ‘a large pajama party…a sisterhood,’ noting their teenaged start and sharing accomodations and transportation on the road in the early years. ‘We dressed alike…that’s a little weird!’ She notes that being apart was important but that ‘the elastic snaps back’ when a reunion occurs as has happened with LaBelle. ‘An odd existence…one part of a three part person.’

8:16 — the Rolling Stones are shown and Nona remembers their support and going to England in 1964, seeing bands of the time, the feelings, the styles, and how that eventually impacted them. ‘We were much more of a street group while the Supremes…well they wore different things even then!…We didn’t have a finishing school, we were very unfinished!’ She also mentions southern tours, the ‘osmosis’ of performing with acts like James Brown and many others.

8:21 — Laura Nyro is shown and Nona mentions how amazed they were when she approached them — and they did all the backing vocals for the “Gonna Take a Miracle” album in seven hours! She mentions dinners with Laura, singing with her, touring with her, the reverent silence of her audience and the impact of their work together. Holly Woodlong is mentioned — ‘we spent a lot of nights out…the Studio 54 part of my life!’

8:26 — ‘We didn’t know what we were doing…we were making music! We made music with people because that’s what you did! Our agent didn’t talk to her agent…we’d be out somewhere and something would happen!’ Daphne asks about the change in image and Nona notes the change over the early album covers, from jeans and gymnastic rings to somewhere else. ‘It was a great sort of leap, following the muse instead of the muse following us.’ Work in London and New York is mentioned, collaborations, coming back to America with ‘a new manifesto…but evolving.’ Social conditions of the time are noted, and ‘you couldn’t just wear gowns anymore!’ Daphne mentions how “Pressure Cookin'” came out in the year of Sula and Koffey and more besides and wonders how conscious LaBelle were of this wider emergence. Nona mentions that there’s no difference for her in the day to day and on the stage — ‘it affects me as much as anyone else, and if you lived in an urban environment…from 1960 to 1980, the political changes were stunning.’ She mentions Diahann Carroll, Nikki Giovanni, the show “Soul” and more besides.

8:41 — sorry for the slight delay — Sonnet asks more about the imagery and costumes and Nona mentions a designer in New York who inspired them as well as her own admission of being a ‘sci-fi freak!’ She talks about some older audiences unable to follow them easily but that a new generation was coming, a desire for a new outrageousness, ‘pursuing political, social and sexual themes…with feathers on!’

8:45 — Daphne asks about women working with funk musicians at the time, and Nona discusses her own joy of dancing when young, the roots of funk in older forms, and funk in ‘bringing movement back to me and my body…it’s a sexual form. It was about the evolution from gospel to blues to rhythm and blues to r’n’b to James Brown’s real sexual identification with rhythm.’

8:49 — Sonnet asks about her audience and the space LaBelle created in live shows, a ‘liberated space’ that fans of the time recall. Nona: ‘The audience was as much a part of what we were doing. If Patti can’t move you, you’re dead — couple it with what we were saying, the music, how we interacted on stage. There was never a time it wasn’t about the audience.’

8:54 — audience questions! Ann Powers runs the mike. Kurt Reighly asks after the influence of eighties New York on her solo work; Nona notes the impact of AIDS and the changes in the clubs, to see different work result. Someone else asks after the various production teams she worked with over the years, and she notes the unconscious learning from Wexler and Dowd, the more direct work with Jack Douglas and Allan Toussaint (and the latter’s ability to quietly come in, say okay, sit down at the piano and then shape the song with the Meters). ‘Brian Eno is VERY different! Much more thought out.’ Working him and Peter Gabriel was more about the structure and aesthetic of a song, absorbing sounds and finding textures. She mentions the Jerry Harrison solo album from the early eighties and knowing to mix music, mike instruments and more. She acknowledges Roberts Grace, the first female engineer she met and learned from. Lenny Kravitz has apparently come to grips with ProTools! ‘Michael Beinhorn has perfect pitch — not a good thing, I spent a day and a half singing four bars! — but working with him and Bill Laswell was a great learning period.’ She mentions battles with them at points but how she enjoys the challenge.

9:07 — someone asks about her ‘fierce’ solo album covers –she says ‘I like stuff like that! I like dangerous stuff, I like risk…that interests me!’ Ann: ‘Are you a Cylon?’ Nona: ‘Yes!’ She then discusses the Audio Tutu: ‘I’m trying to become a cyborg. I got bored with waiting on musicians, I got into computers and doing things on my own, to have me be the source of the music, so I could be untethered.’ She mentions the inventor who designed the Tutu and how it allows her to explore the music from SkinDiver; she mentions theremin work and other audio generators.

9:12 — last question: ‘What are you listening to now?’ Nona: ‘New artists…a lot are young kids. I’ll always go back to Bjork, she’s just brilliant. I heard Prince’s new album…I’m not sure!’

9:15 — and we’re done! Great stuff!

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