The Domino Effect: An Interview with Anna Domino

Having been sentenced to musical purgatory has done wonders for Anna Domino’s mystique. A curio of ’80s avant-pop, Domino forged ahead with her own special brand of slightly skewed pop, borrowing thoughtfully from various musical strains with jazz, rock, dance and folk being the primary influences she would use to bring form to her nearly amorphous art.

Domino’s songs were chronicles of lives at once contentious and enamoured, hanging in a curious balance of ambition and insecurity. Often, her dreamy passages recalled the amorously conflicted characters of Tama Janowitz novels; her songs were about women of the ’80s who had found a new stretch of freedom to play around with as well as the growing awareness of not knowing what to do with all that newfound space. Much like the singer herself, who once made a living from making furniture out of found objects, her characters were victims of happenstance, often lost in the quirky, unusual situations afforded to them by city life.

Having essentially started her career in Belgium recording her material on the Crepuscule label, Domino would steadily work away, collecting ideas and writing songs to be featured on future releases. Her first set of work, an EP entitled East and West (1984), was a collection of quietly stirring and moody numbers for the evening hours and featured a rather strange cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Land of My Dreams”. Though the EP garnered some favourable reviews, it did nothing for her profile, a fact you could put down to lack of funds and marketing. Following East and West, Domino would soon collect her resources for her proper full-length self-titled debut, released in 1986. The album yielded a notable single, the intentionally misspelled “Rythm”, a finger-snapping slice of angular jazz-pop which had Domino scatting her lyrics with disaffected cool. “Rythm” granted the singer some notice outside of Europe, where her music received the bulk of attention. Anna Domino was a slicker, more accessible affair; it bore the markings of beatnik jazz, New York blues and vibrant art-pop, influences which were levelled out in a series of catchy, danceable grooves. While the album managed to grab some ears on the alternative music market, Domino found wider success skirt just inches away from her.

A hookup with famed producer Flood resulted in This Time(1987), Domino’s strongest bid for the commercial market. Grander in scope, the album featured higher production values and a polished sound that leaned heavily toward ’80s radio-ready rock than it did the more intimate, twilit pop of her earlier work. “Tempting”, the album’s single, was a heavy sway of voluptuous, tuneful pop meant to signal Domino’s entrance onto the dance floor. What could have been a bona fide hit, however, was yet again another narrow miss.

After a few years, Domino returned with her most accomplished effort, 1990’s Mysteries of America, an atmospherically lush and exquisite selection of songs that pared back the dynamics of her previous album in favour of a more stripped-down and personal approach. Latin percussion, modern European folk and chanson were the elements of choice, and these influences acted as an almost subversive comment on the album’s somewhat ironic title. Here, Domino at last found herself swimming in more comfortable waters, and feelings of passion, both implicit and clear, imbued the songs with a warm femininity both evocative and sensual.

As it currently stands, Mysteries of America is the swan song of a collection of solo work sorely overlooked. A near ten-year silence followed the album, and Domino had since completely fallen off the radar. In reality, she was working through music industry red tape, locked into an arduous legal battle with Crepuscule over the rights to her music. While still embroiled in legal disputes, Domino resurfaced again in 1999 with a band she fronted called Snakefarm, a project she conceived of with musical partner Michel Delory. The band’s debut, Songs From My Funeral, was a seductively dark and elegant offering of updated American traditional songs. No longer speaking of the trials and tribulations of city life that featured heavily in her solo work, Domino, with Snakefarm, explored the cinematic desires of the Deep South with an almost kitschy, pulp-novel flair.

Though her quietly moving work has not received the attention it deserves, Domino’s work continues to impart the listener with the passion and sincerity of an inspired artist still looking to leave her mark.

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In the late ’70s you had already lived many places and, by this time, learned many trades, you could say. You were making furniture, refurbishing lofts, making clothes, much of these things fashioned together with found material. What was this period in your life like? What were some of the interesting things you discovered doing these things?

In 1977 I went to visit a friend of my uncle’s in NY for two weeks intending to go back to art school in Toronto in the fall. I stayed for 20 years and picked up a lot of skills by necessity such as: plumbing, electrical wiring, basic construction and how to use tools; how to sew anything and how to repair the wonderful, broken furniture that I found in the street.

