From Cleveland with love

Pub date April 27, 2010

MUSIC Baby Dee is not your generic person in a band, with dull quotes about the process of recording an album. Baby Dee has something to say, and she says it with light power, ever so occasionally punctuating a comment with a machine-gun laugh that’s love-at-first-hearing. Some would say Baby Dee’s music is more of an acquired taste, but the new A Book of Songs for Anne Marie (Drag City) strips her musicality down to its essence, and the result, while owing a generative debt to German Lieder, is crystalline in a manner that trumps more affectation-laden contemporaries like Joanna Newsom and the musician most often compared to Dee, her friend Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. Mabel Mercer comes to mind. On the eve of Dee’s SF visit, I got her on the horn, and the result was good enough that I didn’t want to write or talk around it. So here it is — 100-proof Baby Dee.

On the use of the Baby Dee song “Cavalry” in Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ movie To Die Like A Man: “He told me [it was the heart of the film] when I met him and I thought he was just blowing smoke up my ass. But so many reviews have said that he lavished all his gifts on that one scene.

How truly wonderful. Most people get a song in a movie and just an inconsequential fragment is playing in the background, but here the whole movie stops and everyone listens to the song — you can’t ask for more than that.

On her hometown: “I love Cleveland. It took me a long time to love Cleveland. I hated it all the time growing up. I left when I was 18 years old like a bullet out of a gun and never went back for more than a day at a time for almost 30 years.

The house I actually live in now, my recurring nightmare was to walk into the front door of that house. That was my end-of-the-world dream, instead of a holocaust or a great tsunami.

About ten years ago I went back there and ended up staying because my parents were in such bad shape. I was just experimenting with good behavior. [Laughs]

When they died I was stuck there, I’d lost my apartment in New York. I quit music and had a tree business. Then I woke up one morning and realized that I liked Cleveland. But it took me a lifetime. I’ve loved it ever since.

I never really toured the states, I’d toured Europe, and seeing what the rest of America is like made me love Cleveland. In Cleveland there is zero attitude at all. Nobody is cool in Cleveland, and if they are, it sure as hell isn’t because they live in Cleveland. The cool cities in America are New York, New Orleans — or what’s left of it — and San Francisco. In it’s own crazy way Vegas is cool. And maybe Niagara Falls.

New York is the city that never sleeps. I used to call Cleveland the city that shits the bed.”

On Marc Almond: “I adore, I worship Marc Almond. He’s one of the greatest people in the world in addition to being a great singer. People tend to think he’s a sweetheart, but in his case it’s absolutely true — he’s as good as gold. And we’ve got history — I gave him reasons to not be as good as gold to me. [Laughs] He’s just a prince.”

On German Lieder and classical music: “It had its influence on me, but in strange ways. When I grew up, I would leave the room when people would play Schubert. I couldn’t take it. It was an irrational hatred, and I haven’t had many musical ones. But there was history there — we took piano lessons, and my father had sort of been cast [by life] in the role of the Erl King with the dying child. Ooo, oogedy-boogedy, don’t go there! That kind of thing. We had to play some simple child’s version of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig, and my father was really into it without even having self-awareness why. He’d say “Play that one again” over and over, not even realizing it was about the death of his own soul. Hideous.

I was more at home with really, really old music. As a matter of fact I avoided the entire 19th century. It isn’t that there wasn’t beautiful music — Chopin, Beethoven — but I avoided the whole thing. I discovered Bach and went backwards from there. I was fascinated by Gregorian music and I finally got as a far as the Renaissance and became obsessed with [Giovanni Pieruigi da Palestrina] and the Spanish composer [Juan Evo] Morales [Ayma] and [Tomas Luis de] Victoria.”

On Joey Arias: “It’s not like Joey Arias is underrated. He might be the most beloved living drag singer. But he’s sort of ghettoized, very unfairly. I think he’s one of the greatest vocalists alive. If you’ve ever heard Joey get serious, there’s no greater heartbreaker.”

On her relation to the New York club scene: “The whole time cool things were happening in New York, I was in some dusty old piano loft in the South Bronx playing Palestrina on an organ.”

On her drink of choice: “It depends on when and where. If it’s before dinner, J&B Scotch on the rocks. If it’s after, it would definitely be Armagnac.”


With Karl Blau, Jeffery Manson

Fri/30, 9 p.m., $12


853 Valencia, SF

(415) 970-0012