The Repository #14: Baby Dee’s Small Song

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that few artists and their work have moved me as deeply and influenced me at my core than Baby Dee. Her work is quietly devastating and completely enrapturing. Whenever she plays and sings, time stops and I have to stop and give my full attention. Credit goes to both John Darnielle (for covering “When I Get Home” during a Mountain Goats Peel Session) and Sarah Hennies for telling me more about Baby Dee during a conversation about said Peel Session 17 years ago. This interview is from 2004 or 2005 and was conducted by Foxy Digitalis’ resident Portuguese writer, Nuno Robles. – BR

Where to start, when speaking to Baby Dee? That was the first question that I thought of. I didn’t have much info on her, however, it seemed obvious that music is only a part of her fascinating life.

Yet, her music was what motivated me to do this interview. Beautiful, gentle, touching, and unique music. When I first listened to her last album A Book of Songs for Anne Marie, at about 3 AM after I first saw her live, I remembered the first time I listened to John Cale’s “Paris 1919.” Musically they’re very different. Yet these albums have one thing in common, they seem to be from another age, from another time; wonderful songs sung by distinct, individual artists. 

Everybody reading this should get Baby Dee’s three albums. Maybe they don’t know it, but they need it.

When I first thought of doing an interview with you, the only reason was the beautiful music that I had been listening to obsessively since I first saw you live in Lisbon. However, when trying to find more about you, I’ve learned that you are not only a musician. I’ve read about you being a music director of a Catholic church in New York, a member of the Coney Island sideshow, a performer in the New York streets (in a bear costume and a huge tricycle). Is music only a part of your life as an artist? What else have you done?

Music has been really important to me from the get-go, but, as a kid, I never was able to make myself at home in any social sort of way musically. I mean I never played in bands or orchestras or anything like that and I never thought that I could make my living as a musician. I went to New York on an art scholarship to study painting and that’s what I did for three or four years. Then I gradually shifted into music. But I was very backward. I didn’t have the common sense that most musicians have to seek out others like themselves and play. I didn’t know what to do so I applied to music school and fearing that I’d be turned down I decided that if I was turned down (which I was) that I would take the money I had saved for music school and go to Ireland and find a beautiful old harp…which is really stupid because it’s impossible to find a beautiful old harp in Ireland, but of course I did. I found a real treasure and brought it home and became a bear and played in the park. It was lovely. Since that time I pretty much always made my living as a musician until about three or four years ago when I gave it up to become a full-time tree climber. I decided in a very determined way to not be an artist anymore.

You were born in Cleveland, right? When it all did start for you when it comes to music? I believe that you are a classically trained harpist and pianist?

Yes, I was born in Cleveland. I like to think that it was not my fault but I’ve heard it said that we choose our parents and our place of birth before we’re born so maybe it was my fault. My mother sang non-stop from as far back as I can remember but it was my father who made me want to sing. Up until that time I guess I was content to be sung to.

My grandmother played piano in silent movie houses with my great uncle, a violinist. So there was music — mostly maudlin Irish American ballads and songs like “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”

I’ll tell you what got me into the harp. There were these two guys who lived across the street from us named Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss (I love those names) and they had a piano and they didn’t want it so they dragged it out on their tree lawn for the garbage men to take it but the garbage men wouldn’t take it because it wouldn’t fit in the garbage cans. So Bobby and Freddy started bashing it up with a sledgehammer which we all thought was wonderful. The entire block became seized with admiration for Bobby and Freddy and their wonderful idea of smashing up a piano and men (my father among them) came from all up and down the street with axes and crowbars and hammers and it became the epic event of my youth. Once they got down to the cast iron harp inside the piano they lost interest. It started to feel like work to them so everybody went home and Bobby and Freddy loaded all the bits of piano into the garbage cans and the harp laid there for the better part of a month. I fell in love with it.

