US release date: 7 May 2002
Here’s hoping students at Kent State and New York University enrolled in Florence Dore’s literature classes know how lucky they are.
By day, their instructor is an English scholar with a Ph.D. from Berkeley and a specialization in American literature, who discusses with them the finer points of, say, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But after hours, she’s one of the most compelling new singer/songwriters in alt.country, a genre with little tolerance for marginal songwriters. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure it out. Just listen to her debut album, Perfect City.
Her voice has drawn apt comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Cheri Knight though Dore’s punk edge is always close to the surface. Her songwriting is fresh, a fascinating blend of folk, country, and punk (when’s the last time you heard “synapse” in a song? More on that later). From the opening guitar riff of “Early World” to the closer “Wintertown (For Kent, OH)” (a memoriam for the students killed at Kent State in May 1970), Perfect City just doesn’t miss. Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Steve Earle, Bottle Rockets, Blood Oranges, etc.) has the perfect production touch for this project, knowing how to showcase Dore’s tough, twangy sound. In the band, as they have been for the last five years, are Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken, bassist Scott Yoder, and guitarist Chris Erikson, a college friend from Wesleyan University who has worked with Dore for the last decade—and sings with her on the rockabilly duet “Everything I Dreamed”. (Ambel also added his own guitar and keyboards to the mix.)
But Perfect City took some time to build. Dore’s relationship with Ambel began in 1996 after she sent him her No Nashville Tonight demo with “No Nashville”, “Stay the Same”, and “Framed”. It was a recording she describes as “raw”.
“He liked the demo”, Dore explains, “and I really appreciate Roscoe for that reason. I mean, he didn’t know me that well, but he just has an ear. That’s very validating, to send somebody a very raw—some of those songs are just me and the acoustic guitar—and he’s able to think ahead to what they would sound like produced. He does a really good job of that; I’m really in awe of his ability to imagine what something should sound like ahead of time. I learned a lot from him that way, but it’s really crucial for a songwriter to have somebody who can do that, you know, because you have to start somewhere”.
While all this was going on, she was finishing her Ph.D. and beginning her academic career. At this point, Dore says, “I found myself in the middle of it, and I didn’t know how to do any of it, so I basically, at some point just said, ‘You know what? Fuck it. I need to make the record’.”
So she took a year off from teaching at Kent State for a Post-doc at New York University. (She’s made clear that she was happy teaching at Kent State and playing in Cleveland, but she accepted the NYU fellowship for the academic experience and studio access.)
After getting to New York, things happened quickly. “I wasn’t even living in my apartment yet”, Dore says. “Roscoe was going on the road with Steve Earle, and so he was not going to be here for long stretches. So I thought what we would do was whenever he was in town just go into the studio for a day or two—I guess this started in August . We did a day. Then I was just anxious to do it, to finish it, so we scheduled two week-long sessions or something like that. Maybe it was three days here and four days there. We basically finished in January of last year”.
Dore has been a long-time fan of Ambel’s studio work: “I love Roscoe’s production. I’m a big Cheri Knight fan, and I think that her first record, The Knitter, sounds really great, and the Blood Oranges stuff Ñ I was a big fan of his production. And I don’t really know anything about production”.
Plus, Dore’s interests really don’t extend to behind the soundboard.
“I for know a lot of musicians-singer/songwriters, it’s important to them to be co-producers and to be part of that, and it’s not at all important to me”, she says. “I really don’t know how Roscoe does it. I just really like everything he’s produced. I guess part of the reason I’m not a producer is that I don’t even know how to say what I like about it. It just rocks. And it’s very simple, to me, but not boring. He manages to get a certain energy. I think there’s a certain rawness and edginess that he’s able to capture that a lot of producers kind of smooth out”.
Clearly, the garage-band sound is front and center on Perfect City. Nothing on the album is privileged in the mix, including Dore’s voice which becomes another crucial component of the ensemble, but not more important than, say, the guitar.
“I’ll tell you a good studio story with Roscoe”, Dore says by way of illustration. “You know the song ‘Wintertown’, about Kent State? I like the way it came out, and it’s definitely because of Roscoe. He just gets into the vibe of the song, and he really figures out what it is and hears it and feels it and is able to direct the band. The kind of plodding beat, very on-the-money beat of that song? He was describing it to the band while we were doing the basic tracks and the overdubs, actually, as ‘Everybody, just put your foot in the hole in the snow’. He’s from the Midwest, you know? So he knows what deep snow is like. And that’s a little bit of what the song is about. It’s about finding something that beautiful and finding the holes that somebody else has made in the snow, to put your feet in it. It was incredible. It was a whole new image that doesn’t even come from the song, but he was so in the vibe of the song, he almost wrote another part to it to stay with the vibe of it while we were recording it. That’s what I think is brilliant about Roscoe”.
