By Beppe Colli
Sept. 16, 2008
Four years after Angels' Abacus - to me,
her "commercial album", the one I hoped would turn her into a
superstar (shows you what I know) - Emily Bezar has finally released a
new album. Titled Exchange, it's a rich, and surprisingly accessible, work.
Those who already know her previous albums will have many reasons to enjoy
this one. Newcomers are invited to give it a few spins, with some of their
quality time added to the equation.
Since I thought that the new album deserved
to be discussed in some detail, I asked her for an interview. Luckily,
she agreed. I hope readers will find our conversation (which was conducted
by e-mail, last week) as stimulating and interesting as I do.
So you've released a new album, at last!
Just four years after Angels' Abacus... Why all the wait?
Simple question, complex answer! Well,
without boring your readers with the mundane details of my life as an artist
out here in the margins, I can say that I do consider it an unlikely triumph
that I'm actually still doing this after so many years. Especially in this
post-music industry landscape where even the biggest rock stars don't have
the budgets to make albums every year or two. I suppose I have set up a
pattern where what I make public of my music will be more than just archival...
meaning that it's a production that lives in the speakers and is not just
a document of a performance or particular moment in my musical life. So
that production effort is complicated, expensive and requires lots of planning,
stamina and assembling a team who are all busy, working musicians. And
that I wrote much of this music during a time of personal upheaval meant
that I needed to let it sit for quite awhile and marinate. The truth is
that my marriage broke down irretrievably the year after I released Angels'
Abacus and I spent some long months bouncing off walls, zigzagging forward
and trying to become articulate about what I wanted for the rest of my
life even though all I could see ahead of me was a thick fog. I had to
wait until I knew which songs might be universal and which were just the
cries from the bottom of the trench that might be cringeworthy bathos in
6 months time. It's both exhilarating and dangerous to try and mold overwhelming
chaos and uncertainty into something permanent that evokes chaos but is
safely reproduceable. I've never believed that the most immediate expression
is necessarily the best art, and that aesthetic bias probably accounts
for much of the categorization difficulties that my music has encountered
out there. I guess for me what is most interesting is watching the process
of self-renewal take place in an artist through their work... to observe
the artist mopping up the mess. So yeah, I needed to wait until the recovery
was underway so I could make an album that was less like a diary and more
like a drama.
I have to admit that the first time
I listened to the first track on Exchange I thought: "So she's gone
back to Four Walls Bending's 'Prog darkness'", and though it's obviously
too facile a comparison, I'd like you to talk about the way you see the
new album - in terms of musical intention - when compared to such dissimilar
works as Four Walls Bending and Angels' Abacus.
No, I didn't drape these songs in black
capes (though I found a great one for my photos!) but I did explicitly
set out to make an album that was less tidy than Angels' Abacus in every
way. And it would have been, during this period, impossible and dishonest
for me to clean the edges any more than I did. From the moment the first
group of songs emerged in late 2005 and early 2006 I knew I had something
unwieldy and more raw than I had written since Moon In Grenadine, which
seems now in retrospect, of all my albums, to be the most direct precursor
to this one. The songs emerged with angular and aggressive musical ideas
and a huge dynamic shape that I knew I couldn't capture in the computer
with programmed drums or with keyboard arrangements that had a computer-sequenced
digital vibe. So that led me quickly towards the goal of making an album
that was more live-sounding. Which by no means contradicts what I just
told you about my producer's determination to work inside the loudspeakers.
I think the very hardest thing to do is to make a complex sonic production
sound spontaneous and absolutely live. You have to work straight down the
middle of the electroacoustic domain and reconcile the different challenges
of both electronic music and capturing acoustic instruments in their natural
space, like on this album, the strings and horns.