You know that when I first listened to your music (as I said before, in a Lisbon gig, with Current 93, Simon Finn, and the Six Organs of Admittance) I didn’t know what to expect. Suddenly, when you touched the piano and started to sing, something extraordinary happened…it was like I knew those songs for ages like they were part of me already…it is such a simple music, yet so complex and touching. How do you write these songs? How do they come to you? Are you influenced by anything in particular? Some of the songs seem so innocent, yet so dramatic.

That’s a great compliment, what you said about knowing the songs for ages. Maybe they just sound old. What’s the word for being out of your time — anachronistic? I’m like that.

How do I write the songs? I wish I knew. I’d write more of them. All my life I wanted to write music but couldn’t. I was just too tied up in knots and though I wanted to I couldn’t. “Wanting to” was never enough. I couldn’t write the songs until I “absolutely had to.” The songs were born of necessity. Mostly words come first and the music follows. On rare occasions, I get music without words but even then the music is saying something very particular to me that must be said even if I don’t have words.

I could go on forever about influences but that would be a bore. Let me tell you my favorite story instead.

There was a man named Caedmon. This was a long time ago, maybe over a thousand years. And in Caedmon’s time, it was the custom that after a meal they would pass a harp around the table and everybody at the table was expected to sing a song for the occasion. Now Caedmon didn’t know how to sing songs so he would always find some excuse to get away before it became his turn to sing.

So one such night he snuck off to his hut and went to sleep and in his sleep, he had a dream and in the dream, God comes to Caedmon and says, “Caedmon, Sing me a song.” and Caedmon says, “What shall I sing?” And God says,” Sing to me of the creation of all things.” And in the dream, Caedmon sang this very short and intricate song about a kind of hierarchy of heavens and earths. And when he woke up he remembered the song and they say that from that time on he was able to write songs and sing them. Caedmon’s hymn is the first known written verse in the English language…Isn’t that a lovely story?

Your first album, Little Window, was recorded for David Tibet’s label, Durtro after Anohni introduced your music to him. When and how did you first meet Anohni? she has described you as “the Muse who helped realize much of the music performed by the Johnsons.”

I first met Anohni when I was dancing topless at the pyramid. This was years after she did the Blacklips Performance Cult there. I missed all that. Anyway, we met and became friends and I helped a little bit in the beginning when she had to have parts written out for violinists and that sort of thing. That was the very beginning of the Johnsons. I played harp on the first album and in some of the shows she did back then.

I kind of don’t think she actually said that? Anohni and I are good friends and her work has been hugely important to me, but I’m not anybody’s muse (except maybe my sweetheart, Pepper’s). What I’m saying is that I was helpful in a practical way. The word “muse” makes it sound like I was an important inspirational something or other for Anohni and nothing could be farther from the truth. In the first place, those songs were all written years before we met and many of the most beautiful ones are about Anohni’s real muses and saints — like Divine, for instance. Now there’s a muse!

If anything it’s much more the other way around. When Anohni first played me the rough tapes of the songs I laid back on her bed and listened and cried my eyes out. That hasn’t happened to me very often in my life.

Little Window has been described as a masterpiece by most of the people who have listened to it. When did you write the songs? Were they written for the album or long before its recording?

The song “Little Window” was the first real song I ever wrote. Everything before that was silliness, comedy songs, stuff to get out there and make a buck with on the street or standing up on a bar somewhere. I had moved back to Cleveland from Belgium and I started “having to write songs” and I would record each song as I wrote them.

On the songs of this album, you often mention your father. Your friends. Are your songs a reflex of your experiences and surroundings? They all seem very personal and intimate… 

I suppose so. I never thought of them as autobiographical but looking back it seems to me that maybe… how to put this? Maybe I was more at the mercy of myself on that album. I think the later albums become a little more detached a little more objective. I like to think so anyway but maybe that’s bullshit.

Little Window starts with birds singing. This seems to be a regular presence in your albums, up to Songs for Anne Marie. Why? In a funny way, your magic piano playing and unique voice feel like nature to me, when listening to your records (these seem strange, I know), strangely familiar. Some ancient stories say birds singing causes the sun to rise every day.

