[14 August 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Singer and songwriter Natalia Zukerman‘s latest project, the studio album Come Thief, Come Fire, began as two separate projects. One was an EP of sparely arranged, largely acoustic material; the other, in contrast, utilized a full band. However, upon realizing that there existed between the material “an overarching theme about fire and its elemental capacity for destruction and growth”, which lead Zukerman to merge the two EPs into one full-length recording. Two tracks from Come Thief Come Fire, “I Don’t Feel It Anymore” (representing the acoustic material) and “Hero” (representing the full band material), can be streamed below.
Zukerman told PopMatters about these two songs in great detail, saying, “All of the records I’ve made to date have been a collection of the songs I’ve written over a certain period of time, their only connective tissue being me as the writer and performer. This project is a big artistic leap for me in that I wrote the title track first and all the other songs followed suit, some of their own accord, some molded and cajoled to fit the dress code. Come Thief, Come Fire came from two sources: a Janet Hirshfield book of poems called Come, Thief and the poem by Elizabeth Bishop in which she says, ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master.’ I wrote (and then re-wrote with Erin McKeown) about fire’s power to create and destroy, to resurrect, recreate and devastate. The way that a Jack Pine needs disaster to keep growing (its seeds will only open under extreme heat!) I used these ideas to create all the songs on this record, to take what had been a very transformative year for me personally and to create a story of a cycle, from loss to discovery and back again.
“The first set of songs were recorded with Willy Porter in Milwaukee. At the time, I thought we were making an EP but when I sent one of the tunes (‘What Comes After’) to my friends AG and Meg Toohey in Los Angeles and they sent back a cinematic explosion of sound, I knew I needed to investigate further. I thought then, perhaps, that there would be two separate EPs, one ‘acoustic’ and one ‘produced’. But when the two parts were finished, I knew the story worked as a whole, that to follow the metaphor, the record goes from a small spark to a smoldering flame and back.
“I asked my good friend Erin McKeown to produce one song on the record. I was on the road at the time with AG and we stopped at Erin’s to record ‘Jane Avril’, a song about Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse and the dancer of the Moulin Rouge. The night before going into the studio, we sat around Erin’s kitchen table and talked about all of the things we used to do that were so impactful, so huge in our lives, and that we couldn’t access as easily anymore—from the magical worlds we created as little people, to the earth-shatteringness of first love, to the experimentation and exploration of some of our earlier years! Some of the stories we wrote and told one another were filled with sadness over not being able to access that kind of pure emotion anymore but most of it was filled with a relief and a sense of growth and knowing. So we wrote ‘I Don’t Feel It Anymore’ from our stories that night and recorded it the next day. Abbie Gardner came in later to play the dobro part later but other than that, it’s just as it is. It fit the first part of Come Thief, Come Fire perfectly—a simple song in its purest form.
“As I was writing the songs for this record, I heard a story about a man who’s known in the lore as ‘Burnin’ Vernon’. Vernon Shultis was a firefighter in the Woodstock, NY area. His family owns a lot of property in that area. In the summer of 1997, there were over 50 barn fires, mostly on Shultis properties. Vernon put them out singlehandedly and became a huge ‘hero’ in the town. Well, it turns out that Vernon was lighting the barns on fire himself! The way that the town divided between the old timers and the New Age newcomers was amazing to read about and the way that Vernon himself was deified and vilified in equal measure was rich with story telling fodder for me. A few songs on the record (‘Hero’ and ‘One Of Us’) are based on Vernon’s story and I have a feeling, there are more to come!
“These two songs represent the sonic development of this record- the way that an underpainting provides the armature for the completed canvas, we used elements of the more stripped down songs to build the sonic world that the more produced songs live in. I know that in this time when people rarely listen to a record in its tracking order that some of this intention will be lost. Luckily, I think the songs stand on their own individually; but, when put together, there is a world that is created. My hope is that people get lost inside of this world. And then find things they didn’t even know they were missing.”
Come Thief, Come Fire is out on September 16th through Talisman.