So I won't deny that this album sounds
heavier and darker than Angels' which was lyrically quite dark at times
but sonically pretty effervescent I think. In fact, at one point during
the mixing sessions Justin, who recorded Exchange, forced me to come up
with only three adjectives to describe what I was going for as producer...
not necessarily as performer - a somewhat different set of criteria had
applied to my singing sessions. So I told him "heavy, desperate and
surreal" and we pasted those words on the mixing console! Now any
description is absolutely subjective of course, but what makes a record
'dark'? If the mood is dark here, then it's agitated, anxious depression.
Even at my lowest, I don't really mope around so neither does my music
I suppose. No, this is not a splattered free-for-all explosion but I allowed
moments in every song where something remained out of control, and maybe
that gives it its dark edge because it's not harmonically or melodically
gloomy or particularly dissonant. Above all, for this album I placed total
faith in my impulses. There were no preconceived musical questions that
I wanted to answer and it was all about letting the sound emerge organically
around the song's emotional space and most importantly, inviting the musicians
into that space to inhabit it.
Listening to the new album, I thought
I could perceive a "story", a "tale", of sorts, with
the last track acting almost like a "commentary" to what came
before. Would you mind talking about this (structural) side of the work?
You know, what you said about structure
in your review of Exchange really hit me and confirmed that I may have
done something here that I haven't been able to achieve until now. Yes
I've always been very concerned with form within each song, with making
sure that every successive moment feels inevitable. As a composer, I really
have very simple objectives: it has always been about managing tension
and release and directing the transitions to those plateaus in between.
And that command and control over linear shape can't really be taught and
I rely completely on my emotional reaction to the shifting ideas to tell
me if I'm right. If I get better at it, it's only because I get more obstinately
sure that my intuition would never lie to me!
But I may finally be having success with
larger-scale form and maybe this album will be my jumping off point to
try something much bigger as I've been threatening to do for years now.
If there's an emotional arc here I guess it begins in anger and turmoil (Saturn/Anything)
passes through deep sadness (Lament) and then I think the end of That Dynamite
is the first dramatic peak of the album. It's about capitulation and bravery...
like when I used to swim out in the big surf as a kid in Southern California,
if I saw the 15-foot blue wall heading towards me and if I was too far
out to get back to shore in time, I knew I just had to swim right through
it. And back to the precise imagery of the song, that fearless ride down
the avalanche is liberating. There's a critical point in any transformative
experience where all you have to go on is faith that the next step into
the fog won't be over the cliff and then miraculously it gets easier, and
with some combination of luck and grace, you can hold on to your faith
for the rest of the ordeal. Glory or Crazy might be hope and resilience
and Climb, self-retrieval and confidence? And Winter Moon hmmmm... that
one I still haven't exactly figured out. Maybe Winter Moon is about accepting
that something may always be dark and sad and that's OK. I get very defeated
when I try to turn my bad memories into good ones - to try and find the
silver linings. Sometimes things are just really really horrible and you
need to remember them at their most painful so you can appreciate having
moved on. One more thing, and I've not realized this until you made me
think about structure here, but I now know that Strange Man is the structural
oddball. It's in the very middle of the album because it breaks the action
as a lateral musing, a fantasy of release or something like that. I wrote
it during my second real writing blast for the album, when I sequestered
myself up the coast in Anchor Bay California for a week and took walks
out daily to look over the Pacific and watch the winter waves.
And yes, the song Exchange is the album's
reflective coda... absolutely. I know that this is probably my most theatrical,
my most operatic album, and certainly the curtain closes as Winter Moon
fades out and then me the writer, not the producer/arranger, not the tragic
wronged-heroine, me the writer is left on stage alone reflecting on the
drama. And I think this is more of a literary device than an operatic one...
however, you know I did see a production last year of one of my favorite
operas, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and maybe Isolde's closing soliloquy,
the incredible Liebestod, inspired my choice to close with Exchange? They
say Wagner himself called that aria Verklärung
(Transfiguration). It's an aria and an opera that has inspired many
before me, for sure. I'm always surprised by how often it's not until months
or years later that I can recognize my various influences. A mysterious
Reading the liner
notes I saw that the album was recorded in quite a few different locations.