Actually, Little Window starts with wind and birds and ends with wind and laughing babies. Before I had come back to Cleveland I had one of those… Here we go again, there aren’t good words for these things — a life-changing experience, a breakthrough, or a breakdown. I don’t know what to call it. I was working the streets on my tricycle in Amsterdam and I wanted to do a show that would be more like real theatre and less like panhandling. But I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted everything to change. Instead of making people laugh and getting their money I wanted to make them not know whether to laugh or cry. I wanted everything to be different.

And I had a clear and coherent thought which is a rare thing for me. I thought that if I want to do something different then I should begin by doing something I’ve never done. One thing I’d never done — for all my travels I never did any of the things that tourists do. So I went to the Anne Frank House. And that made me want to read her Diary which I had never read. I can’t explain what that book did to me except to say that it completely destroyed me in such a way that I welcomed that destruction. Hell, I savored it. And during that time when my insides were falling to pieces, I was able for a while to see and hear very clearly what was truly beautiful in the world. And it seemed to me then as it does still that the three most beautiful sounds in the world were the wind in the trees (which is especially wonderful in Holland) and birds singing and the sounds that children make — laughing shouting talking.

At that time I stopped singing. I even stopped talking. There are these wonderful little bird calls made by the Audobon Society and I found that if I tied one around my chest with a ribbon and worked the bird call against my sternum it actually made me feel as if the bird’s voice was inside me. So that became my speech and by speaking as a bird I could get people to hear with my ears. I could get them to hear how beautiful the real birds sound and from there I could weave my harp and accordion music with the wind and the birds and the children. And then I could look at them with a look that said, “Do you see? Do you see how beautiful you are?” And they could see with my eyes. It was really extraordinary

Birds had always been part of my act anyway. I was a cat, after all. Everybody knows that cats love those little birdies. And yes, I believe that about the birds causing the sun to rise. But here’s the important thing. Nor all birds do that. Most are just grateful for the day they get. Only a special breed can actually make the day happen. In North America, it’s the robins. That’s why I always say the best thing I’ve ever done is the recording of the robins in my Mom’s backyard. I wanted people to hear the making of a day. Those robins, they know what they’re doing.

I don’t admire sorrow. I don’t seek it out. But at the time I wrote those songs, there were feelings, normal human impulses that I came to admire. One of these is remorse. I came to think that remorse is one of the best things that people are capable of feeling.

After Little Window, you’ve recorded a 4 song EP and the double CD,  Love’s Small Song. It’s a fascinating album, even more personal and autobiographical than the first record. What did inspire the songs from this album?

I knew I couldn’t touch the truth. I couldn’t write anything really true so I set out to faithfully document the lies and confusion and misunderstanding and unspoken belief systems that had ruled me all my life without me even knowing it. To go to the very heart of all my mistakes. That’s what I meant by saying that that album was in a way more objective and in a backward sort of way more impersonal. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? What am I trying to say? Yes, the songs are personal but I had to step way outside myself to see them, to hear them, to find them. So in a sense, I had to become a stranger to myself to write them. Does that make any sense?

Yes, it does. With these two collections of songs, it seems obvious that you were building your own world with your songs. A world of beauty and innocence, yet also of sadness and nostalgia. Is this really your world? Your feelings?

That’s a hard question. I think there are lots of worlds. Like in Caedmon’s Hymn that there are higher worlds and lower worlds. And that some people live in those higher worlds. And that we all came from there. And that our truest selves wait for us there. I believe these things. But to be honest I’d have to say that I do not live there and I’ve only wanted to live there for a relatively tiny portion of my life. At various times in my life I wanted very badly to live in a higher world but most of the time I choose to hide in a lower world. In that sense, I’m perfectly normal.

I don’t admire sorrow. I don’t seek it out. But at the time I wrote those songs, there were feelings, normal human impulses that I came to admire. One of these is remorse. I came to think that remorse is one of the best things that people are capable of feeling. And that, wonderfully, it’s accessible to people like me who have chosen to live in a very low world. And that it can act as a link to higher worlds. This is where I start to creep people out. I must sound like some self-flagellating screwball. I’m not really. I’m just trying to be honest and a little honesty is a dangerous thing. That godlike attribute, a willingness to be misunderstood, I not something that I possess so I’m going to shut the fuck up and behave myself.

