This Is Life: An Interview with Jarboe


By Liz Ohanesian

It will hit you when you hear “Angel Jim (Low Rider Mix)”, the fourth song on the second disc of The Men Album. Prior to that, you will notice the force with which former Swans vocalist Jarboe sings, the way in which her voice can mold itself to fit the work of her numerous and diverse collaborators on this latest project. You will listen to the thirteen songs that precede this track and you will note that the album revolves around the theme of men, women and relationships. The journey is obvious. But that bleakest moment in the heroine’s journey, that moment so roiled with despair that you, the listener, are not quite sure that there will be a revelation, even though the revelation appeared earlier and will reappear throughout the course of the work, is “Angel Jim”.

It begins simply enough, a thick bass solo giving way to a 4/4 rhythm topped by acoustic guitars and Jarboe’s soprano voice. It is, in a sense, not terribly different from what you might hear at the local house club. Paz Lenchatin (of A Perfect Circle) appears, whispering something barely decipherable to the person with a high-school-level grasp of Spanish, but, according to Jarboe, translates to “Oh my Angel, I am on my knees before you.” Lenchatin’s vocals then intertwine with those of Jim Thirwell, his voice more menacing then ever recorded on a Foetus record. Only half-apologetic, he relates, “In my ignorance, I slapped her shut.” He commands, “Get on your knees.” Glass breaks. Lenchatin screams. The song that you thought might accompany you through bedroom-dancing as you prepare for your night out now becomes the piece that will invade your thoughts as you try to sleep.

“The content is something that is not even that horrific or profound, but it’s coming across in this way where you are kind of listening to it and realizing what it is, you get a different message,” Jarboe explains. “I’m kind of like the Marvin Perkins on the song. I’m intentionally setting up the story and then the two of them take center stage and do their little back-and-forth chat or interaction. Like a vignette or a movie scene. I did that intentionally so that it was like now we are going into this world and here it is. Jim was really, I thought, great with what he did, especially at the end when he was just like, ‘Get on your knees!’”

The Men Album is the result of more than half a decade of working with collaborators ranging from Iva Davies, the Australian composer/songwriter who led his former band Icehouse to a late ‘80s US pop hit with “Electric Blue,” to Einsturzende Neubauten founder Blixa Bargeld and the prolific, psychedelic-influenced iconoclast Edward Ka-Spel of Legendary Pink Dots. For Jarboe, working with collaborators comes naturally. She spent a 14-year period working with creative/romantic partner Michael Gira in the now-legendary experimental rock outfit Swans, who released twenty albums together before the demise of both the band and personal relationship. In the years since the dissolution of Swans, Jarboe has worked with Neurosis, Italian group Larsen, and others in addition to releasing five solo albums. Despite her background in collaborative work, The Men Album proved to be a trying experience as it involved piecing together the schedules and contributions of numerous international artists and dealing with a wealth of her own ideas, many of which were eventually scrapped. This is the completely logical rationale for spending six years on one album. For Jarboe, though, there is also a conceptual explanation for the length of time involved in creating The Men Album.

“The conceptual answer is that six years was the length of time of a relationship that I had where I went through a lot of upheaval,” Jarboe says candidly. “This was a relationship that I had post-Michael [Gira] and myself. It was a fascinating kind of journey and it helped me to really examine myself as a person, as a woman. I examined a lot of issues and went to some type of therapy over it, some counseling, and kind of got to the heart of the nature of myself in terms of relationships.”

Like the heroine’s journey, The Men Album can be divided into stages, although the tale that unfolds is not linear, nor is it exactly a story. It is, rather, a piece based on certain real-life incidents within a relationship and the subsequent revelations. Certain key points are reiterated throughout the course of the album in the form of multiple versions of “Feral”, “Angel”, and “This is Life”, the resolution wherein the heroine learns that she can only be responsible for herself and her own reactions to her partner’s behavior.

“It starts out with this sense of looking for somebody to fulfill you and that was ‘To Forget’ and ‘Found’. Then it comes to ‘Angel’, which is the woman blaming herself for the failure of the relationship. Then it comes to ‘Feral’, which is the relationship has ended so it is so painful that you are wild. You are like a wild beast inside your sorrow and mourning.”

