Demons, Caravaggio, and Feminism: Xiu Xiu on 'Girl with Basket of Fruit'
Sparked by Caravaggio's Boy with Basket of Fruit, Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart sees the title of their latest work, Girl with Basket of Fruit, as a comment on feminist politics and the precarious role of women in the world.
Girl With a Basket of Fruit
8 February 2019
An artist as prolific as Jamie Stewart doesn't need to answer questions about his "direction". He averages a full-length project a year. His discography covers not only scathing noise-pop but accessible, canonical art-rock with more than a pinch of provocation. There's also some album-long tributes to Nina Simone and Angelo Badalamenti thrown in for good measure. However, Girl with Basket of Fruit might be the most challenging project Xiu Xiu has ever released, and that's saying a lot. It's hard to listen to without a few questions pervading your thoughts. What's on his mind? What prompted this? Why now?
Of course, there's no succinct answer. "Any direction that any of the last several records have taken has been a product of not trying to force it into a direction," says Stewart. That shouldn't come as a surprise. Music as raw and cathartic as this shouldn't be premeditated. But that doesn't mean Stewart jumps into it empty-headed. "I mean, there were some elements we had in mind," he says coyly, before pointing to collaborations with Haitian and Yoruba drummers, and an overarching theme of "underground spirituality". Stewart thinks a lot, his music acting as an expressive ejection of whatever emotions these thoughts conjure. He stays humble though. "Beyond that, there were no plans."
Stewart is the face of Xiu Xiu, the only member to appear on every album. However, he refuses to hog the credit. When asked if there's anything he wants to add at the end of the interview, Stewart gives props to Xiu Xiu member Angela Seo, helming her as the mastermind behind some of the album's finest qualities. He's also excited to highlight the importance of Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, who added production, and former Swans drummer Thor Harris, who doesn't appear on the album but is joining Xiu Xiu for their upcoming tour.
At the core of Girl with Basket of Fruit lie these collaborations, where everything and nothing are simultaneously at stake. It could be late night chats while flipping through a book about art or drunken vocal improvisations chopped up a-top a wall of noise.
The former calls to an anecdote about the album's title. Stewart and Seo were up one night with a vague task looming over them: they needed to name their album. Flipping through a book about Italian icon-painter Caravaggio, they noticed the painting Boy with Basket of Fruit. It was then that Seo immediately blurted out "girl with a basket of fruit", completely changing the tone of the album.
The overzealous journalist in me jumps and suggests that the title might be a "rejection of classic European icon art", as if to scream "I get it!" Stewart chuckles. "It's not really a rejection of European art in any way." Oh. "Changing the title from Boy with Basket of Fruit to Girl with Basket of Fruit was more of comment on feminist politics, and the precarious role of women in the world, generally."
He goes on. "The painting Boy with Basket of Fruit is deeply homoerotic, kind of fun and campy, in a cute way. When you change the title, the feeling becomes kind of dangerous, kind of perilous."
He's right. There's a stark difference between the depiction of men and women in religious art from that period. "All of the paintings of male martyrs see them surrounded by angels and adoring attendants, with their bodies being sort of lovingly washed. If you look at paintings of female martyrs from that period, they are invariably alone, in the midst of being torn apart and murdered, their breasts literally being ripped off. There are no angels." It's not a rejection at all, but a comment on the unfortunate and inherent difference of what it means to be a "boy" and what it means to be a "girl". It has nothing to do with European art, and everything to do with feminism.
What about the drunken vocal riffs? Those call back to the recording process of album highlight 'Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy', a song that, in some regard, acts as a homage to Chicago house. I suggest that this style is a little out of character for Xiu Xiu, but Stewart reminds me that house has been a part of the band since their inception.
The lyrics come from a friend of the band Elliot Reed, who provided two vocal improvisations that got moulded into the track. Then, one night, Seo got really drunk and did a couple more improvisations, which were eventually edited and used for the same song. Stewart also gave it a shot, but that didn't go too well. "Yeah, my improvisations sucked, so we cut those," he laughs.
This illustrates the core of Xiu Xiu's creative process. Stewart feels no need to insert himself into happy accidents, spontaneous moments that naturally unfold into something compelling. The song "Amargi ve Moo" takes a piece by another friend of the band, Devin Hoff, that Stewart recorded vocals over with Hoff's blessing. "Amargi" is the name of a Turkish feminist organization, reflecting Hoff's inspiration for his piece. "Moo" is Stewart's sister's nickname. From two separate experiences, the song comes together as something cohesive, resulting in another arguable centerpiece.
You can't talk about Girl with Basket of Fruit without talking about Deforms the Unborn, the special show commissioned by Danh Vo that Xiu Xiu performed at the Guggenheim. Born out of a fascination with child exorcism, the performance serves as a precursor to the album, housing the lyrics for about half the tracks. "I wanted to explore the long, nightmarish images and events that marked the decline of the possessed, the things that would happen to a child when they became possessed by the devil." Stewart is eager to emphasize that he has nothing to say about the actuality of these possessions. They could be imagined, they could be real. The result is the same.
Indeed, Xiu Xiu's discography is multi-dimensional and far from linear. Girl with Basket of Fruit is the follow-up to Forget (Polyvinyl, 2017) one of the more pop-centric albums of Xiu Xiu's career. Forget came three years after another unlikely career highlight: an album-length cover of Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks soundtrack. A full album of covers is about as close as you can get to another artist's work, and it's interesting to ponder whether these projects serve as separate entities or if they're part of the same musical journey as Xiu Xiu's original music. Stewart says it's both. "It's part of the same artistic journey insofar as any time we have done any covers, the goal is to say "thank you" to the people who made the original song. We never try to "remake" or "improve" someone else's art. We had already learned something from that music before we attempted to cover it." By exploring the music so deeply, they learn from it even more.
The darkest moment on the record comes on the track 'Mary Turner Mary Turner', a song about the titular woman whose husband was lynched and, in 1918, took to the streets to protest when a violent white mob lynched and murdered her. She was pregnant at the time, and her unborn child was literally torn from her womb. "She lived to basically see the child fall out into the dirt beneath her and get lit on fire. Of course, nothing happened to the people who did it."
Stewart doesn't view this as a standalone atrocity. "There are unfortunate parallels to what happened to her, her husband and her child, and things that are happening now," he says. "It seems like certain people have the right to get away with anything. It's a comment about wanting to honor Mary Turner's memory as much as it is a display of befuddlement, rage, and exasperation."
Xiu Xiu have never been afraid of controversial subject matter; we're talking about a group that named one of their best songs "I Luv Abortion". But even when tackling a topic as disturbing as Turner's about a horror so unique, Stewart is sure to jump in with purpose. "I'm not confronting an issue as much as I'm trying to, in some small way, not have her story forgotten," he says. It's this type of sensitivity that comes to define even the most harrowing aspects of Xiu Xiu's art, always unafraid and unapologetic, but never at a loss for grace.
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