Around the release of the book / CD Songs for Anne Marie, you came to Lisbon. It was a magical experience. I guess that most of the people were unfamiliar with your music (I was, I should tell you), yet the reaction of the audience was absolutely amazing. I remember that I was there with three friends and we all looked at each other in disbelief. Is it always like this? It seemed that you naturally belonged to that stage. Do you feel comfortable playing live?

That show in Lisbon was only the second time I’d ever played those songs in public. In the years before that, I had worked very hard to become an “amateur” as opposed to a “professional.” I became an amateur musician and a professional tree climber and that made sense to me. And that made it possible for me to write those songs. It was a little bit like going into the convent in reverse. I mean I was very much “in the world” but I held those songs as sacred to me. So for me to sing them for people was a big thing. Those songs are very strange.

When I wrote them I never sang them. For over a year I would just play the piano like the accompanist to a singer who wasn’t there. I never sang. I just listened. I listened the songs into being.

Then there came a time when I realized the absurdity of writing songs and not singing them and singing them with nobody there to listen and slowly I got so I wanted to sing them for people. And now I want that. I want to sing for people. I love doing that. But some of the songs are hard for me to sing and sometimes I even skip the ones that I hate to sing. And also I no longer know what I’m doing when I do shows and I like that. I hope I can hold on to that. I had a wonderful experience in New York recently where I did a show and the piano they had for me to play was so awful. It was the world’s oldest electric piano and it was literally falling apart as I played. And the situation was so ludicrous and impossible that I just had to do it for laughs. And that was great because for the longest time I was a clown and then for the longest time I became so fucking serious. And now it seems that it’s OK for me to be both.

Sometimes it’s hard but my experience on the street and in the freak shows does help. I might look a bit fragile up there but believe me, I’m not. Not really. They’d have to start throwing beer bottles and nothing short of a direct hit would intimidate me. The only thing that hurts now is if I feel like I’m not connecting if I feel like they’re just not getting it. That’s hard.

It’s curious because I remember that I felt that the songs were very powerful, yet, yes, you seemed very fragile and having the time of your life). Can you remember the best and worst experience you had, playing live?

I just played in Copenhagen and I had a ball. I didn’t want to stop. so I didn’t stop. I think I played for almost three hours. The people there were so nice to me. They made a beautiful poster and even the tickets were beautiful.

Worst experience…. Back when I was a cat on the tricycle in Manhattan I got a call from somebody who wanted me to play for a party with a German theme. They asked me if I had a costume that would be appropriate and I said “Sure!” I pictured something St Pauli Girlesque except with a tutu and wings because I ALWAYS wore a tutu and wings. I was thinking along the lines of a wood nymph from the Black Forest. I had the cutest little dirndl…

Anyway, what I didn’t realize was that these people didn’t know me. I don’t know how they got my number but they were looking for some dumpy old German accordion player to stroll around and play German songs in a very Sound of Music Disneyland sort of way and when I showed up the person in charge looked at me and screamed in terror and she dragged me into the kitchen and made me put on lederhosen and a cheesy little felt hat with a feather in it. And I had done big make-up and I went into the ladies’ room and looked in the mirror and it was my turn to scream in terror. I was the scariest looking thing I had ever seen.

Then they turned me loose on the fancy German society kids and I strolled around playing Kurt Wiel and if I got within ten feet of anybody they’d start edging away from me. So I started chasing them around and laughing like a lunatic and I sang “Springtime For Hitler.” Actually, I had fun that night too. One of my all-time favorite New York street acts was this man. He was a complete lunatic and he would stand at the corner of 57th and 7th Avenue by Carnegie Hall and sing opera arias in a very very loud voice. But he didn’t just stand there and sing. He would accost people who were walking by and sing AT them as if he were Don Giovani and every passing schmuck was Donatella. He would get up real close and actually block their path and look into their eyes with his madman’s eyes and sing all impassioned and furious and he was the worst singer in the world. And the really scary part was that he was bald and he painted black hair on his bald head. He scared the fuck out of people. Terrifying!

