Just Let Go: An Interview with Jarboe

J2 is what happens when artists like Jarboe and Justin Broadrick meet halfway, then feed off each other.

"I'm interested in sounds, like sonic texture, and singing the way a keyboard line or a melody line I wrote is performed by a cellist or a guitarist, or what have you," explains singer Jarboe, on the phone from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. "At this point, I think the composition and the actual sound is just as interesting to me as my human voice."

One of the boldest, most adventurous female vocalists of the past 20 years, Jarboe has amassed as eclectic a musical résumé as one could ever manage. Of course, she's most famous for her work with the groundbreaking experimental band Swans in the '80s and '90s, serving as the feminine foil to the disturbed, highly intense aggression of frontman Michael Gira on such landmark albums as Children of God, White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, and The Great Annihilator.

Since the band's split in 1997, she has continued to experiment even further, delving into post rock, spoken word, and extreme metal, collaborating with dozens of artists along the way, from Bill Laswell to Neurosis. And at the heart of Jarboe's oeuvre is her astonishing voice, which simultaneously channels Kate Bush and Diamanda Galas, and can go from a soothing whisper to a devastatingly demonic howl in a split second, yielding music that's every bit as seductive as it is spine-tingling.

Jarboe's latest project, one of many she has on the go at the moment, is a collaboration people have been dreaming of for years, as she's finally teamed up with Jesu mastermind/metal innovator and longtime Swans fan Justin Broadrick for the heavily anticipated EP J2, a fascinating meeting of two gifted minds, the likes of which we rarely see succeed so well. The result transcends the usual "mutual admiration society" ego-stroking we see in high-profile collaborations in favor of genuine musical chemistry.

"Of course, in Swans, all of us were familiar with Godflesh, and we were very familiar and very aware of the fact that there were some very overt simulations of some of our ideas and sonic textures, particularly the heavy stuff," say Jarboe in her smooth Southern drawl. "But I wasn't really familiar myself with [Broadrick's] post-Godflesh material until Decibel magazine asked me to do a blindfold test two or three years ago. They played one of the Jesu EPs, and I really thought it was great, so without knowing who it was I praised it and they published my review. I was really blown away by it, so that was really my first introduction to it."

Jarboe's interest in Jesu's early material soon led to a joint effort during a live performance at London's La Scala in 2005, which would bring the two luminaries together for the first time. "[Broadrick] was one of the artists on the bill that night, and I asked him if he would go to the sound desk and mix the live sound for [my set]. I gave him the artistic freedom to put delays, holds, to be kind of artistic and have full reign. So I did most of the show from out in the middle of the audience with the microphone and I was able to enjoy what he did, and indeed, he made it extremely psychedelic. I thought it was one of the most exciting shows as a result, because it was just so artful in terms of what he did, and in terms of the sonic manipulation."

That initial meeting would set the stage for the duo's first performance together on record, the enthralling "Storm Comin' On", the best song on Jesu's Lifeline EP (and the band's best song of an incredibly productive 2007), and according to Jarboe, it was that brief collaboration that served as the catalyst for the J2 project. "I think it was a bit of a bold gesture on [Justin's] part because he doesn't really have lead narratives in his work, and so I think that was kind of a compromise, but I also feel it was a step towards something interesting. I really like that song; I really like what it evoked in my head in terms of images and memories. My intent in the lyric of the song was to reference my impression of New York City when I first went up there to try to join Swans, where the line of stepping through needles and puddles of piss, that was the East Village in 84, with hypodermic needles and urinating on sidewalks, so there's a reference to that. And then there's also a reference to my childhood upbringing with my accent from New Orleans, so the storm comin' on in my head is a reference to Katrina and also to the destruction of a lot of my family's properties in NOLA, and also to the destruction that was all around me in New York City."

Essential Extreme

Fury and Flames,

Hate Eternal

Metal Blade

Rating: 8

These days it's getting more and more difficult to find death metal that truly stands out, let alone exude the kind of suffocating intensity the sound demands, but Erik Rutan's Hate Eternal has given the somewhat stale subgenre a huge shot in the arm with its fourth album, and finest to date. While Rutan's songwriting on Fury and Flames continues to lean towards formulaic, it's always about the execution with this band, and studio whiz Rutan has created a mix that can only be described as gargantuan. However, the band, now expanded to a quartet, is the real revelation here as they display astonishing precision and surprising nuance. Plus, not only are tracks like "Bringer of Storms" and "Hell Envenom" masterful exercises in death dynamics, but they're also a perfect showcase for phenomenal new drummer Jade Simonetto, who puts on a death metal drum clinic for the ages.

J2, on the other hand, on the other hand, heads in a more ambient direction that will surprise some, especially those more accustomed to the heavier output of Jesu and Godflesh. As opposed to Jarboe's creative contributions to a Broadrick-penned "Storm Comin'", this time around the table's been turned, as Broadrick adds his own personality to six songs that Jarboe has written. The CD makes note of the relation of its title to the unit of energy joule, and according to Jarboe, it's the collaborative energy between herself and Broadrick that's vastly more important than who wrote what and who performed what. "I think the fact that it's this energy, a combined energy, and the fact that this was a deliberate computer collaboration, of file exchange, and so we were using energy and electricity and going back and forth using the internet with files, so that's kind of at the heart of the collaboration," she explains. "He's at his studio with his computer and his gear, and I'm at my home studio with my computer and my gear, and we're meeting in cyberspace with this exchange. That was kind of the ultimate inspiration for that title for that project name, the very method that we used to work."

