Dark Days, Luminous Nights: An Interview with Vanessa Daou
An exploration of love in the time of political unrest, Light Sweet Crude is Vanessa Daou’s musical thesis on regained emotional ground, a desire line carved from the departure point of doubt to the destination of self-made reality.
Vanessa Daou assumed her place on the dance music throne during the height of the cresting electronica scene in the 90’s rather reluctantly. The New Yorker’s music was never destined to be a staple of radio and, moreover, it required listeners to do two things at once: dance and think -- two functions that don’t necessarily jibe well on a dance floor. Her heady brew of electronic beats and poetic implorations have both fascinated and mystified listeners alike; aiming at both the head and the feet, Daou’s music has never sought to be accepted as a genre defined by a playlist or the same marketing ploys used to sell lingerie.
Instead, the singer spent her time and resources wisely, mining the library for books to feed and supplement her musical diet. Take Zipless (1995), her first solo outing into lounge-hopping culture, where she would spark the curiosity and desire of both the literati and club-goers. Zipless, her proper debut, was the congealed lava of still heated emotions, cooling slowly over the bedrock of smooth, percolating beats. The sonic dressing, courtesy of producer and then-husband Peter Daou, furnished the music with the sweaty, carnal atmosphere of two lovers locked in an overheated sauna and deliriously happy about it. At the core was Daou’s voice, a haunting, diaphanous whisper that divulged only the most clandestine secrets in the listener’s ear. Zipless was so over-the-top in its impassioned femininity and, yet, so understated in its approach and intent that you might have missed what was the album’s most sensual cue: Erica Jong’s erotic poetry, of which Daou’s lyrics were based upon. Her association with Jong alone made Daou the talk of feminist circles amidst the album’s release; meanwhile, her tracks were doing time in the swankiest of underground cells, giving DJs a run for their wax and honey.
After the liquid fire of Zipless, Daou tuned into a lower frequency of sex, started reading again and discovered the lives of her muses on 1996’s Slow to Burn, a night out on the town in the lonelier corners of the heart. Bluer than Zipless but not as overheated with sexual magma, Slow to Burn showed listeners the right way a woman unwound for the evening hours -- without a man and certainly without worry for it. Strange and fey feelings permeated the album and Daou, lost in the fog of deep regret and loneliness, ultimately essayed the personal triumphs of no longer being at the mercy and whim of a desired man. Her closing line on the album, “I’ll cross that bridge to you”, embodied the wisdom and spirit of a young woman finally learning the difference between simply having choices and actually making them.
After negotiating out of her major-label contract with MCA records following an internal shift of major players and talents, Daou opted to record independently and out of the ethers came the sex-in-space odyssey Plutonium Glow, released in 1997. A wondrous fusion of retro-electro beats, orbiting keyboard licks and dizzying sexploits, Glow took some of its inspiration from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and fancied Daou a traveler through an emotional galaxy lined with debutantes, soldiers, lovers and hustlers. Transmitting from some strange universe of grandiose desires, the singer communicated all the pleasures and grievances of love in the long stretches of electronic reverb hovering in the mix.
Having descended to Earth after her adventures in the mysterious unknowns of outer space, Daou then landed on the gritty streets of Harlem for her next offering. Extolling her poetic adulations for the late jazz legend John Coltrane, 1999’s Dear John Coltrane told summer afternoon tales of love in the city heat, philosophizing about jazz and death and the passing and ultimate rising of her mentor. In the psychedelic blur of soft funk, ambient sonics and drugged-out hip-hop beats, Daou encapsulated the desires of being at once imprisoned and released by a love both earthly and spiritual.
