In Rolling Stone writer David Fricke’s liner notes to the 1995 Velvet Underground box set, Peel Slowly and See, violist John Cale once said of his former bandmate and collaborator Nico: “Part of her modus operandi was being misunderstood, having this naive, beatific view of the universe in one hand, and being very tough and dominant on the other. She didn’t put up with shit from anybody.”
It’s a very apt description of Nico (born Christa Päffgen), who only only appeared on the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, but left an indelible mark through her haunting and monotonal vocals on three of the band’s beloved songs: “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, and “Femme Fatale”. After leaving the Velvets, the German fashion model and actress carved her own idiosyncratic music career beginning with the Chelsea Girl album from 1967 (featuring songs by Reed, John Cale, and a then-unknown singer-songwriter named Jackson Browne), followed by a series of art rock records throughout the ’70s and mid-’80s. Tragically on July 18, 1988, Nico died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a bicycle accident in Ibiza.
Nico’s legacy has been well preserved over the years not only through the Velvet Underground’s first album and her solo works, but in the form recent tributes, including the John Cale-led all-star concert at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music from 2013; Neko Case’s cover of the singer’s “Afraid” on her most recent album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You; and performance artist Tammy Faye Starlite’s portrayal of the singer on stage.
Following those is a new record, Killer Road, by Soundwalk Collective and Jesse Paris Smith featuring rock icon Patti Smith. An ambient-sounding meditative work on Nico’s death from 28 years ago, Killer Road melds atmospheric electronic textures and Patti Smith’s both understated and dramatic recitations of Nico’s lyrics, drawing from such albums as Desertshore, Drama of Exile and Camera Obscura. Sounds of crickets and the ocean waves, and the use of harmonium — an instrument that Nico had performed on — really adds to the beauty and melancholy of this unique collaborative album. “That captivated me,” Patti Smith said in an press release, “the idea of merging her language with what was perhaps the last sound she might have heard, besides her own breathing.”
Soundwalk Collective — which consists of Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi — is a sound art group based in New York City and Berlin. It was a chance meeting between Crasneanscki and Patti Smith on an airplane bound for New York that eventually led to their collaboration. On the surface, it’s fitting that Smith would be involved, given that she and Nico are artists whose used music as a vehicle for their poetry; in fact, Smith rescued Nico’s harmonium at a pawnshop back in the late ’70s.
Killer Road was Jesse Paris Smith, one of the key members of this collaboration, is the daughter of Patti Smith and the late guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. Her work has included composing music for short films, commercial projects, and art installations, and she has also performed with her mother and brother Jackson. In addition to music, Jesse has been involved in issues pertaining to global warming and the Himalayan region. In this PopMatters interview, she discusses via email about collaborating with Soundwalk Collective in reinterpreting Nico’s poetry.
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Do you recall your earliest introduction to Nico (perhaps “The Velvet Underground and Nico” or “Chelsea Girl” albums) and how did it come about? And in a way, has Nico been an influence towards your own musical sensibilities?
I honestly didn’t know too much about her. I knew her song “These Days”, and had performed it once with my mom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an evening dedicated to Andy Warhol. I knew that my mom had known her in the ’70s. My mom told me that my dad loved her albums, and his favorite song was “Somewhere There’s a Feather”, and he liked to quote the lyrics of “These Days”. It is nice now to listen those songs knowing my dad liked them.
How did this collaboration with Soundwalk Collective come about? Had you heard of Soundwalk Collective prior to your mother meeting Stephan on the plane en route to New York? And could you recall how that meeting between the two led to a discussion about Nico?
I had never heard of Soundwalk Collective before this collaboration, but I was so happy to meet such like-minded people, and hope to continue to collaborate always with them. I was not present with Stephan and my mom met each other, but I know Stephan and Soundwalk Collective had begun the project in Ibiza, focused on the life of Nico and hadn’t found someone to read the words yet. My mom was intrigued by their project as they spoke of mutual interests, and they agreed she would read the poems. It was a serendipitous meeting, and the same occurred when my mom introduced me to Stephan, we found through mutual interests that my role in the project would be a natural addition.
Where was Killer Road recorded?
The album is a double vinyl. Two sides are studio recordings, done at the Soundwalk Collective studio in New York City, and two sides are live performances in Berlin and New York.
Can you talk about your involvement on the record? For example, did
you handle the keyboards, arrangements, production, etc.?
I played acoustic instruments such as crystal singing bowls, metallophones, and waterphone.
If it’s possible, I would love for you to riff or comment about anything that comes to mind regarding some of the tracks on the record. The first is the title track “Killer Road”, which was earlier released. To me it really sets the tone of the record.
I agree. It is dark and melancholy, yet playful and abstract. You can really listen to it in a lot of different ways.
“Fearfully in Danger” is another moving song. Could you talk about its creation?
The musical part was created to have a gradual build up of sound, stemming out of the peaceful grounding wash of ocean sounds, with all of us blending our sounds together into something strong and powerful, steadily growing and building into the eventual release. My mom going into song was completely spontaneous and unplanned, letting the sound and words take her somewhere on her own to interpret Nico’s words over the foundation of our sound.
“The Sphinx”, originally from Nico’s album Desertshore, is another very powerful track, and Patti’s performance really heightens the haunting melancholy expressed by the song.
This is one of my favorites also.
This project is probably the first time I’ve heard your music featured prominently under your own name on an album. I am curious to know whether it was your parents’ musical backgrounds that led you to composing and performing music, or was it something that you would have naturally gravitated to on your own?
I have no idea if I would have found it on my own. It was not my original intention to become a musician or composer. I wanted to be a climate scientist or writer. But my life is surrounded with music and it was a natural progression to get involved with music. I try to connect my varied interests such as through my non-profit, Pathway to Paris, which is a musical event series focused on climate change awareness.
Music is a wonderful way to connect people with shared interests and concerns as music is a universal language that connects us all and opens people’s hearts to be able to hear important messages.
At the moment, is Killer Road a one-off project, or are there any plans to collaborate again with Soundwalk Collective in the future?
I hope to collaborate with them always.
What do you hope people who will be hearing this album for the first time come away from the experience? A greater appreciation for Nico, perhaps?
Yes, it is an album made in her honor, so I hope they will go and listen to her songs and explore her work and story. I hope also that they will be introduced to Soundwalk Collective, and will explore their catalog of incredible works. In addition to paying a personal homage to Nico and contemplating who she was as a person when listening, I also hope that people will be able to go into their own worlds when listening, letting the music and words take them wherever they need to be. Maybe they will be inspired by the sounds of nature, or feel driven to write their own poetry, or it will take them into a contemplative or meditative space. We can’t know what Nico would think of the performances. Whether someone listens once, or many times, all we can hope to do in our work is inspire each other.