What are friends for, after all?
Which sounds nepotistic, but let’s talk about that a little, as well as talking about being honest with friends, being lucky to have talented friends, the fine line that can exist when one talks about friends’ creative work in the capacity of a critic and so forth. Imagine if I were also a musician too, then it might be worse (or is that better?).
I met Jen Schwartz, the person behind pretty much every note and every recording step on the album aside from a couple of extra violin parts from a cousin of hers, earlier this year at the EMP Pop Conference at UCLA, courtesy of mutual friends, and we hit it off pretty quickly. We’re Cure and Smiths and especially Siouxsie obsessives, why wouldn’t we hit it off? I learned about how she’d drummed in Tribe 8 for many years and how she was working on a solo debut, which caught my attention by default. (I’m sometimes terrible at following up on news of people who work in bands — I almost don’t want to look at my Notes app in the iPhone — so I’m glad I did in this case. Didn’t hurt that we ended up in each other’s networks on Facebook and Twitter and so forth.)
While I’ve talked about this album in those locations and in discussion with friends and so forth, I’ve refrained from reviewing it formally anywhere out of conflict of interest, you could say. It’s because she was kind enough to ask for my help in PR for the release, which I gladly gave — on the flip side, it was a little hard for me to therefore pretend to be a removed critical voice when talking about it. By default I rather liked it, so there you go.
If you end up doing the work I do to any degree, at a certain point people — at least some of them — stop being abstract figures or people you can project your own thoughts on and become people just like you. It’s a demystification that’s always crucial to go through, otherwise you’ll never get out of that first rush phase from whenever you got into music — or any form of creative work or talent — when everything is a little heroic, a little alien, a little ‘could I ever be like that?’ And in the case of Me of a Kind, I knew the person first before I knew the work, so that made it even less of a mystery.
What makes You are Here compelling listening to my ears isn’t just that kind of personal connection, obviously, so let me delve into why I like the album on its own merits, as if I didn’t know Jen S. at all. Being the relative ages we are, I can’t say I’m surprised to find that her work mirrors a lot of my own musical reference points, besides the previously mentioned bands. PJ Harvey, for instance? Oh heck yes (and in fact, you should check out the just released cover of “This Mess We’re In” that Jen did with Bowie vet Earl Slick). So sure, to an extent — only an extent, but not ignorable — this is a kind of comfort listening, not upending the past and crackling in the present, more extending and refining the past into the present one wants it to be, whatever approach that might be.
But on a larger level, there’s also an attractive balance here, between sometimes intense, angry edge and reflective serenity, both musically and, importantly, lyrically. Here’s where the personal connection helps again — we spent almost two hours listening through the finished album as I interviewed her about each track, what went into it, her thoughts on the final results. So songs like “Forgive Me” and “I’m Not Going Home” have a little more grounding in my ears than they might otherwise if I didn’t know all that, but still work nonetheless on that level (after all, I heard the album a few times first before talking with her about it).
Combined with Jen S.’s elegant abilities on every instrument and clear grasp of how to record well and so forth, it’s not, I suppose, what one would expect of a drummer from Tribe 8 on the one hand, but then again, what is to be expected of any musician, or artist? If you let yourself be defined by one repeated note then one repeated note is all that anyone will see. I’ll have more to say about the joys of finding yourself in a different place than you were when you started elsewhere in this list but that can wait, just take it from me that the slow burn of drumming and strings and atmospheres on “The Rain” really could be a track from, say, Tinderbox or Peepshow era Banshees, and good thing too. Then there’s “Winter” and the combination of piano and singing and suffice to say that this is not a Tori Amos cover.
Turning back to the issue of friends and creativity, though — another friend, who’s been in a two person band for many years that’s gained some attention (I’ll spare her blushes) once asked me flat out, “Ned, why don’t you record anything yourself? Why aren’t you a musician?” As I answered her, it’s pretty easy: I’m impatient and lazy. Where I do take the time, or so I hope, to practice things like my writing and my cooking and even, on a more casual level, my photography, with music if I can’t get it to sound like the inspiring things I’ve heard over the years right away, or the music in my head in general, then I end up frustrated. And like I said, I’m lazy and impatient, and I am content to hear the work of others.
But understanding those pressures, just a little, of what musicians can and do go through — especially these days, where DIY is easier than ever but getting attention is even harder, and where theoretically anyone can record anything but only those with dedication will work to do something exactly right with the tools to hand — is relevant. Music doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, and it’s one thing if Jen S. had her thoughts and visions to hand in her head and another to find the time and space to work them out and yet another again to create something that can resonate. The voice of Me of a Kind, if not something one to one in my own experience on many levels, is nonetheless the voice of reflection, consideration, determination and ultimately some level of comfort with one’s own person — self-acceptance if you like — that’s resonant to me. And it does so without sounding like, say, just another dude on an acoustic guitar doing dull frickin’ warbling. And THAT is crucial.
I would add more videos if there were more out there. Be nice if she got well known enough to warrant it, I’d say.