I'd like to know more about the logistical aspects of this, and the way
the places where you recorded completed/contributed to/helped you redefine
Well compared to my
last recording odyssey in France and England, it sure seemed like I stuck
close to home for this one! Finding Justin Phelps again (he recorded and
mixed Four Walls Bending) was really the catalyst that jump-started the
recording process in 2007. We had been out of touch since before I left
for France in 2001, but I knew he had started up his own studio in SF while
I was out of the country. Out of the blue one night I had this bizarre
dream in which I was observing him record a heavy metal album in some industrial
Mad Max recording studio set on a low rocky cliff over the ocean. The waves
were actually crashing up against the studio walls, which were windows
facing onto the churning sea. Well, a number of weird synchronicities followed
throughout the course of recording the album and I understood why I had
felt compelled to call him the day after the dream and see if he was available
to work with me again.
His real life studio,
as it turned out, was Hyde St. Studio C in San Francisco which he had resuscitated
after a period of dormancy. Studio C in the late 60s and 70s had been the
home of Wally Heider Recording, and The Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful
Dead, Santana, Creedence Clearwater etc. etc. had all made seminal albums
there. It was one of the studios that had defined the San Francisco sound
and as we got going it started to dawn on me that I was making a west-coast
edge of the continent record that referenced so much of the fusion and
70s music I grew up with in California. The vibe in that room was quite
palpable and I needed to honor the history and bring out the latent psychedelia
in my music so I just went with it. And certainly I summoned my inner Grace
Slick for some of the vocals! We also did a bunch of trio recording basics
at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studios, which is ground zero for
the most interesting independent music being made in San Francisco. It's
a studio devoted to great vintage gear and creative production. Some really
great records are being made there. And then for some of the more soloistic
piano parts, I traveled about an hour north of SF to Prarie Sun Studios,
which as you may know is famous for having been Tom Waits' preferred studio
for many years. There I found this beautiful 9 ft. 1964 Baldwin Grand which
was lovingly maintained by a wonderful man who had tuned pianos for the
Dead back in the day. Everything was starting to make sense and it felt
like a very cohesive group of locations actually. Not disparate at all.
To me the new album
sounds very clear, but also "warm", in a way I still call
"analogue". I know that in the past you've worked in both mediums,
and I'd like to know more about the process of recording & mixing the
Because sonics have
improved so so much in digital recording in the past 5 years or so, the
basic tape vs. digital debate is much less relevant these days. It all
comes down to how you manipulate the sound with effects after you record
it. Justin's got a great collection of microphones and he trusts
them and doesn't over-EQ anything as it goes down so we started with pretty
true sound sources. With a few exceptions I think the effects processing
we did in the mix on the vocals and on the instruments was fairly limited
and classic. We stuck with a variety of software plug-in echoes and delays
and poured on just enough sauce to enhance the mood of the track but not
overtake it. The music was so dynamic that it didn't need much extra help
to jump out of the speakers. There's so much you can do now digitally to
exploit and amplify digital glitch and filter artifacts and I really love
those sounds but they weren't going to work for this album if we wanted
to stay somewhere towards the organic end of the electroacoustic spectrum.
Though these arrangements
were not nearly as dense as on Angels' Abacus, it was a much harder album
to mix and halfway through the process I realized that I needed to find
out why I was struggling a bit to get it right. I came to the conclusion
that my singing on this record was far different in general from ever before.
The big directive I had given myself as Producer to Singer in the recording
process was "Do NOT think about how this vocal sound will translate
to tape. Do NOT sing to the mic. Just sing as if you are on stage and recreate
the moment that you are singing about." And it was definitely a harder,
louder, less airy and intimate sound that came out but it was really emotionally
free and the only sound that really fit the songs. In the mix we finally
had to radically scrape away certain midrange frequencies to tame the operatic
2800 KHZ bump and I think we really made it work. Part of being a modern
singer is understanding how to manipulate your sound and breath so that
the microphone loves it. Just like a model pouts for a camera, you can
seduce a microphone with subtle timbral inflections. But for me at least,
it's wickedly hard to blend theatrical, dramatic singing with the naked
naturalism that being very soft and close to the mic can capture. I think
I pull it off somehow, but usually I'm favoring one mode or the other.