Florence Dore’s “Early World”
En route to her current careers, Dore has lived in a number of “perfect cities”: Nashville, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Cleveland, and New York. “I grew up in Nashville”, she remembers, “and, in retrospect, I guess I was around a lot of music. I never really thought that that was going on while it was, but in the 70s, I just didn’t think it was unusual to be taken to a Linda Ronstadt concert when I was Ñ I don’t even know how old I was. Seven, maybe? Maybe nine? I got removed from my third-grade class once to see Johnny Cash at Opryland. My mom was a hippie, kind of, and a radical, and all her friends were kind of Ð we lived in a big house, and we had a tenant in the attic, and she played guitar. There just was a lot of music around. I got really inspired”.
As examples, Dore cites her mother’s Beatles records (she still has her mother’s copy of Let It Be), the Band, Joan Baez, and the Byrds, in addition to Cash and Ronstadt.
Soon, she went from listening to playing.
“I started playing music and making up songs when I was a child about seven or eight years old”, Dore says. “I got a guitar when I was ten, I guess. And I just really, really wanted to learn how to play. I don’t even know where I found this book. My mom was a real packrat, well, she still is, and it just seemed to breed junk, and one of the items that I located in that house Ñ I don’t know. Maybe I bought it, but I don’t think so Ñ was just a book on how to play the guitar, so I just taught myself, and I would just make up songs”.
It was an art Dore would continue to explore: “I always was in to it, and I sang at school, and I sang in choruses and stuff like that. And then, you know, I played guitar, played guitar and then went to college and got into a rock band”.
But before college, another significant influence on Dore’s singing was a group she belonged to while enrolled in a Washington D.C. high school: “I was in a madrigal band there Ñ I think we were singing sixteenth-century madrigals. My music teacher was, like, ‘Oh, you can sing’, so she and I and this other girl who could sing in my high school did these madrigals that were really fun to do, and those, I swear to God, those taught me how to sing harmony because they’re really little tight, three-part pieces with just three people singing”.
In the ‘80s, while living in Boston, Dore sang with a number of punk bands as she did while living in San Francisco where she belonged to the Mudsills, a roots-rock band. Dore is quick to describe the influence of Lucinda Williams: “I was playing punk rock music in Boston in the 80s when that Lucinda Williams record came out, and I heard, actually, weirdly, on the radio a song Ñ I still remember it Ñ I was actually on my way to the Y. It was, like, Sunday, and I was listening to the radio, and I heard ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk’, and I was, like, ‘Gosh, who was that? That sounds great’.”
Laughing, she adds, “I was already secretly listening to Loretta Lynn and female vocalists, basically who are not cool at that time, or at least I didn’t know that they were, but then I heard that, and I left the Y Ñ I did not go there Ñ I wrote down the name. Actually, I think I called the radio station and asked, ‘What was that’? And they said, ‘Lucinda Williams, and she has a new record’. I went and bought it, and I was just fucking obsessed. I was so into it”.
It was, according to Dore, “emotionally driven but rootsy female vocalists who made music seemed doable in a new way. . . . That was just a great time. That was when I started writing songs, I would say. I mean, I was writing songs in the bands I was in, but that’s when I started writing my own songs; I just started doing my own country-influenced stuff at that time”.
Songwriting: “Say the Thing”
For Dore, studying literature was a natural: “It’s just me. It’s how my mind works. It’s associative; it’s reading; it’s engaging with the beauty of language, words, emotion, psychology, and fiction. It’s totally who I am. And so that’s what I was drawn to”. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she says she went to graduate school “because I was missing something—I think there is something musical in literature that I wanted to be engaging with all the time”.
While her songwriting is clearly very literate, Dore’s academic study seldom has an overt influence on her music though she shares one example.
“The only one I know that in a conscious way I’ve been thinking of in a conscious way while I was writing was Faulkner”, Dore says. “I was writing one chapter of my dissertation on Sanctuary, and I was thinking, really, sort of deeply about the way that time works in that book and the way that Faulkner fucks with time. And it’s a really fun and interesting thing to look at and think about, and so I guess that, the way that he thinks of time I thought of in my own work. So, like, in ‘Perfect City’, the verse ‘the birds fly on strings / I want to keep you here’, it’s like that place is frozen. And that’s not a good place to be. A lot of tension in Faulkner’s novels emerges from a conflict between trying to make time do what you want it to, trying to force time to do what you want it to because allowing it to pass on its own feels really disastrous and scary. I can relate to that on an emotional level. I think that’s almost infantile Ñ not in a derisive way. That’s how people grow up, in a way, is to realize that you don’t have to have control over things and you have to just let them be. That’s the one thing that I can say I’ve taken from Faulkner”.