That’s what I felt like in the lederhosen. Some people will do anything for a couple hundred bucks.

Who do you love? Who have you lost? Who ought you to have loved but didn’t? Who loved you best? Let that be Anne Marie.

After the gig, I bought Songs for Anne Marie, for me your most beautiful album. Again, what’s behind these songs? Who’s Anne Marie? The book is a masterpiece in its own, with its moving and unique poems…

I knew you’d ask that. It’s understandable. Without wanting to appear “Mysterious” how can I answer… Okay Here’s an answer. Who do you love? Who have you lost? Who ought you to have loved but didn’t? Who loved you best? Let that be Anne Marie.

I could tell you some of the things I’d been reading around the time I wrote the songs. The Song of Solomon. There’s a lot of that in there. Some taken pretty much word for word right out of the book. The last song is practically a direct quote. I was also reading the early letters of Helen Keller. And I had been thinking about Rembrandt’s beautiful paintings of his sweetheart bathed in light and of the little book that Bach made for his wife Anna Magdelena. And about a thing that I used to look at at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an exhibit of the shards of pottery that were used in ancient times as a writing surface. It was something I was always drawn to and strangely moved by without knowing why.

Why was it released in such a limited edition?

I wanted the book to be nice and it’s an expensive process. The recording was thought of as simply a documentation as like… “The songs go like this…” I did it in one take at a studio and sent it to David without even listening to it myself.

There is a story to tell here though it doesn’t reflect very well on myself. I got so weird at that time of my life that I had already sent David most of the songs but at the same time I was going through this thing of wanting to become an amateur and not be an artist anymore but a tree climber instead… So anyway I wrote to David and asked him to send back the CD I had sent him. I didn’t want anybody to hear the songs. I decided that it would be a very bad thing for me for those songs to be in the world. So I asked him and Michael Cashmore too to send it back and not make any copies. And they did. Anyway, I didn’t do it out of meanness but it really hurt David’s feelings.

But that Prince! That Prince of a man forgave me for that. Isn’t that sweet? 

Do you have any recording / touring projects for the near future? Should we wait for another album soon?

I want to play as much as I can. Anywhere I can. I’m desperate for work. I closed down my tree company. All I want to do now is play. I recorded three songs for an EP to sell at the Toronto show with Current. People sometimes trickle through Cleveland. I’m opening for Will Oldman here and for Faun Fables in April. I might be doing some shows with Larsen in June. Hopefully, there will be many more shows with David. I might put out a live album. I might revisit the Book of Songs… and make it more about the music.

I’m in a very strange place now. All my life I have lived like there’s no tomorrow, constantly painting myself into a corner. My latest incarnation, the world’s most unlikely tree climber and amateur musician, has led me to yet another impasse. I feel like a whore who joins the convent when she’s still pretty and decides after becoming an old hag that she wants to be a whore again. That’s a pretty accurate description of my present state.

Here we go again. That’s bound to sound as if I think all people who do shows and sell CDs are whores. I don’t think that. It’s just me. It’s always been my nature to be a whore. Even when I worked at the church in the South Bronx I was a whore. I mean really! What kind of person makes their living playing church music nowadays. For shame! I’d much rather be remembered as one who sucked dick on Tenth Avenue than somebody who sunk so low as to play the Schubert Ave Maria at weddings and funerals.

Thank you very much, Dee. Any last words and thoughts?

I’m really excited about playing the harp again. I hadn’t touched it for about five years except for that teeny bit on Love’s small Song. This is strange for me because the harp was the only continuity in my life, a life that by anybody’s estimate would qualify as the most fractured and weirdly extreme in its changes. It’s so good. Like going home for me to play the harp again.

Thank you for thinking of me and for the thought you obviously put into your questions. And thank you for listening. Listening is big.

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