Jarboe is at once apprehensive and open, her hair falling in front of her face as she turns her head slightly away from the recorder and explains the evolution of the album.

“That relationship was six years from start to finish. The whole thing was inspired by this man and this experience. The lyrics to ‘This is Life’ came out of the therapy sessions that I had, which is your responsibility is to you. You’re talking about him, let’s talk about you. Let’s start focusing on you, not was this person thinks about you, not that you are not meeting this person’s standards. Do you know what I mean? You’re giving all the power to someone else. Why are you doing that?

“The nature of the relationship didn’t start out this way. It’s not the particular man that is the issue, it’s what I experienced through it and what I learned had been a pattern throughout my life. It is something very unpleasant, but I think that is a reality of life, and that is an abusive relationship.”

The Men Album was inspired in part by Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft, a counselor whose area of expertise is domestic abuse. Bancroft’s book explores physical and verbal battery from the abuser’s point of view, ultimately identifying various types of abusive males. In Jarboe’s work, this influence culminates in the juxtaposition of male and female perspectives throughout the course of the album as a way to explain and understand the nature of the abusive relationship.

“When you go through a relationship like that, generally they are controlling and manipulative and they will tell you what is wrong with you. You will never be good enough—your clothes, your hair, the way you speak. You will never meet up to their standards. You are ridiculed and criticized repeatedly. So, if you are like me and you are a perfectionist and you push, push, push, and work, work, work all the time and there is nothing outside of work, there is no you outside of work, then you are really susceptible to criticism and manipulation and you are vulnerable when you give your trust to someone else. I went through this and it was the inspiration behind the lyrics and behind the path that this album takes. That is why there is a repeating theme of ‘This Is Life’, with different versions of it.”

Jarboe points to “Your Virgin Martyr”, an acoustic guitar driven number written and performed by Nic Le Ban, as the heart of the album. Throughout the song, Jarboe sings, “There are males, but never men.”

“That is a theme that Lundy Bancroft talks about, you call these guys males, but they are never men.”

On the early-2006 tour that brought Jarboe to the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles, she opted not to showcase many of the work emanating from The Men Album. Her nine-song performance in Los Angeles included only “To Forget” and “This Is Life.” She made this choice primarily because of a desire to “explore” newer material and much of her earlier work, such as the Michael Gira-penned Swans numbers “You’re Not Real Girl” and “Please Remember Me” and her own Swans-related response to the hype surrounding Women in Rock phenomenon of the 1990s, “Deflowered”. However, one has to wonder if work inspired by such a painful period of her life is incredibly difficult to translate into a live performance.

“When I first started doing a version of ‘Feral’ live, it was in 2003 with the band Larsen ... Yeah, boy, I was so close to the subject matter then that it was pretty much fighting back tears every night doing it.

“There were some people in San Diego last night who had seen me on that tour in Boston and were talking about how I held out these notes in such a long, it was just impossible, time. I remember why I was doing that. It was a matter of emotions overriding your body, like a person that is in an emergency and suddenly they can do something that they can’t physically do. It was one of those things that I was just so emotion-driven that I was doing supernatural things.”

Backed by John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune/Ludicra) on acoustic guitar and Renee Nelson (Envie) on piano and backing vocals, Jarboe performs with the same intimate connection that she has in an interview setting. At one point, she teetered on the edge of the stage, the tightly-packed crowd inching in towards her as she raised one arm towards the ceiling and dropped her head for a moment, hair falling forward to only slightly mask the furrowed brow that conveyed as much pain as her voice did while it slowly lowered octave by octave.

“I prefer to work in the audience,” she says. “I prefer to go off the stage and be in the audience and let the band be in the lights. I prefer to be with the people, like this voice from the dark. That’s where I feel the most comfortable.”

She is maintaining the sort of musician-listener relationship that she held from the opposite end as a child.

“I think that I was such an outsider and so lonely and so rejected and not accepted as a child that I had to go into my own interior world for any kind of companionship and acceptance,” she confesses. “I did it through songs and through music alone. I had no peer group. I didn’t really have any friends. I was the kid who read books and studied and was really good in English ... So, music was the only friend I think I had. Music and books.”

Amongst the music and books that comprised Jarboe’s inner circle during her formative years were collections of by and about the late diva Maria Callas.

