UnZipped: Vanessa Daou and Erica Jong on the Making of the Electronica Classic ‘Zipless’

Celebrating Zipless's nearly 25 years of existence with a new vinyl reissue, Vanessa Daou and Erica Jong continue to take listeners on a personal and intimate journey through the passionate exploits of this landmark work.

Zipless (reissue)
Vanesss Daou
DRKR Records, KID Recordings
7 Dec 2018

Perhaps pop music’s most unusual pairing, Vanessa Daou and Erica Jong proved an anomalous delight with 1995’s Zipless (now reissued on vinyl), an album that rode the wave of New York’s underground dance movement with bodily grace and literary flair. Together these artists, respectively in tune with the practice of giving the female body a voice of true reason, created in Zipless one of dance music’s most provocative statements of sexual exultance.

The album’s mission statement should have come as no surprise, not least with Jong, who rose rapidly to fame with the publication of her 1973 debut novel, Fear of Flying, a declaration of female sexual independence that, in equal measure, elicited from the public both ire and praise. Perhaps it was with some good fortune – and some strategic coupling of talents – that Zipless came to be; Jong is the aunt of Peter Daou, the album’s producer and Vanessa’s then-husband. Despite the familial relations and, therefore, a perceived partiality, the collaboration proved a judicious experiment, yielding beautiful results. Using Jong’s poems (culled from her anthology Becoming Light, Harpercollins, 1991) as the basis for the album’s lyrics, Zipless is unique in its examination of topical matters involving the placement of female sexuality in the world. Indeed, it’s undeniably an album for the body, the sinewy grooves beckoning those inexorably to the dance floor and, later, the bed. Such are the blue-moon swings of the album’s charms, the electronic pulses which hold sway with Jong’s poetry and Daou’s intimate susurrations.

Peter Daou’s production ensures that Zipless is sweaty with hothouse atmosphere. Pulling from the insistent rhythms of hip-hop, electronica’s ear-to-the-ground innovations, and the salacious curves of club-noire jazz, Peter handsomely shapes poetry and sound to the solstices of language and song. As with Jong’s composite and manifold work, the lyric-poems on Zipless often hold a wealth of exegetic properties. Daou sings of longing and sexual desire from a transitional point that begins from the depths of abandonment and loss. Her diaphanous voice and way with interpretation allow Jong’s poetry to move with the kind of fluidity that has always accompanied the frenzy of underground dance culture.

The ten numbers that feature on Zipless are full of heat and pressure; they are songs of rhythms deeply human and they speak to the restless core of femininity. Daou’s voice is perfectly suited for the task of rendering Jong’s poetry with the immediacy of pop music. The album’s first single, “Near the Black Forest”, is an indigo-flushed tale of a paramour-in-distress, a woman eyeing the intemperate desires that lie deep within the forest outside her window, and the one just below her navel.

Daou explores other reaches of sexual desire in the sharply-observed dramas of numbers like “Alcestis on the Poetry Circuit”, “The Long Tunnel of Wanting You” and “Becoming a Nun”. Congas, brushwires and saxophones congregate in the magma-heat of electronic melodies; the album’s lone element of cooling relief, the singer’s peppermint coos, hover above the burbling grooves like the waft of dry ice. Even in the uncomfortably personal intimations of sex and desire, Daou maintains a detachment of literary equanimity, forcing Jong’s poetry just outside the perimeters of pop music’s conventions. This surreal execution of performance and song has been the signifying marker of an album that has, for the past 25 years, made a home on the fringes of popular music. In many ways, it has also set the precedent of Daou’s subsequent work, where literature and poetry have been the defining elements of her brand of dance music.

This year sees the reissue of Zipless, which captures the hotly-tipped sentiments of love with the warm, full resonance of vinyl. The album has also been re-released digitally, with additional remixes that explore a number of electronica styles. In an age where women can reclaim their sexual independence with braver autonomy than ever before, the album proves how prescient it was upon its initial release. On Zipless, Daou and Jong lend a pressing, confident and always passionate voice that continues to open doors for the many female artists who create today. Both women speak to PopMatters about this landmark achievement in electronic music.


Interview with Vanessa Daou

When did you get the idea to use Erica Jong’s work as the basis for Zipless? What was the initial inspiration?