Coming off the high of a love supreme, the singer readjusted her frame of mind for a more direct approach to pop music with 2000’s Make You Love, a gorgeous swell of plush atmospheres, French cosmopolitan cool and plenty of pop hooks sharpened to kill. Full of juicy pop songs, Make You Love was a radio luxury of catchy rhythms and iridescent tunes designed to bring you to your knees in the bedroom rather than your feet on the dance floor. Her lone muse this time, a Parisian friend named Juliette (a name often recalled for its Shakespearian myth and beauty), provided Daou’s album the principle tenets of womanly love, which (in the fantastic-reality of pop music) would temporarily free the singer from the male gaze for as long as she was cast under her muse’s spell. A tour with famed French singer-songwriter Etienne Daho followed and Daou would soon find herself in the hotly-tipped pages of Europe’s most fashionable magazines.
A wind-down and eventual divorce from producer-husband Peter gave Daou time to explore other areas of interests, investing her time in a series of research projects over the years before returning in 2008 with the ghostly late-night jazz lullabies of the self-produced Joe Sent Me, the singer’s unsent letter to the torch-singing casualties of New York’s long-forgotten speakeasies. A retro-dreamworld of sax solos, nightclub tears and inner city blues, Daou made a quietly arresting statement of reclamation, her designs now on the offerings of a century’s worth of jazz rediscovery. Still toiling in the inventions of a self-made artist, Daou also experimented with textual images, allowing Joe Sent Me an extension outside of music where the singer explored her themes of reclamation with the objective of defining the sound of jazz visually.
Light Sweet Crude, Vanessa Daou’s newest opus to date, reintroduces the musical lexicons of her previous work while tapping into far more hedonistic, intrinsic joys. At once revealing and coded in a semiotic riddle of aural-visual language, the album’s title and acronym open up a gatefolded theme of love, sex and politics. Often, the three merge fluidly with the sleight-of-hand of a musician building roadwork between emotion and activity: Light, Sweet, Crude/Love, Sex, Commerce/Love, Sex, Control… language, sex, chaos. Once again, Daou explores the literary angles of song, splicing fractured and formalist poetry into her stories of weathered romances, often challenging both syntax and semantics in a single verse. At times, the album’s surreal air of enigma and danger and its thematic overlapping of subtexts make it sonically adjacent to the experimental fiction of writer Nicole Brossard.
After the desolate nights detailed on Joe Sent Me, Crude, a headlong dive into the more bracing waters of hip-hop, house and dub, removes the excess tears of her previous outing for the wide-eyed exhilaration of new experiences and new loves. This time aided by an assortment of producers, each skilled in a particular offshoot of electronic music (including Turkish rapper and beatmaker Da Poet, who signed onto the project simply because he loved her voice), Daou finds other facets of self-expression in a series of grooves, either on the deep hip-hop pulse of “Camouflage” or the heartbeat rhythms of “Bar D’O”. Some inventions stretch far and wide and the singer travels a path not altogether unfamiliar, but still cautiously walked; in “Love Affair”, chess-moves are made in the name of sex and diplomacy, the stop-start rhythms of an upright bass signaling the change in love-strategy. Here, the beats provoke rather than invite and the sudden desire to challenge, debate and confront is meted out in the interplay between a programmed hammering beat and a live, thrumming bass. The album’s most playful, sensual cuts find the singer in new spatial spheres of experiment and sound; the gossamer pop of “Chances” takes reggae and ska to levels of haute couture with Daou’s vocals trailing behind the skipping guitar lines. “Goodbye” creates an electrical storm of buzzing synths and metallic hip-hop drums in the eerie, sonorous grind of a purple, Lynchian night. And while the bruising eroticism that has always been the fabric of her work is still present here, it is now balanced with an inner sense of avowal.
In the musical world Daou describes, her days have always been dark, swept up in the struggles of waking life. But her nights are wide and luminous; the restive desires that blossom into song remain charged with the electricity of language and sound. Here, in this world of emotional transference, Daou forges space for lovers in the bedroom and on the dance floor alike, where the troubles of the day are redressed by the transformative powers of night. Like the aforementioned Brossard, whose text-murdering literature has jostled the minds of many, Light Sweet Crude creates its own mauve desert of fortitude and danger, a vast space where night and emotion slowly descend like music, existential dramas you can dance to.