The obvious analogy for an actor would be acting on stage versus acting
for film. Fusing those attitudes is very difficult and not always successful.
I don't think that
the expression "all over the map" would be appropriate when
describing the new album, but it's true that it features quite a few
"forms" (or "genres"). Not a wise move, at a time when "changing
channels" in the course of one record equals commercial suicide...
I've so often been asked to define my music
or describe my style and I'm finally coming to the conclusion that I'm
pretty much an impulsive Expressionist. I paint with whatever color I can
grab the quickest to portray the fleeting thought or feeling. It really
is sometimes a matter of where my hands land first on the keyboard or where
my mouse hits the waveform.
You know, I have no
clue at all how my music will be perceived within the context of conventional
genres. So many times I have been sure I have written a jazzy song, or
a very classical song or a pop song and invariably there is a consensus
that it sounds different and I've missed the mark but they 'can't explain
why exactly.' Take for example the rather big-band style song Climb: it
just demanded the swing feel because of the somewhat flippant lyric...
it needed to be as bouncy as possible which I hope gives it a haughty,
retro Dorothy Parker vibe. Swing was the right color to use. But
I know there are very poppy chord voicings in the chorus, and that jazz
singers (unless you are Sarah Vaughan of course) are not allowed to sing
above the staff so you know, it's not real jazz. If I
have access to lots of styles, well, that's my curse. I finally want to
stop apologizing for having a big vocabulary, for being non-reductive,
for being maximal... there are many forces in the music world that make
us feel like we have to defend our breadth. Yes, there may be more acceptance
of 'eclecticism' than ever before but 'eclectic' has become a genre in
itself and if you are not blending the approved combo of flavors for a
particular listener, then you can be heard as hodge-podge at best or unfashionably
quirky at worst rather than as an interesting fusionist. Don't we all want
our music to be appreciated for its own particular subversion of expectations?
For what it IS rather than what is is NOT? That's the hazard of originality.
How it's perceived depends on the way the light hits it in every different
But what I think is finally happening now
in modern music, especially in what used to be called "contemporary
classical" is that the fusion is so deeply embedded in the musical
language that any attempt to dissect the hybrid will fail and you must
accept the music on its own terms as reflecting a new generational imprint.
I think that best describes what I'm doing. What is definitely true is
that I can push things closer to genre with my arranging choices... horns
for example, or an analog synth sound that sounds like a Moog from 1972
or whatever. And yeah there might be nothing more exciting than trying
to do an album of all bigband swing tunes or pure electronica, but if I'm
financing my own albums, I'm going to keep my box stylistically boundless
because that's what thrills me as a writer and feels the most natural and
that is where I do my best work. That's the privilege of not having to
answer to anybody. I guess I do whatever I think I can get away with. At
this point, after working outside of the musical establishment for so long,
I don't feel any pressure to change my course unless it will satisfy my
I'd like to know
more about the musicians who contributed to the album.
I can tell you that
they are all amazing people and all of them have become friends of mine
during this past year while we made the album together. You know my son,
who is now 10, is a budding electric bass player and he was taking this
great rockband class in town called "Bandworks" and I was very
intrigued by their incredible teacher Mark Bernfield, whom I had heard
play drums several years ago but I had never worked with him. Well, all
my instincts said he's the one for this album... he had the range and flexibility
and when I found out that he had studied classical singing and also directs
a choir - the deal was sealed. Finding a drummer who has sung Winterreise...