The idea came to me while reading Becoming Light, an Anthology of Erica’s poems published by Harper Collins. Her poems struck many chords with me, and found myself dwelling inside them, hearing melodies while I was reading. Her language and syntax — her voice — resonated with my own, and beyond the desire, I felt the need to turn them into songs. Once I lock into an idea, I’m like a bloodhound on the scent, and I’m very concept-driven, so when an idea takes hold, it’s a sense of the inexorable — and I’m compelled to follow where it leads.

The atmosphere on your work with Head Music (Sony, 1992), when you were a member of The Daou, drastically shifted with Zipless. Do you feel Erica’s poetry influenced the album sonically/musically?

I’d say that Head Music was in many ways the prologue, the introduction, the bird’s eye view looking down during the narrated scene leading into the movie. It set the stage.

I had been long interested in the idea of synthesis of the arts, and on Head Music, I set out to create a seamless blend of the music styles which shaped me: jazz, blues, soul, rock, folk, spoken word. I was also influenced by my training with choreographer Erick Hawkins, specifically ideas of fluidity, and ‘effortlessness’. At the time, I was reading voraciously and studying certain texts, the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh and Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love, where I was guided by these words from Nin:

“It must take great courage to give to many what one often gives but to the loved one. A voice altered by love, desire, the smile of open naked tenderness. We are permitted to witness the exposure of all feelings, tenderness, anger, weakness, abandon, childishness, fear, all that we usually reveal only to the loved one. That is why we love the actress. They give us the intimate being who is only revealed in the act of love. We receive all the treasures, a caressing glance, an intimate gesture, the secret ranges of the voice.”

There are moments in Head Music where I felt I had touched on a certain intimacy, a kind of quintessential, universal, feminine essence. Songs like “What Are You Guilty Of” and “Solitaire” expressed where I wanted to go musically and creatively. I was especially interested in the idea of opposites, contrasts, dissonances, such as an ethereal, breathy female voice floating on top of a hard beat and deep, dark bass. On “What Are You Guilty Of”, I was interested in the way the ethereal breathiness of my voice could belie the somber seriousness of the song’s subject matter, creating a palpable tension. On “Solitaire”, I liked how my voice projects and pierces through with bell-like clarity at key moments in the song, conveying a kind of inner strength and mindful intention. These were qualities I consciously brought to Zipless.

How did you go about selecting certain poems from Erica’s collection for the songs on Zipless? Why did these particular poems speak to you?

When I first read Becoming Light, I placed a Post-it on poems which struck me immediately. The poems I chose were not only ones that resonated with me, but ones I truly and intimately connected with in terms of message. “Near the Black Forest”, for example, spoke to me immediately. I connected with the restrained and terse language, the sense of being constricted and contained by (my) surroundings, the distancing conveyed by the word “she”. Jong is a master — correction, mistress! — at using the third person perspective to convey this disconcerting sense of distancing of “self” from “self”.

You did make some alterations to the poems; adding lines to make of refrains, removing certain parts and altering some of the lines. Can you tell us about these changes and the discussion you had with Erica about them?

Absolutely. Part of what I’m interested in is investigating how a poem differs from a song lyric. While a great song lyric might be considered a poem, a great poem won’t necessarily work as a song lyric. There are many factors at play, many variables with a song which have to do with adhering to a structural framework, with the limits of freedom.

A poem can take any shape and form on the page. Once written, it exists first on the page. If it’s recited aloud, the person interpreting it need not adhere to any fixed time or rhythmic measures. The reader is free to bring the words to life as slowly or quickly as desired, shaping the meaning through inflection, intonation, timbre, etc.

A song is a different animal: it’s the Husky, not the Wolf. A song can still enjoy a certain degree of freedom, but it’s inherently less unruly than a poem because it has more constraints rhythmically and linguistically, because of the need to establish structure, and because certain words might work well in a poem, but not feel right once sung.

On Zipless, “Becoming a Nun” was the poem which underwent the most adjustments. I wanted to keep the economy of Erica’s language, as natural, and conversational. But I needed to fit the words into the compositional structure. Once I decided on division of the word “be/coming” in the chorus, the poem-turned-song took on an added level of irony.

I kept diligent notes during the process, was able to explain all the changes to Erica, and show her visually what changes I made, and why. Having the notes made the whole difference. They demonstrated my diligence and careful consideration of her language as I felt it related to content and message.

Erica has been publishing her writing since the ’70s. What is it about her work, do you think, that remains relevant after all these decades?