Despite the seemingly sterile, impersonal nature of working together via the Internet, it turned out to be a remarkably comfortable process for both parties. "He's a very open person, a very easy person to get along with and to work with. There was never any conflict, there was just agreement. We dialogued back and forth and kind of came to a meeting point of his original ideas and mine. I think he really was being very cautious, I believe out of respect with vocal treatments, and I said he had carte blanche, to just go for it, to be more extreme, he didn't have to be so utterly respectful of my voice that it was completely dry, he could do anything he wanted. Then I think when he realized that I was cool with that, that I like to collaborate, when I gave him that freedom, that green light, then I think he relaxed and realized it would be this great, enjoyable thing doing this together."

The intent of the entire J2 project is immediately made apparent on opening track "Decay", which features an enthralling seven and a half minute tug-of-war between Jarboe's gently cooing vocals and Broadrick's increasingly jarring guitar drones and feedback, the vocals slowly, subtly going from innocent and angelic to something far more disturbing. "I was very excited about the voice as giving you impressions rather than literal scapes," says Jarboe. "When I say that, I mean singing, emoting, but without using specific language or words, and that's kind of something I did on this, too…With 'Decay', that's a very obvious commentary on the decay of form, and the form in that case is my voice, which goes from being a choral thing and then breaks down to a decayed hag."

"Romp" is a similar blend of the innocent and the disturbed, Broadrick adding a lugubrious drum beat and ominous drone underneath Jarboe's keyboards and multi-layered, schizophrenic vocals, which plays right into her skilled hands. "There's multiple voicings in there, and there's a character being chased by another character. That's the idea of the romp, it's that it's a romp of all these personas pursuing each other and chasing down each other. That's kind of a little acknowledgment of the fact that I kind of live with all these different characters that are contained inside me at all times, and sometimes they kind of do battle for which one is going to emerge as the voice…I'm up to the point where these different voice qualities are in my head as characters and are kind of dialoguing with each other. It's almost like a duet with yourself."

The gorgeous "8mmsweetbitter" is a perfect example of both artists meeting halfway and then feeding off each other, Broadrick's heavily-filtered guitar wafting around Jarboe's tender synth melody, underscored by a languorous trip-hop beat. Says Jarboe, "The sound that you hear at the beginning is the sound of an old 8 mm movie camera, and that was originally conceived in the spring when a good friend of mine literally in one month was diagnosed and died from a mysterious and very rare disease, so I was thinking about her when I wrote that. So it has a melancholy mood to it, it's almost like me remembering her and seeing films of her. There's a lot of thought that went into that, and I felt that the music conveyed that."

Two tracks especially stand out, artfully combining accessibility with experimentation. Broadrick's jarring guitar crunches add an unabashedly Swans-like vibe to the lush "Magick Girl", while the gentler, more feminine "Let Go", bears a remarkable resemblance to the recent work by both Kate Bush and Goldfrapp. "On ['Magick Girl'] we decided to get rid of the verses, with the idea that another release might come out with the verses in a different arrangement, so that this thing would kind of be like an unfolding puzzle, so you get elements of it this time, and you get elements of it later. I also like the idea that you're leaving a lot of room for the imagination," she says. "I would say the most thematic piece would be 'Let Go'…that's kind of the heart of the idea, is letting go of expectations, and letting go of what is a song, and letting go of what the expectations are from him, and this stage of our career, and kind of hoping to have a playful element in letting go of preconceived notions."

Whether it's the audacious, genre-hopping audacity of Diamanda Galas, the similarly challenging artwork of Damian Hirst, or the frenetic mathcore of Disrhythmia, Jarboe is continually drawn to the more extreme side of music and art, something that will be more than evident on her upcoming solo album, due out in June. Featuring such vocal guests as Mayhem's Atilla Csihar and Down's Philip Anselmo and featuring a massive wall of guitar, bass, drums, and organ ("In terms of decibel level…it's heavier than Neurosis," she chuckles), it's certain to appeal to the metal crowd in a huge way this summer.

But on a more personal level, what specifically draws Jarboe to extreme music? "It probably has to do with just a person's inherent nature," she muses. "I can look back on my entire life, my childhood and everything, and see that I've always been drawn to that, kind of fearless and very interested in things that are kind of unsettling, and things that make you leave your comfort zone. As an artist, for me the whole directive has been leaving your comfort zone and going up against resistance. I think that all creative people, whether writers, actors, musicians, or painters go up against resistance, and resistance is the block that keeps you from working, and you've got to constantly punch through those walls of resistance, and one way to do that, for me, is to put myself into a place that is a challenge."

Conversely, Jarboe's love of extreme music has been reciprocated in a big way from the metal community in recent years. Many of today's best metal acts have cited Swans as a major influence, including black metal aces Cobalt, whose Eater of Birds was highlighted by Jarboe's cameo appearance, and she is not only humbled by all the adoration, but is also fully aware of Swans' legacy on contemporary metal. "I don't really know why the resurgence is…but it is fascinating to me, I think it's good. I think if you go back and listen to the trajectory of the sounds that it speaks for itself, and the fact that [Swans] constantly changed, the fact that it kept morphing and changing and didn't just stay in one particular sound, it was kind of awe-inspiring.

"It's very gratifying when you meet rock icons or notables in harder work and metal work, and they say this," she says, adding with a winsome laugh that betrays her self-described "rocker oracle demoness" persona, "It makes you feel all warm and glowy inside."

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