My friends and I thought we were witnessing the death of New York City, really. It was the summer of the garbage strike, transit strike, Son of Sam serial killer and the blackout and riots that followed. The city was bankrupt and half in ruin. In the East Village buildings were burned so that landlords could collect insurance and some simply caught fire and collapsed from neglect. There were small mountains of rubble where six-story buildings had been and on top there might be several crushed cars. The city just piled up the debris and abandoned cars and left them there, for years. I witnessed the collapse of two different buildings as I was walking by; it wasn’t uncommon. Neither were burning cars; it was cold.

One of the deadest things about New York in late ’70s was the art scene; it seemed very bored and self-conscious and pointless, especially painting. Some kids took to painting just for the sheer contrariness of it, really as a joke. Of course you could rent 6000 square feet of open loft space for $400 a month… if you could figure out how to run DC electric up from the basement and install a hot water heater and light. So we learned. And art supplies were pretty cheap. Eventually the art world showed up, with money, took all the fun out of it and confused everything.

The streets were empty at night except for stray dogs. It was a wilderness and we all found each other and huddled together for warmth and food, which was scarce and not very good. We all wanted to do everything of course and we did. The city seemed almost empty, wide open and glorious.

Mostly I watched as I was very shy. We went out every night to one or two places so you always knew where everyone was and there was always something worth seeing or hearing but I never had the nerve to perform my own music or bring out my drawings.

I made a living sewing in sweatshops downtown and doing small construction jobs. After renovating a burnt-out store front on East 10th Street I bought my first tape recorder with the “fixture fee” (money charged to the next tenant for repairs we did ourselves as landlords were absent), a TEAC four-track cassette recorder that I worked with for years…

After many musical incarnations with bands, you finally recorded a first album (or mini-album) with East and West. These were lo-fi, independent recordings, yet they betrayed a sense of cinematic grandeur (the magazine featuring Ingrid Bergman on the album’s cover did not escape my attention). These were very moody, nocturnal numbers. The album seems to almost reside in an interstitial space: it is not entirely an electronic dance album, and not entirely rock or pop either. Where was your headspace at when you recorded East and West?

East and West came out of a heap of songs I had written in NY over a period of years. Working at night with borrowed instruments and kitchen utensils or at the apartments of friends who had a piano or played percussion, I dragged my four-track all over town. Eventually a cassette of my songs reached Crepuscule in Brussels, eventually they called me, eventually I got a plane ticket in the mail. I did the best I could over 10 nights in an unfinished recording studio with terrible electrical problems. Crepuscule pulled the plug long before I was finished and sent me home with no idea of whether or when they might release any of the material. A year and a half later a test pressing came in the mail. Months after that a lone EP arrived with the title and cover done; I had nothing to do with that part. During this time they didn’t answer my letters and their phone was disconnected. I had no idea how to reach them. During the recording sessions I was pretty much on my own, people would stop by for an hour or a day and I borrowed what instruments I could. There was no goal or plan or sound or production, I just got down what I could before I suddenly had to stop and go home to NY to sew costumes and fix plumbing…

Your first proper album was your self-titled release in 1986. First of all, can you describe the musical climate in general at the time of writing and recording these songs for your self-titled effort? Also, there are heavier jazz influences on this album… they seem to give a brighter warmth to some of the darker, more anxiety-ridden themes of the lyrics. Can you explain your progression toward the jazz elements on this album, and some of the thematic elements?

In Brussels especially you could hear music from all over Europe and Africa; in the US it was all lush dance music or bone-dry early rap. I listened to everything but didn’t attempt to imitate, though in my mind all the influences are obvious. I never did anything intentionally and expect that the “jazz” sounds were mostly my mind thinking in triplets which was what I was hearing a lot of on the streets of NY. Everything I wrote started with a rhythm which suggested a melody which evoked a mood that conjured up the lyrics which are always about the same things: love, loss, madness, ecstasy, death and goofiness.