what are the chances of that? I met bassist Dan Feiszli through Mark
and again, saw him perform and was especially blown away by his acoustic
bass playing and knew I needed to finally approach the acoustic bass for
my songs and I think it's really a highlight on the album, especially on
Winter Moon. He has some hilarious stories to tell about touring with Julio
Iglesias! The horn players are all luminaries in the SF Bay Area. Chris
Grady on trumpet had played so beautifully on Moon in Grenadine and I only
regret it took me so long to find him again. Phillip Greenlief is for me
the most richly expressive sax player around here and he has been a leader
and a supportive force in the creative music scene here for years. I'm
honored to have him on this album as I feel pretty humbled by the scope
of his musical experience and his intellectual depth. And Jen Baker is
a fellow Oberlin grad and she has a solo trombone album with some amazing
multiphonics on it that will come out this fall. I borrowed cellist Beth
Vandervennet from Amy X Neuburg's Cello Chixtet, who are currently recording
Amy's latest masterpiece The Secret Language of Subways which should be
out early next year. Beth is a luminous musical person and plays in many
local symphonies and also has a chamber-rock group called Rosin Coven.
Violinist Alan Lin is a kindred spirit, whom I have known and admired for
years through his work with the stunning songwriter Noe Venable, who's
now in Boston. He is a totally empathic player and I don't think I've ever
played with anyone who so rapidly 'gets' the heart of a piece of music
and can contribute so much so immediately. And one of my oldest and dearest
colleagues, Michael Ross, plays guitar here but he has been such a deep
source of wisdom and advice for me since the days of my first SF band,
the Potato Eaters in the early 90s. He's composing some beautiful
electronic music now too and is the first person I turn to when I have
an artistic crisis and need to find some perspective and a bunch of great
new books to read or albums to hear.
I imagine you financed
the album yourself. Last time we talked, we discussed the whole downloading
phenomenon, and its impact on independent artists. I'm quite curious
about your point of view about this, four years later.
as usual, as is the case now for most of the musicians I know who are still
recording music here in the SF Bay Area. These days I have to say that
I see this issue framed in a much more serious and urgent economic reality.
It's not at all surprising to me that a society addicted to living beyond
its means, indebted up to its eyeballs, should not want to pay up front
for the music it now equates with water coming out of the tap. The most
obvious outcome is that labor and rehearsal-intensive music will get recorded
much less frequently. So, less performed music, more laptop voyagers in
their bedrooms. I can't make any judgements about quality here - some of
the greatest art in history has emerged to adapt to a big technological
or social shift. It comes down to economics, no matter what we lofty artsy
types want to idealize. If recorded music is free it has to be cheap to
produce or it won't get made. Or there will be much less of it because
the musicians will only have 2 hours a day to work on it if they are lucky.
For me, nothing is more relevant to this discussion than how can we as
artists make work that people will value enough to pay for? I suspect that
eventually there will be a very fractured new commerce model and it is
already emerging. You will have small communities of listeners who are
dedicated to preserving the output of an artist or a music scene because
they understand that it is their NEED rather than their WANT. There will
be localized patronage and that little micro-economy of artists and consumers
will sustain itself well but it might be a very insular group that investigates
ideas from other groups but has little economic relationship with them.
They'll take their wants for free and pay for their needs. The period from
maybe 1965-2000 when fortunes were made from rock 'n roll was a total historical
anomaly throughout all of music history, wasn't it? It seems more and more
like the last babylonian blowout of the empire.
Maybe it's time here
to answer that question you asked in your email to me last week! You said
something like "what is going on over there in America? ...it looks like sci-fi to me... Palin the barracuda lady!" You know that I don't get political or topical in my music
very often, at least not obviously so, but I'll tell you what it looks
like from inside the house of cards here. No, it's not news that America
is in deep decline, but now the bricks are really falling off the edifice
fast and anyone who is paying attention should be freaked-out and outraged.
I've been following the manipulations of this credit collapse closely for
the past year... it actually has been a mini-obsession of mine to understand
the insane geopolitics of our times and it has helped me get some perspective
on my own struggles. If you want to talk about the word Exchange and very
very dark things: the high rollers are calling the action and the Wall
Street casinos are now being bailed out by our nearly bankrupt US Treasury.