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Can you go into detail about your entrance into the music world? You moved to New York, where I believe you met Peter Daou, who would soon introduce you into some of the underground music scenes happening at the time. What was life in the arts and music like for you at the time and what was your first forays into music like?
I met Peter while I was at Barnard. I had been studying Art, Dance and Art History with a focus on Art Synthesis and Aesthetics. Peter was studying Philosophy at NYU. In my senior year, I took a Poetry class with the late great Kenneth Koch who encouraged my writing. I started doing poetry readings at Columbia's Postcrypt and connected with that experience immensely.
Peter comes from a jazz background. My parents exposed me to music from an early age. My mother was an artist and always on the cusp of new music: Carol King, Simon & Garfunkel, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell. She loved unusual music like the Clancey Brothers, Gregorian chants. My father's record collection was mostly jazz: Billie Holiday, Mingus, Erskine Hawkins.
My brother was a very successful DJ in the '70s, played at Plato's Retreat and all the top clubs at the time. He was very entrenched in that scene. He was already out of the house and used to leave his records for me when he would come visit.
I was born in St Thomas, and we moved to New York when I was six for several years. When I was 12 we moved back to the islands and listening to the radio and watching Soul Train every chance I could was my way of staying connected to the States. Tuning into Casey Kasem's American Top 40 was a ritual for me. I began to collect records during my summers at Camp in upstate NY: Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Queen, Stevie Wonder.
So by the time I met Peter, I had a huge library of songs in my head. My brother introduced Peter to Sylvio Tanchredi at Fourth Floor Records who worked with Frank Mendez at NuGroove, both legendary labels. Peter became the in-house Engineer and ended up playing on many of their releases. Peter and I created Vandal and released The Laws of Chants -- a sonic melange of old jazz samples, folk and psychedelic music. We would do performance art type shows here in NY, in Germany and LA's Shrine Auditorium at LA's first-ever rave.
I was hanging out one day when Victor Simonelli and Lenny Dee were working on a track. They asked me if I could sing and write a song; I said sure. The song I wrote was called "It Could Not Happen", a downtempo reggae infused song that was licensed to Network Records, UK, and ended up being NuGroove's best-selling release.
Soon after, Danve Jurman at Columbia Records approached and signed us as The Daou in 1992. He was particularly interested in our mixture of experimental jazz-inflected sounds and rhythms with my poetry.
Zipless was a huge album for you because it tapped into the burgeoning electronic scene that was just picking up popularity in the mainstream. It also introduced poetry in a way that was not being used in music at the time. Zipless pulled from both '60s beat poetry (a past art) and electronic music (forward-thinking "future" music and cutting edge). This album pretty much established your sound (though it has changed over the years). Can you talk about your experience with this album, how it propelled you forward?
While writing Zipless -- songs based on the poetry of Erica Jong -- I was immersed in the poetry-song debate/dilemma. What makes a song a song? How is it different from a poem? How is it the same? How does music and melody help to shape a lyric's meaning?
I was also hyper-aware of keeping the core of meaning and trying to assess "intention" of each of Erica's poems that I made changes to. That experience drew me to the beat poets. Through Erica I discovered Anne Sexton's band Anne Sexton and Her Kind, a hybrid brew of jazz with her spoken word. I was in love with that sound immediately, the surprising and improbable combinations. I began to understand that the "context" of a song is all about the sound: most importantly, that sound is a catalyst.
Immersed in the '60s and '70s as I was -- at NuGroove and now with Erica's poetry -- created a juxtaposition within myself, a love of learning about the past but also of pushing my mind into the future, into unknown and previously un-imagined places. I became enamored by sounds that conveyed some sense of or message from the past, as well as new electronic sounds that suggested some future un-imagined realm or frame-of-mind. I was fascinated by the idea of "resonance", an idea which continues to inspire and propel me artistically.