The first LP was recorded in fits and starts, as was usually the case with Crepuscule. “My Man” I recorded on my own with friends at a borrowed studio. “Rythm” and a few others were recorded as I passed through Brussels on way home from Berlin. It was completely haphazard and amounted to what came into my head at the moment I was lucky enough to get a few hours in a studio. Four studios, four producers and months would go by in between…

This Time is probably your most curious effort and a very transitional one. First of all, I believe it yielded your biggest hit, “Tempting”. It certainly brought your material into a far more pop-oriented forum. Also, a music video for “Tempting” properly introduced you to an MTV audience. Flood produced this album, before going on to produce many other interesting artists — PJ Harvey, for instance. This Time is a very straightforward album — your most conventional one as well — and it seems to have designs of a more commercial aim. What are your thoughts about this album today?

With This Time things were a little more organized as I’d had some success with “Rythm”. Crepuscule brought in Flood to produce and we worked in a decent studio… Flood was very kind and funny but we didn’t really speak the same language, I wasn’t articulate about music at all. I deferred to him, he was a professional. And though I felt queasy about large arrangements, backing vocals and brass ensembles, what did I know? Now I know that my voice gets lost in big sounds, but at the time it was great fun and I did so want to keep working, more than anything. We didn’t really know that I had no commercial potential ’til we tried. I would have loved to have been able to write dance music but it’s not how my brain works, and I would have loved to have a soaring voice but it isn’t. Which is fine. My reaction was to record Coloring in the Edge and the Outline with just Michel Delory and myself in a smaller studio; that felt better.

One song off of This Time that many have come to know is “Lake”. It’s a very simple song — but grand in scope. It’s very minimalist but has a wide-open air of atmosphere; it seems almost like an impressionist painting transmuted into song. The lyrics are somewhat cryptic… can you give some background on this song’s history?

Then there’s “Lake”. It started as a piano part Michel [Delory] played; he’d been playing it for years. Funny you should mention painting; the atmosphere Michel’s melody inspired made me think of variations on the symbolist work “Isle of the Dead”, which is one of those deathless images. The lyrics describe my version of that subject, I suppose. There’s always imagery in my mind when I write and I often remember the images better than I do my own lyrics. We’ve just re-recorded “Lake”, with acoustic instruments only…

Mysteries of America would be (so far) your final solo album. To date, it is your most sonically realized album. Where your other albums were snatches of many influences, America is consistent in its sound. Firstly, the electronic rhythms are relegated to the background and there is far more emphasis on the percussion. Also, there is an obvious influence of European sounds (despite the album’s title), most notably the Latin percussion and guitars. It’s also an album in which you seem to have arrived in a place of tranquility, the calm after the restlessness of your other albums. What was going on in your life during the recording of this album? Also, what exactly are the Mysteries of America you refer to?

I was so proud of Mysteries of America, which is not easy for me. The song “Dust” seemed like the first time I’d succeeded in getting a song on to a record exactly as I heard it. We wrote the songs while staying at my mother’s cottage on a small lake in Quebec and were able to record the LP in NY at Suzanne Vega’s home studio with friends playing and producing. The title and cover image just came to me, as things do. It took forever to get just the right color of blue for the background. All was well until we came to Brussels to mix at which point the usual trouble with Crepuscule started; they never paid anyone and we had to finish quickly in off hours with a very angry studio boss frequently locking us out. Pretty humiliating. At the same time I came to realize that the label and their publisher were really never going to pay me my publishing or sales royalties and there was nothing I could do about it. This is when I decided to stop working with Crepuscule and go home for good. They were freakishly cruel to everyone, it was heartbreaking.

There was a long quiet stretch after Mysteries of America, almost ten years. What had happened? What was going on during these years that kept you away from recording further material?

And that’s the story of the long quiet stretch. I could do nothing to get my music back or force Crepuscule to abide by their contracts… it’s a long, boring, crummy story that prevented me from recording under my own name until three years ago. In the meantime I kept writing and working and hoping and then one day I thought of recording the songs I’d grown up with, songs everyone in America grows up with pretty much, but with modern arrangements…

How did you manage to survive financially if the Crepuscule label refused to pay you? Can you go a bit more into detail about what transpired between you and the label regarding creative differences and financial woes?

There were no creative differences as there was never any discussion of any kind about what was happening or should happen next. If you ask a question you never got an answer that amounted to anything. Q: “Can we tour this summer in support of the record,” A: “Of course”… Which you came to understand meant that they wouldn’t stop you but would take no initiative either. There were very few phone calls coming out of Crepuscule’s offices. Crepuscule would put out a record and if licensees picked up on it then we would tour and get radio play and posters etc. Otherwise nothing happened unless we organized it ourselves.