“When I read about her life and the fact that people, in general, said that when she performed onstage she defined those roles and that she wasn’t performing those roles in the operas, she became those characters. She created them in such a way that no one could even touch it. She became the defining personification and she was frighteningly real when she would sing and perform in these operas.”

That “frighteningly real” quality Callas brought to the opera houses of the world, the one that could cause tears to well and skin to quiver, is one that Jarboe echoes on the rock concert stage. In her realm, Jarboe is an enigmatic spirit with a disciplined voice that carries every bit of visceral urgency as the most uncontrolled rock performer. It is a sound that took Jarboe, whose background prior to Swans was in choral and jazz styles, years to cultivate.

“I had to unlearn proper singing technique and pronunciation,” she says. “There is a tremendous difference between the vernacular of jazz and choral work and the way Michael Gira molded me. I think Michael Gira is the one who made me a ‘rock’ singer. He told me, ‘Drop your g’s.’ It’s not ‘going into,’ it’s ‘gonna go.’ ‘Drop your consonants and relax.’ He said to me, ‘You’re an American, sing like an American.’ He really ripped into my singing style and changed it around for me.

“I think when I first started singing for Michael, I was singing the way that a lot of, perhaps today, quasi-goth singers would sing. They all sing like they are from England and over-pronounce their words. I think I was like that very formal approach. He stripped it down and made it less trained-sounding. He introduced breath into my singing style, which is the incorrect way from which I was taught technique. I had to completely open my mind to breaking the rules.”

While formal training served as an impediment in recording Swans classics like “In My Garden,” from the 1987 album Children of God, a fairly ambient piece that required Jarboe to “sing like a flute”, it came in handy during the early years of Swans to create the band’s layered sound. “I did a lot of choral background vocals, high soprano. It sounds like a whole choir. It’s all me, multi-tracking over and over again. Pre-computer, not sampled or anything like that, so, I would have to hit these really high notes and do harmonies.”

“He was an amazing, amazing teacher for me, vocally,” Jarboe says of her former partner. “I think that to this day, he still informs my work. He was doing things before he started sitting down and playing acoustic guitar like he does now, when I was playing the sample keyboard. We were very loud. At one point, we were called the loudest band in the world. He was doing things that were very performance artist. He would strip. He would be essentially nude except for his white t-shirt wrapped around his front and was very physical with his body onstage, writhing around and stuff. I just got off a European tour doing that myself with a full rock band as my band. I wasn’t trying to be like Michael. I must have subliminally been so impressed by Michael in those days because it comes to me very naturally. I consider him the greatest teacher a performer could have.”

In several previous interviews, Jarboe has mentioned that, while working with Swans, she opted to stay in the background. In the years that have passed since the band’s demise, she has had to overcome the insecurity that follows a solo venture.

“I remember thinking, gosh, I had the security of Swans backing me when I sang with Swans,” she says of her earliest solo outings. “How could you do your own thing when you don’t have this army with you? I was very frightened. When we were in New York, The Kitchen, which is a very well-known performance venue in New York City, asked me it must have been three times to do a show on my own. This was before I had ever done a show on my own. I never did it. I regret that now. I never did it because I was too terrified of the idea of doing it ... Now, it’s so natural.”

For Jarboe, creating an intensely personal connection with her audience has been crucial to developing her style as a solo artist. “The stage to me is just like if you come over to my house. It’s very relaxed. I don’t have any airs or pretension. There is no wall between me and the audience. I try to relax and I’m not uptight about anything at all. I found that the key is to be real sincere and honest and earnest, just kind of make everybody feel like there is no barrier.”

Jarboe maintains this personal connection with her fans off stage as well. Central to her career is, the website through which Jarboe sells merchandise, maintains her blog, or arterium, and interacts with fans, many of whom have shared their own stories similar in theme to that of The Men Album.

“It’s funny because, without trying to sound pretentious, I am one of these people who just by being herself and trying to be real or sincere and not cynical or false through my songs and performance, the audience has found me. It’s almost like I see myself as this service to others. That’s the way I would view what I do now, more than anything else. It’s an audience that is looking for that through music. Rather than looking to be entertained by it, they look at it to feel an intimate connection with it or maybe heal or purge or something like that through it. That’s the role that I decided for my life. I think that is kind of why I was born, to be that.”

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