Your music has covered many lyrical topics and themes. But the one constant in your music is the theme of sexuality and its many social and personal facets. Even when the concepts of your albums are abstract (Plutonium Glow delved into themes of space and astronomy, Joe Sent Me explored the Prohibition Era, Dear John Coltrane was about the life of the legendary jazz artist, Slow to Burn discussed the many muses throughout the ages, Make You Love was about a personal friend, and now Light Sweet Crude explores present-day politics), you find some way to marry those topics to the themes of sexuality/sensuality. What is it about the nature of sexuality that you find relatable to all of these ideas and concepts outside of sexuality, so much so that the theme of sexuality (or sensuality) has been a constant in your music throughout your career?
Our sexuality is the most intimate, private aspect of ourselves that we can share with another person. It’s an inescapable fact of existence if you partake in that union. The closeness is extreme at times, yet there’s an invisible boundary -- a permanent divide -- which can never be removed; it is the constant in the equation of the sexual union of two people. The degree of division varies, but the division is constant. The many perplexing aspects of love are like shifting winds.
I've always been one to try to figure things out. Life, desire, identity, reasons, motivations, the fickle sands of desire, the depth and dimensions of love and longing. It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle I’m trying to assemble, put into words, and that search for understanding can at times seem almost mathematical or computational: if this happens, then this will occur and the result will be X, Y or Z.
In school I was an excellent math student, as well as a creative one. This connection has always felt very palpable to me, this literal drawing of conclusions. Ever since I can remember, whenever perplexed, it has been instinctive for me to pick up a pen and sketch it out or turn that thought into words. That stream of thinking then might become a poem, and sometimes sees its final form in a song.
In many ways, I look at love and desire as the main forces which keep our minds’ gears continuously spinning: active, alive to the world. The feeling of love is euphoric, and that intensity creates an awareness that has no comparison. Love creates an awareness of self as well as one’s surroundings. When in love, we see the world with more acuity: fragrances are heightened, whispers are felt intensely, sunsets present themselves more ecstatically.
Similarly -- yet differently -- desire creates a combustion internally, igniting something which is not quite "need" and not quite "want": it is both and neither. Desire is its own condition, a liminal state which is by its nature frustrating when not satisfied. It is that hovering state -- between want and need -- that keeps ones "self" and the "mind" in an intermittent state of heightened awareness where it does a kind of computation to figure out how to obtain that object of desire. This self-mind does not stop until it reaches a resolution; it either conquers or surrenders. Unlike love, desire is a road that never ends. It is what keeps the minds’ wheels whirring.
Politics are a part of our everyday lives. Why choose to be more vocal politically this time around on Light Sweet Crude and not, say, ten years ago? What is it about these particular times that affects you and your music politically in a way that it didn't before?
I would say it has something to do with my own growing awareness and perception that politics is no longer something that exists outside of ourselves, out in the world: that we are all actors and participants who play a role in shaping our society. How we choose to interact with the world around us is and will always be an individual, often personal decision, but the personal and political are ever-increasingly intersecting. There is no longer much, if any, separation between what happens outside in the world and what happens inside ourselves.
Since the early days of the Internet, around the time of Plutonium Glow in 1996, my infatuation with the Internet has bloomed into a full-fledged love affair, you could say. And in that virtual realm, politics infuses nearly every corner of every conversation. Every life choice, it seems, has been written into law, and the awareness of the inter-connectedness of our lives is very palpable, very real to me.
The phrase "virtual" reality' is a misnomer at this point. There is nothing virtual about marriage equality, Plan B, global warming, Bee Colony Collapse Disorder. It struck me one day a couple of years ago while listening to Bloomberg Business Report, when the term "Light Sweet Crude" was mentioned. It struck me in an ironic, linguistically ironic way. I immediately reached for my iPhone and sang the phrase '"I'd say these are the days of Light Sweet Crude..." into my voice memos. That became the hinge line that I sing toward the end of my new song "Revolution".
Commodities are measured and traded every millisecond of the day. The tangible, quantifiable necessities of life are given priority, yet, it's the invisible, unquantifiable aspects of existence that have the most impact on our lives: The air we breathe, the water we drink, the genetically modified organisms we ingest, the toxins in our soaps and lotions.