We all survived by working and I spent most of each year in NY making enough money to buy some time in Brussels to record. Crepuscule briefly granted me a stipend of a few hundred dollars a month that enabled them to collect my (personal) performance and mechanical publishing and sales royalties until all their expenses were recouped. Unfortunately all their expenses were recouped back in 1986 and since then I haven’t received a single publishing or sales statement. And this was before Mysteries of America came out. In 1986 my publishing royalties alone were about $30,000.00 a year. Twenty-six years later the catalog is worth about $5,000 a year from publishing. Not sure how that adds up, but it’s what my life’s work is worth.

I’ve been through five lawyers trying to get them to abide by the contracts, but there are laws in Belgium that make it impossible to bring suit against a publisher unless you can prove, beforehand, exactly how much they owe you. I’ve been to SABAM infinite times to try and get my statements; no go. Finally, two years ago, my publisher was forced (by a friend in the industry that knows the new head of SABAM) to return the rights to my catalog to me and no longer be able to collect my royalties. But I will never be paid what I am owed. My ex-publisher is on the board of SABAM! None of these people see themselves as crooks; it’s just the way things were done and are still being done… It used to be like that in the US back in the ’50s and ’60s but it was a shock to realize you could be treated so badly by people you worked with for years. I don’t think we were entirely human to them somehow.

Can you talk a bit about what the process of promoting your albums at the time was like?

Promoting depended on luck — a radio station might pick up on something if we sent them a copy — and licensees. So, if the Japanese or German or French distributor wanted us to tour they would have to put it all together. The trouble would inevitably come when a distributor had been promised a new recording by one of us but Crepuscule hadn’t put us in a studio. So they, and we, would lose another distributor… It was truly awful and ruined some really lovely people…

Snakefarm is the band you resurfaced with in 1999 alongside Michel Delory. It was a marked change from the material of your solo work. Firstly, what had prompted you to record as a band rather than solo this time? As well, the material of Snakefarm has been described as “murder ballads” — quite unlike the themes of your solo work. What other facets of your personality are explored through this band?

… And Snakefarm was born. The material is all traditional American ballads in the public domain, so you can do whatever you like to them. I wasn’t at all sure they could take strong rhythm sections, but stayed up for two nights working and came out with four songs arranged, it was so much fun! Michel and I started recording, bringing in friends that were willing to help, and I handed out cassettes to anyone that would take them. Eventually someone called back, a friend of Matt Johnson (The The) who had a new label and wanted to sign us. This was terrific but in the meantime I’d lost my loft of 20 years and we were leaving NY for the middle of nowhere in two weeks, so we went and finished the record in the lower Mohave Desert.

Once again, there was another ten-year gap between Snakefarm albums…what other factors in your life overtook your musical work?

And then the label went under and we really had to move back to civilization after our 1000 days in the desert. So, we eventually moved to Los Angeles and continued to record… After a decade of this I finally contacted a friend, Ian Anderson, who runs the magazine fRoots in the UK. Ian had been really supportive of our first Snakefarm release and I asked if he thought he could find a label in the UK that might be interested in volume two. At his instigation Fledg’ling Records contacted us and they are lovely. But we had to get the record finished quickly and Michel had work in Beirut and we were scheduled to visit family and friends in Europe, so we mixed the songs in Belgium and a friend of a friend there did the cover art, and it came out several months after that phone call. Why did I not call earlier? Who knows…

Is there ever a possibility that you may record another solo album? We have seen you record some material under your name (a very stripped-down, surreal version of Suzanne Vega’s “Blood Makes Noise”). What kinds of ideas, musical and otherwise, might go into a future Anna Domino solo album?

There is every possibility that I’ll record another Anna Domino record. We have so many songs and the Crepuscule that was is dead. The new version of “Lake” will be coming out on a CD with the next issue of fRoots magazine and we are recording old and new songs very simply and will see how that goes. We spent the last two months touring, just the two of us, and we want to keep doing that too… I think I’ve finally realized that music is the only thing I want to do and the only thing I can do so there is no more time to waste!