Baby Dee is steadfast in her desire to avoid an interview focusing on her life history. “Who cares? What a bore!” cackles the singer-songwriter-pianist-harpist.
Bowing to her request, the conversation steers clear of such potentially boring topics as her days as a harp-playing bear in Central Park and Paris; a tricycle-riding accordion-playing cat; a Catholic church organist; a “bilateral hermaphrodite” at a Coney Island sideshow, and a Kamikaze Freakshow performer who lay on broken glass while concrete slabs were broken over her head with a sledge hammer.
Her transgendered status is another non-starter during this chat from Hastings, about two hours south of London, where Dee is visiting friend and musical collaborator David Tibet.
Instead, the fiftysomething performer - “I never reveal my birth name! ... Wikipedia can go to hell!” - chooses to discuss the last eight years of her life, when she became a recording artist.
“I always wanted to write music, but I was always too tied up in knots,” says Dee, who was raised, along with a brother and sister, in an Irish household in a blue-collar neighborhood by the railroad tracks on “the steel side” of Cleveland. “It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I found I could write songs. I always thought to write music, you had to be a composer.”
After living in New York for 30 years - she first moved there when she was 18 to study painting on scholarship at the Art Students League - Dee moved back to Cleveland. “I went to visit my mom (Eileen) and wound up getting stuck there,” she says. “My father (Miles) had Alzheimer’s, and mom was pretty old herself. Plus, she was being screwed blind by all these home health aides and social workers. So I stayed.”
After her father died, she moved in with her mom. “Here I was in my 40s and living with my mother,” she says. “It felt awful.”
By tapping into those feelings she came up with the songs on her first two (and now out-of-print) discs for Tibet’s Durtro label - 2000’s “The Little Window” and 2001’s “Love’s Small Song,” respectively. Last year, they were repackaged as “The Robin’s Tiny Throat.”
That set the stage for her new “Safe Inside The Day” CD, which she and her four-piece band are showcasing on tour. A love-it-or-hate-it kind of record, “Safe Inside The Day” generated a buzz months before it was released on Jan. 22. Musically it suggests a wide range of offbeat artists - Rufus Wainwright, Randy Newman, Kurt Weill, Pere Ubu’s David Thomas and (gulp!) Tiny Tim. And more often than not, Dee’s torchy, one-of-a-kind vocalizing and poetic songwriting convey rubbed-raw emotion, sublime feelings of transcendence and even creepy fun.
Dee says “Safe Inside The Day” was not the album she intended to make. Originally she wanted to re-record the nine or 10 songs she did for an EP that was part of a 2004 package called “A Book of Songs for Anne Marie.”“Only 150 copies of that book were made,” says Dee. “The lyrics (to the songs) were typed to look like poetry. The (EP) was almost like a field recording. I went into the studio, sang through the song in one take and sent it to David (Tibet).”
But Dee’s “Safe Inside The Day” co-producer, indie-rocker Will Oldham, a k a Bonnie “Prince” Billy, urged her to record new material, a suggestion she initially resisted.
“Those songs are from a very dark place,” explains Dee. “Putting lyrics like that out in the world is like dropping a tree on someone’s house.”
Dee knows firsthand the devastation caused by a tree dropping on someone’s house. After “A Book of Songs” was completed, she quit the music business - “I just wanted to be an amateur musician” - and became a “tree climber” - “I always loved being up high” - with her own pruning business.
While preparing to bring down a large fir or pine tree in Cleveland, “a freaky wind came from nowhere and knocked the tree in the wrong direction,” says Dee. “It came crashing down on this lady’s house. It was a very scary thing, and I was responsible. I was in tears. The woman came up and put her arm around me and said, `Everything happens for a reason.’ That was the end of my tree-climbing career, and the end of my business.”
Dee says she paid “thousands of dollars out of pocket” for repairs, and was left “completely broke.”
After the accident, “I sent an e-mail that day telling everyone that I wanted to be a musician again. That’s how I met (Oldham). David (Tibet) is a real good friend of Will’s, so a month or two later I opened for him in Cleveland.”
When a planned tour fell through, Dee returned to tree climbing, working for someone else for six months. “That company did nothing but monsters,” says Dee, who was last in a tree in December 2005. “You’re 60 feet in the air, and tied to what you’re cutting.”
Dee’s resistance to recording the songs that became “Safe Inside The Day” melted after hearing “Fresh Out of Candles,” a tale of icons brought low, augmented by musicians Oldham, Matt Sweeney, Andrew WK, Robbie Lee, Max Moston (Antony and the Johnsons), Bill Breeze (Psychic TV), John Contreras (Current 93) and James Lo (Chavez).
“They created this whole beautiful thing out of this hideous, horrible, hateful song,” says Dee. “They did the same with these other songs. All of sudden, I thought that dark place might not turn out to be so dark and ugly if I’m not doing it alone.”
“Safe Inside’s” most chilling moment is a spooky fairly tale called “The Earlie King.” “It’s based on a poem by Goethe (‘Der Erlkonig,’ about the final hallucinatory moments of a child dying in its father’s arms). It’s this badass spirit sending children to their doom, a very dark, dark thing, but I like it,” says Dee. “I knew it from when I was a child. It was set to music by Schubert. ... It was a very important song for me for personal reasons I don’t want to go into.”
“The Only Bones That Show” and “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities” draw directly from Dee’s life. The former uses tree-climbing terminology to discuss the precariousness of living, while the latter, a Bowiesque cabaret number, uses a smashed piano as a metaphor for love let loose and the possibility of rebirth. The song’s piano smashers, Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss, were the young Dee’s real-life Cleveland neighbors who obliterated their keyboard with an ax on the sidewalk.
“They were bums, guys in their 30s, dumb and harmless,” she says. “They really wanted not to have a piano. That was their dream. So the whole neighborhood got together to make their dream come true.”