"Light Sweet Crude" is a term and a substance that is is so ubiquitous, so steeped in history and complexity. In one instant, I understood it in a new way. It sparked an idea to to explore language in its layers, to approach my writing not in a linear way, but in a layered, indexed way. I set out to look at words and meaning in a metaphorical, psychological, historical, fully contextual way. And more specifically, to look at structure/s of power through the lens of language.
You produced 2008's Joe Sent Me. What was your gameplan when it came to Light Sweet Crude? How did you conceive of the actual sound for Crude and how did you go about choosing the people that you would work with for the new album?
While Joe Sent Me explored the idea of secretly coded messages corrupted through time, Light Sweet Crude explores the idea of corruption itself through language. In a way, it's the reverse of things I explored on Joe Sent Me. Rather than starting from the inside out, this time, I'm exploring things from the outside in, going into the core of an idea, thought or feeling.
Part of my exploration of flowers as metaphors has to do with the fact that flowers are inherently multi-layered multi-sensory entities: they are external to the world, openly flagrant in their display or fragrance, beguiling, seductive, perplexing, nuanced, complex. Yet, we comprehend them instantly, on an intuitive level. We understand their language without question.
On Light Sweet Crude, I set out to be as immersive as possible, to synthesize as many of the ideas that I've been working on as possible. Ideas that incorporate poetry, sound, painting, dance and cinema. So, naturally, I was drawn to producers, musicians and artists with whom I share a certain synergy, who are exploring similar terrain.
You worked with a number of producers on Light Sweet Crude; can you describe what unique ideas and perspectives each of these producers brought to Crude and how they helped to shape your concept of the album?
Absolutely. My new album started out as a personal journey, like my previous ones. But at some point along the way, one collaboration lead to another which lead to another, and so on. The idea evolved into a collaborative one, where the songs I was writing took on other shapes and meanings. New songs developed through these creative co-minglings. Light Sweet Crude has been very much like a spiral starting from one point, moving outwards and opening into a dynamic and complex formation.
Each producer comes from such a unique perspective. At the same time, there's a thread that runs through all of their music, a sonic connection which translates into a philosophical one. I love how those connections create a thread which runs through the album, and how their differences creates an exciting asymmetry and disambiguation.
You explored a whole spectrum of musical styles over the last 20 years of your career. Where would you say you are now musically? What kinds of musical sounds did you explore with Light Sweet Crude?
I've been listening mostly to songs that have in some way surprised me, sonically or lyrically. I've always tried to hold on to that first-impression-surprise-element in my life, with everything I encounter. I was drawn to sounds that have that effect on me for Light Sweet Crude. Sounds which say something about technology, which have inherent in them some sense of irony or mystery. I wanted to take this time to harness a certain sound, one that reflects where I truly am in my sonic life, that is, what sounds are moving me, affecting and instigating me.
While I've always perceived of my music as a kind of synthesis of sounds, as layering or Mixology, lately I've been intrigued by the idea of hybridity: it has more to do with chemistry or alchemy. The idea that by putting two or more sounds together in the same space, you achieve more than a combination of those sounds. What you create is a new psychological space. The sound of an upright bass, for instance, carries with it its own unique history. But that bass sound, when it meets a sound the ear cannot recognize, an unfamiliar synthesized sound -- that creates a new experience, one which the mind, heart and body respond and react to immediately.
Joe Sent Me introduced a more live sound and stripped back a lot of the electronic textures in favour of jazz. To what capacity is Light Sweet Crude an extension of Joe? Or does the new album breakaway to explore entirely new terrain?
The term "Light Sweet Crude" refers to all the senses: "Light" refers to sight and touch, "Sweet" to taste (and also its homophone "Suite"), and "Crude", which can refer to any number of things that we can touch, see and say. In many ways, I set out to create an album which jiggers a new, neoteric, unfamiliar array of emotions, sensations, feelings and imaginings.
