“When I was living in New York City, and almost having a breakdown from stress and stimuli, I really discovered a kind of a solace in the kitchen,” says Dawn McCarthy, the songwriter behind psych-folk-theatrical Faun Fables. “It sounds really simple, but it was really one of those survival moments, you know. It was really what worked for me, as I got into basics, like using herbs and cooking things from scratch.”
That battle — between the threat outside and the warmth within — runs right through McCarthy’s fifth full-length album as Faun Fables. In some ways, Light of a Vaster Dark is a continuation of ideas she laid down in 2007, as part of her EP A Table Forgotten. In others, it’s an expansion of By the Light of the Kitchen Table, a musical theater piece she developed for the Idylwild Arts Academy in southeastern California that same year. Yet it’s also a summary of where her life has taken her over the last several years, away from the seedier parts of Oakland to the rolling hills of Sonoma County, out of a self-directed, autonomous existence into marriage and motherhood. Last year, she married her partner, Nils Frykdahl — also in Faun Fables but best known for heading Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. They now have two daughters, Edda, who is two, and Uru, who is six months old.
As a result, the “Hollow in the Home,” that McCarthy sings about on Light of a Vaster Dark is a very real place, where she, her family and various supportive friends and colleagues gather in shelter from an increasingly ominous world. One can imagine this “home” as a welcoming place, where the lights shine brightly, good smells waft by and the sound of laughter and conversation surrounds on all sides. “There’s a kind of alchemy in cooking,” McCarthy says. “No matter how urban your life is, you are dealing with real basic elements, the heat and the water. I think there’s a healing quality in there. You have a connection with nature.”
A Long Gestation
Light of a Vaster Dark developed slowly, beginning about four years ago when McCarthy began to compose a cycle of cooking songs, many of which appeared on her EP The Forgotten Table. She got invited as an artist in residence to the Idyllwild Arts Academy in 2007 as well, at first teaching songwriting to her high school aged students, later working with them to write a full-blown musical.
“I worked with the kids to see where they were at, what their ideas were and what subjects they wanted to bring into the piece,” says McCarthy. “Their ideas, it turned out, were really compatible with mine. They spoke up about having problems with lots of roots, of connection with nature and family.” McCarthy began writing songs, developing a story line about a group of orphans living in the wilderness. Idyllwild students put on “By the Light of the Kitchen Table” in 2007. “Housekeeper” and “Sweeping Song,” which eventually made their way onto Light of a Vaster Dark, were part of the show. “Hollow in the Home” was also heavily influenced by it.
At the same time, McCarthy had a significant amount of material left over from her EP, both whole songs and instrumental parts that violinist Meredith Yayanos and Kirana Peyton had contributed. McCarthy kept working, too, writing new material like “Parade”, which was inspired by one afternoon when she ventured out from her East Oakland apartment and got caught, unexpectedly, in the communal celebration of a small parade.
But as she had first one, then another child, her songwriting slowed down. She and her husband Nils took turns working late at night, after their girls had gone to bed. By the time she was ready to record Light of a Vaster Dark, she felt that she needed to freshen up the older material. Yayanos came back from New Zealand to record her parts again, and Peyton took a break from full-time studying. Cornelius Boots played bass clarinet and Mark Stickman’s harmonica added an Americana-style warmth. “Whenever I’ve put out songs that I wrote some time ago, I always have to put something new,” she says. “Just to feel like there’s something fresh.” “Violet” and “Parade,” both songs that featured harmonica, were late additions, as was the haunting title track.
“I had had ‘Light of a Vaster Dark’ for quite a long time, but I didn’t think to put it on this record,” says McCarthy. “It wasn’t part of the theater show. I didn’t really know if it belonged on this record.”
But as McCarthy considered the song, she realized that she didn’t want the album to simply recap her show. Meanwhile, the song seemed to bind all the themes she was thinking about into a cohesive statement. “When we recorded that song, it just occurred to me that that was the glue of the record, sonically and in terms of its energy. It was light and darkness. I loved that, seeing how things can connect.”
Tradition and Experiment
Like all McCarthy’s Faun Fables albums, Light of a Vaster Dark is solidly grounded in older folk music traditions, from Appalachian blues to gypsy dances to East European singing. An actress, as well as a songwriter, McCarthy has studied theater with Polish director Wlodziemierz Staniewski. She worked, for a time, with Poland’s Grotowski Theater. There she came into contact with a Ukranian singer named Marianna Sadovska, who became a strong influence.
“It’s the bare feet and digging into the ground kind of sounds,” she says, struggling to convey the elemental tradition she encountered. “East Europeans… they’ll do real guttural singing. It’s a basic thing. I felt really at home with that. I feel a connection with it. There’s some kind of gravity, a relationship with life and suffering. The darkness. Pain.” She adds, “I feel that so much about life itself, how beautiful it is but then it’s so painful. Tragic, but kind of a glorious tragedy. It’s such a gift. To be here and to be able to live. “
Yet while McCarthy was reaching into some very old traditions, she was also interested in singers who broke the rules and found new ways to express emotions. She became fascinated with the French singer Catherine Ribeiro who, in the 1960s, infused her avant garde folk experiments with alternate vocalization techniques of unusual intensity and power. McCarthy says she heard Ribeiro by accident a few years ago, while eating in a restaurant in France, and had to ask the staff for the name of the singer. “I wrote down the name and tried to find her stuff, but never quite found anything,” says McCarthy. “ Then just a year ago, a friend burned a CDR for me, and said ‘You’ve got to check this out.’ And it was her!” She adds, “She reminds me of a Marianna Sadovska and Edith Piaf. It’s a similar feel. That breath of light is in there.”
McCarthy also found inspiration from an old school friend who has grown up, oddly enough, to become Arrington De Dionyoso of Old Time Relijun. “Me and Arrington, we came from the same town in the Northwest,” she says. “We knew each other when we were 15-year-olds.” McCarthy hadn’t seen him for years, when she ended up at a show in Portland and thought the singer looked familiar. Sure enough, it was her teenage buddy, yowling through the mic.
Later, the two of them toured together and spent van time talking about extended technique. Dionyoso had been studying the works of “Theater of the Voice” guru Roy Hart. “The one thing he said that helped me a lot was this: ‘Where your voice breaks is where the psychic content enters, ‘” says McCarthy.
“That was really all I needed to hear to make me have the courage… I feel like I’m going to a place that opens up and you don’t have control,” says McCarthy. “And now, I’m not just obsessed with going to places where the voice breaks. I just want to be able to go to wherever, however the voice can unfold, even lullabies.“
Those lullabies, by the way, must have come in handy on the most recent Faun Fables tour, one on which McCarthy, Frykdahl and their two daughters packed up and traveled the country together for the first time. “We said, let’s just travel with the two kids and the nanny and see how that goes?” says McCarthy, explaining that various family friends took turns as nanny in different parts of the tour. “And my gosh, we had a cozy good time.”
McCarthy is thinking now about future tours with her young daughters, one now old enough to make up and sing her own songs, the other showing surprising early facility with a tambourine. Meanwhile, as she approaches 40, McCarthy says she’s looking for a way to celebrate her life so far, possibly a “Best of Faun Fables” or maybe a project drawn from the journals she’s been keeping since she was a child. “I want to do something around rites of passage,” she says. “It’s a milestone kind of moment, turning 40, and it’s hard to figure out exactly what to do with it. But I really want to prepare something special.”