Dore has a number of songwriting strategies: “Sometimes I think of a phrase; sometimes a whole song just comes to me in a flash, and that’s great because it just takes very little work. I’m always really skeptical that the song’s gonna suck when that happens”, she laughs, “but it’s not true”.
A case in point is “No Nashville”, a song Dore says, “just emerged”. She adds, “It’s not that I didn’t work on it after it came out, but it came out really fast, and the melody and everything, and you can tell because it’s weird Ñ the structure of it’s a little weird. It’s not like a normal verse-chorus-verse-chorus thing; it’s got a little oddness to it. And so those are the ones that, I think, come from a weird place Ñ a good thing. I like that”.
She continues, “So sometimes that happens; sometimes I think of a phrase that feels like I want to build something around it, and sometimes. Well, ‘No Nashville Tonight’. That phrase was from a friend of my mom’s who died, and the guy who I was going out with at the time said after she died, ‘You need to write that story into a song’. So I did because it’s a beautiful phrase”.
“That’s the kind of thing that’s not intentional at all, the waltz”, Dore says. “Actually, a drummer one time pointed out to me that I write in threes. Naturally, that’s what happens Ñ or often, that’s what comes to me. So I’m not trying to accomplish anything there; that’s just how it happened”.
One of the most interesting tracks on Perfect City is surely “Brain,” a song Dore discusses at length. “That is one that did come from ‘I miss you like a synapse’,” she says. “I thought of that line and just cracked up, like ‘Oh my God’! Then I was like, ‘Well, what’s that song about’? I don’t always like to reveal that there are intellectual roots to some songs, but that one, I was actually reading this book by J. L. Austin called How to Do Things with Words where he talks about performative speech, and he’s basically saying that there are certain things you can say that actually do things, but what I became interested in was what he called ‘misfires’, which is when things don’t fire properly. And so the synapse misfiring, ‘I miss you like a synapse’. I then thought of “misfire” in that Austinian sense where things don’t connect, and so the song just is a list of shit that doesn’t connect. It’s about a break-up”.
Another stand-out track is “Christmas”, which was covered by the Posies in 1996 for their Just Say Noel album (Geffen). “I was so excited and quite honored that they covered it”, Dore says. “I feel like it’s just an incredible honor when somebody likes your song enough to cover it, especially enough even to cover it on an album. That’s just a raw, emotional song. That’s just a song about feelings”.
As for the future, well, Dore’s hoping she gets to spend more time with her guitar and music than with her red pen and student essays.
“I’m gonna tour this record and make some more”, she says. “I used to have a different response [to questions about leaving the Academy]. I was like, ‘No, no. I could never choose. They’re both so wonderful’.”
Now, however, her choice of an academic career is less certain. “If I were ever given the chance to not have to have a job, I would jump at it. I like to read, and I like to think, and I like to teach, and those are all things I could do, even if I didn’t have a job”.
Laughing, she adds, “So, yeah, having to be employed in this life sucks!”
Then again, there’s the reality of paying bills, something Dore readily acknowledges.
“I think Lucinda Williams probably does not have a day job, but you either just go broke or you have a day job”, she says. “It costs money to play music Ñ that’s what the world needs to know. I’m in debt from playing music. It sucks. That’s what ‘Early World’, a part at least of that one’s about”.
So to pay the bills, Dore continues to teach and publish. Right now, she’s working on an academic book, an expansion of her dissertation about censorship, she describes as “on the way . . . a slow, slow moving train . . .”
How does she manage it all?
“I was telling somebody that there was a moment right before South by Southwest where I thought I don’t know if I can do this”, Dore laughs. “I was in the middle of the beginnings of picking up the threads of an argument for an article that I’m trying to finish, and I had to drop everything to go to South By. And I was really bummed about it, but then South By was really fun, and I came back and picked them up again. It was, basically, twice as much work, but I’m not going to not do music. You know: Just deal with it. My book is, I guess, going along. And every now and then, I’m like, ‘Fuck, I’d be publishing so much more if I weren’t doing music’. But you know what? I don’t care”.