Joe Sent Me explored realms and sounds of jazz that have changed -- you could say, corrupted -- through time. It was suffused rather than based on electronic elements. Light Sweet Crude is in many ways the reverse, where electronic elements are the glue, the bed, and jazz lingers at its edges, lurks in its margins. Rather than a leading role, jazz is rather like a shadow on this album. It plays a supporting one in this album, but nonetheless, important in its presence. jazz evidences itself less in the sonic references this time, and more in my vocal phrasings, timbres, and chord structures.
I understand there were a lot of revisions and restructurings (sometimes "hiccups") happening throughout the process of Light Sweet Crude; Can you go into detail about some of the revisions made along the way?
Those "hiccups" had to do mostly with time. Since this is very much a collaborative project, there was a need to be flexible with the idea of a "deadline". I decided at some point to not be frustrated by this process, but to use the time in between to keep pushing myself creatively, to keep writing songs and honing my process. In many ways, I've learned to embrace the idea that a missed deadline is an opportunity to re-think the plan, re-position myself, re-align my thinking. Some of my best songs have come at those times when a plan has been delayed or thwarted. Instead of perceiving what I'm doing as "waiting", I guess you could say I now I look at it more like hovering. It's the difference between the way a crow hunts for food as opposed to a hawk: it's same thing they're doing, but they do it very differently.
Light Sweet Crude is very much a woman's album - it's about a woman in the time of political clashes and both the love of violence and the violence of love....Passions, anger, desires are all ratcheted up to the most extreme turns on the dial. What does LSC say about love and violence from a resolutely woman's perspective?
The word "perspective" is very much a hinge word for me on this album. I like to look to physics for metaphors and explanations for human behavior, such as the Observer Effect or the Many Minds and the Many Worlds Interpretation.
At the same time that our world-view is "limited" to our selves, we share an affinity with like minds, and by virtue of our bearing witness to the world, we change it, effect it. How we interpret information and events becomes fixed in our minds. We are "certain" of this or that. Physics shows us that certainty is a malleable thing, and, like love, the systems that we organize -- individually and collectively -- are not fixed, as much as we would like to think they are.
All systems are fluid: love and desire are subsets of the human condition called life. From an early age, I've been fascinated by the fluctuations, oscillations. The idea of "resonance" has been very much on my mind for this album.
What interests me is not just the sound, but that echo that is left once a sound is made. The questions for me are, at which point does that echo reach us, and how does it effect us? Does it make us remember, repel, respond, react?
I was invited to give a lecture by professor and artist Suzanne Anker at the School of Visual Arts. The jump-off point was the idea of Degrees of Freedom. As a dancer and artist, the notion of limits to and within our movements and actions is fascinating to me. The question for me is not (only) how to extend that freedom, but how to exist within those limits and increase the possibilities.
Your mother was a writer and, I believe, lived a life in the arts. Can you tell me something about her work as a writer? Writers are open vessels; they transmit and receive ideas in an endless circuit of information. You did briefly touch upon themes of mothers and daughters before ("Hurricanes")...if Light Sweet Crude is about the evolution and revolution of ideas and ideals (ideas/ideals often passed on from generation to generation), does Crude speak on any level about the nature of mother-daughter relationships in the way of love, beliefs and practices?
My mother was a writer and an artist in the '70s, very much ahead of her time and always on the cusp of things -- all of my albums are in some way, open letters to her somehow. Slow to Burn was dedicated to her, and written with her in mind. Her spirit ran through the lives of all of the eleven women artists I wrote about.
The idea of limits to our freedom can be applied to life, and love, and also, as a woman, to my gender. We, collectively, as women, share a view of the world which men do not, cannot. We carry the burden of the past which is Biblical, patriarchal, historical, and consequently, systemic.
We, as women, are introduced to the idea of violence as early as we are introduced to the idea of love. The idea that we must protect ourselves even, and especially, in the act of making "love", is in many ways, anathema to boys. And still, to this day, sadly, violence against women is the norm, not the exception. My song "Love Is War" addresses this reality, the need for constant vigilance to protect our physical -- and psychological -- selves. As a girl or woman, losing one's virginity is, in many ways, our first political act.