Plutocracy is making a loud gear-shift into kleptocracy and the country
is distracted by an ex beauty-queen who wants to drill and savage the Alaskan
wilderness and believes global warming can't possibly be our fault?! Yes,
it feels cinematically absurd, sci-fi indeed. I can't yet imagine a near-term
solution where there is any money left to improve education or healthcare
in this country, either from private or public sources, let alone support
the arts. If Obama wins (pray pray pray) he will have his hands full trying
to stay current on the monthly interest payments to China and Dubai and
trying to keep our ghettos from exploding. Sorry for the doom and gloom
but I think it's not relevant or appropriate right now for me to worry
too much about how I expect to make any money from copyrights or whether
musicians should expect some kind of renewed State support in the age of
free digital music. That may be the only patriotic outburst you'll get
from me so I hope that made some sense.
Anyway what do we do
as musicians do about it? I guess the most powerful statement I can make
is to just keep on making my music. I'll keep trying to add a bit of beauty
to the world and hope that whatever small impact it has will soften the
blow for someone. Not that I see my music as a palliative, but if I am
to be political it has to be on a personal level, inspiring personal courage.
I'll leave it to the Radioheads the U2s and the Ragers against Machines
to be the activists and the organizers. I don't have that platform.
As we speak, the
new album is barely out. How's the feedback, up to this point?
Not too much feedback
yet outside of the progressive rock community who seem to be embracing
it warmly and this really makes me happy. I have found the most open-eared
listeners in and around the fringes of the art-rock scene and I think it's
because they demand to be both intellectually entertained and hit with
a sonic pleasure-bomb at the same time, you know? And they also welcome
the drama and theatricality of my music. It's a community of musicians
and fans who have really endured a lot of insults and derision from the
mainstream music world since the late 70s, and I think there's a warrior
spirit there that has helped to keep the genre and all its varieties alive.
I've heard some comments that this seems to be a more complex album than
my previous ones and I'm not sure yet if I agree. I have never intended
to be difficult to understand, but if someone is thrilled by the challenge
of decoding my music I consider that a great success as a composer. It's
an honor that someone would be willing to invest their time in my music
beyond their first, possibly perplexing, exposure to it. No matter what,
I always try to remember that acceptance or disapproval is usually a matter
Having caught you
live two years ago, I'm curious about any chances of any live work. Do
you plan touring this album?
One thing I know for
sure is that this album is performable in a way that Angels' Abacus was
not. I can get close to the recorded sound with a small group and there
is more freedom and openness in the songs and they are only going to get
richer and more dynamic and interactive the more we play this live. So
that's encouraging to me and yes of course I would love to tour, I would
love to be in demand as a performer and have some nice opportunities. You
saw us at the Malta jazz festival! What a spectacular venue there next
to the ancient ramparts - that was a dream gig for me and I would really
hope to get back to Europe next summer and finally play in France and Italy,
where I know there might be an audience for my music...Verdi, Debussy,
Bellini, Puccini, Ravel, Messiaen... it’s in the water!
The hard reality is
that a combination of economics, the massive competition for even small
gigs in places like NYC, and the fact that without some big leap "onto
the musical map" I won't be able to get a booking agent to help me
organize anything... all those things make it extremely costly and difficult
for me to tour. It may soon come down to a decision about whether I want
to spend the next year banging on doors to tour, or do I want to write
and record more music soon, releasing it perhaps at a faster pace, in smaller
and shorter bursts. The music scene here in the San Francisco Bay Area
is stronger and more exciting than it has been in a while and I'm optimistic
that there will be more venues emerging that are suitable for what I do.
We are, and have always been, a bit of a provincial satellite, in the best
sense of that metaphor. We don't have the same pressures to be internationally
relevant here as one may have in NYC or London and that ensures creative
freedom for many of us. Anything really does Go here and artists who are
in it for the love and beauty of it will find a way to keep doing it and
we'll somehow be found by the small communities that encourage us to keep
creating and challenging ourselves.
© Beppe Colli 2008
| Sept. 16, 2008