Erica tapped into something simultaneously personal and universal, contemporary and primal: fear. In particular, she spoke to the many-faceted fear a woman feels as it relates to her body, in particular, its desires which society, at the time, hadn’t fully granted as equal to those of men. Women of Erica’s generation struggled with feelings of guilt, shame and regret when it came to their physical desires. They still do, I daresay. They always will until men walk in their shoes and until other women, who don’t feel they need, want, or desire to obtain the full agency over their bodies that men, for the most part, have. We as women won’t be fully free until all women stand up for equal rights for all of their sisters. In my experience, there are an equal number of women out there who want to push the clock back. It’s a mistake to focus on men as the source of women’s systemic inequality.

You rarely tour with your music. But you did tour the Zipless album. You opened for the late Guru (from Gangstarr) on his Jazzmatazz tour. What do you remember of those live shows?

In many ways, the stage is the only home I’ve known. Growing up, we were always moving — this created a lack of stability which every child needs. I created my own sense of stability by relying on my intelligence and talents, turning to books and art. No matter where you are, the book you’re reading waits for you where you left off, and every stage is the same.

I love performing, but always aspired to living the life of an artist or writer. Life on the road is erratic and grueling. There’s also the added element of uncertainty with various band members, their needs, demands and idiosyncrasies. I’ve always been a bit of an anomaly in the music world in many ways, and my creative journey has been unconventional because I don’t subscribe to the unwritten rules of being a so-called entertainer. My idea and vision of being an artist is more aligned with enlightenment, and less with entertainment.

Guru had a generous spirit, and was an incredibly courageous musician. I remember his warmth most of all. The highlight of the tour was playing on stage one night with Donald Byrd, who was touring with Jazzmatazz at the time. Right before the show, he was standing behind me as we waited to make our entrance. I’ll never forget that he kissed me gently on my shoulder. It was such a lighthearted, heartfelt gesture, I’ll never forget it.

What do you think this re-release of Zipless will say to a new generation of listeners? Do you think, considering the way social attitudes have changed (particularly with the Me-Too Movement), that audiences will react differently to the highly feminine and feminist nature of the album than they did when it was released nearly 25 years ago?

When I was touring for Zipless, I was often asked during interviews if I considered myself a feminist, and whether I really believed feminism was still relevant. Invariably, I received most of the rolled eyes, exasperated expressions, and pushback from women.

I think the re-release will open eyes as well as ears, in the sense that since the time of its release, and the era of Fear of Flying when Erica coined the term “the Zipless fuck”, shockingly, not much has changed. Women are still being beaten and killed by their husbands, boyfriends, and strangers. They are still being abducted and sold into slavery. They are still being told to reign in their dreams and be obedient daughters, girlfriends, wives, and employees. And they are still being paid less than their male counterparts and told that their bodies belong to their husbands and governments.

Plus, there’s the added and generationally new pressures, in that today’s young girls, who are raised on Snapchat, subscribe to a new ideal of perceived beauty which involves dangerous — in many ways, terrifying — surgical modifications and interventions.

Beyond this re-release, what new works and material do you have in the pipelines?

I have a few things in the wings. A new album, a lecture series, and one-woman show which ties into a non-profit idea I’m developing, inspired by the training I received at UCLA Social Emotional Arts Certificate program, and my long-held interest the healing potential of art.

Interview with Erica Jong

How did Peter and Vanessa Daou approach you with the idea to use your poetry on the Zipless album? Did they present you with demos or a concept? What were your initial thoughts about the project?

Peter and Vanessa read my Becoming Light: Poems New and Selected (1991) — a huge volume — and they expressed interest in setting my poems [to music]. I said, “choose whatever poems resonate with you.” I was aware that Peter was a great keyboard artist. My dad, a pianist and a drummer, adored his grandson Peter and always supported his music. I knew that Vanessa was one of these amazingly multi-talented people — a terrific painter, poet, singer… anything she does is good!

Vanessa chose certain poems of yours, which she connected with the most. I have heard you reading your own poems and Vanessa’s interpretation of the same poem (in particular, her song “Honey in a Jar”, which appears on her Make You Love album, EMI, 2000), and I feel the readings are quite different. What did you think of Vanessa’s interpretation of your poems when you first heard them? In what ways do you think she gave them another dimension or shape?

It’s great if a poem resonates enough so that it can mean different things to different people. “Honey in a Jar” and “Make You Love” are very different than what I thought. “Honey in a Jar” was for me about love, sex, lust. And she saw it in her own way. That’s very exciting and flattering and why would I argue with that? If a poem is good, different people will see it in different ways.

Before he would enter the political arena, your nephew Peter was a music producer who was producing Zipless (and would go on to produce four of Vanessa’s other albums). He worked mainly in underground dance music and electronica, which was on the rise in places like New York (which is where he and Vanessa were living together at the time). What were your thoughts about your poetry and work suddenly being connected to the underground youth culture that had been affiliated with techno, hip-hop, electronica and the club scene? Did you see this as a seamless transition of your work? Or was it just strange to see your work interpreted in a medium that was oriented toward the regions outside of the literary field?

On the contrary, I was delighted to see another generation interpret my work. I love all kinds of music — classical, jazz, blues, folk, techno, hip-hop, electronica. Every genre reflects a different time but all of it is valuable. I grew up attending Leonard Bernstein’s Children’s Concerts at Carnegie Hall. I’m not parochial in my tastes. I understand that every century produces its own music.

I noticed that Vanessa chose poems which were at once very sexually open and very elegiac, sad in some way… I find this is quite true of much of your work. You seem to find the interstices which exist between sexual passion and despair. And then you write from those spaces. I find that this emotional pivot exists in almost every subject you explore.

One of your poems (which I know by heart) that you wrote about your daughter called “My Daughter Says”, explores both the chasms and bridges between mothers and daughters; how the emotional abandonment a child feels on the playground is not any different than the abandonment a grownup feels when a lover has left her or him… I think most writers are afraid to explore these emotional cross-references. But this has been a literary practice of yours since your beginnings as a writer. Can you elaborate on this approach in your own work?

Poets usually don’t know why they write from certain spaces — it’s the unconscious that determines one’s themes and, yes, there is both hope and despair in my poetry. I can be ironic or despairing or in love with life.

I know we are falling in love on a planet that may be about to blow up or drown. I know that politicians are doing fucking nothing about it, so we are falling in love on a planet that may not be habitable for our kids. One of my friends didn’t have children because she felt the environment was so polluted. At first, I didn’t want kids and then in my thirties my desire for children hit me. Molly was born when I was thirty-six.

Regarding the poem in which my daughter says she “feels like an outcast”— I think children grow up and go through many different phases. Molly used to come home from school and say, “I’m not one of the popular people, I feel like an outcast.” That probably was around fifth or sixth grade. By the time she got to high school she had a lot of friends and they were all the outcasts! Okay, she wasn’t one of the “popular people”, but she was popular among the outcasts! You know, she was going through the stages of growing up.

The mother-daughter relationship is incredibly complex, sometimes you know you’d die for your child and sometimes she makes you so angry. My husband’s father used to say to him, “I make the jokes, you make the mistakes!” I would never have said that to my daughter. In fact, I’m so encouraging to her that she doesn’t let me read her work before it’s published because she says, “You love everything I write!” And I say, “I had a very critical mother and I’m not going to be one.”

You make an appearance on the Zipless album for a song called “Smoke”. You wrote it especially for the album. What can you say about this piece?

I had reached a point where I had no desire whatsoever to get stoned. In my twenties and thirties I enjoyed marijuana — especially when I lived in California and the Humboldt County sensimilla was extraordinary. Later, I completely lost interest in marijuana because it was so paranoia-inducing.

The metaphor of smoke has always intrigued me. There’s a European poet who writes about the smoke arising from the death camps, vaporizing Jews. Smoke can mean death. Smoke can mean fantasy. Smoke may be a message of a new Pope.

How do you think Zipless has held up after all these years? In what ways, perhaps, do you think Vanessa’s work has influenced your own, if at all? You don’t publish as much poetry as you do fiction, but will this new vinyl release of Zipless prompt any desire to return, once again, to your very beginnings as a poet any time soon?

Song lyrics are important and they’ve become more and more vulgar. I grew up on Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe. My father played all these composers on the piano and we sang. If poetry is good and it’s set by a talented composer, it will last longer than anything. Shakespeare’s sonnets have been reincarnated over and over by different composers.

Because Vanessa chose the poems that moved her, Zipless became a work about the way women feel. Vanessa is so talented; she knows what echoes her obsessions. Vinyl sounds better than tinny discs. It took us a while to discover that.

As for poetry, I have never stopped writing it. Of course, it takes longer than prose. A new book of poems is coming out in 2019 – The World Began With Yes (Red Hen Press, April). I’d be delighted if Vanessa wanted to set any of these poems [to music]. Her perception of women’s feelings is very precise. She is truly an artist. I’m proud to work with her.