Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Q&A with Elixer Productions Co-Founder Alex DeFazio


This May, the Dance Program at Mercer County Community College will collaborate with the Mercer Dance Ensemble to present the world-premier of Joe Sent M.D.E., a program of original dances set to music from the new album by acclaimed singer-songwriter Vanessa Daou.

To help promote the event and show her support, Daou will be appearing at Mercer County Community College on Friday, March 27 at 12:30pm for a Q&A with Theatre Program instructor and Elixir Productions co-founder Alex DeFazio. What follows are Vanessa's e-mailed responses to drafts of Alex's questions for the Q&A as well as two additional questions and answers - exclusive to Elixir - where Vanessa shares her thoughts about gender and sexuality and how they inform her music.

Joe Sent M.D.E. performs Saturday, May 16 at 8:00 and Sunday, May 17 at 2:00pm at Kelsey Theatre on the MCCC campus (1200 Old Trenton Road / West Windsor, NJ). Tickets are available by phone at 609-570-333 or online at the Kelsey Theatre website. Vanessa will be appearing on campus Friday, March 27 at 12:30pm in CM122 (Communications Building Room 122); the Q&A is free and open to the public!

In the mean time, look for Joe Sent Me, Vanessa's new album, at Daou Records.

Link to original post on Elixer Productions Blog ]

Alex: Many of our students at Mercer County Community College aspire to professional careers in the arts - as musicians, actors, visual artists, graphic designers, dancers. You were a student at Vassar and then Barnard College and Columbia University, and it was around this time that you began reading your poems at coffee houses and experimenting with singing and songwriting. How did you make the transition from student to major-label artist? Was it a transition that "found" you, or one that you consciously worked for, and what were some major stepping stones in your path?

Vanessa: It was a transition that definitely found me. I came from an art, poetry, and performance background, so the concept of being a "major label artist" was very unfamiliar to me. In the early 90s I was friends with a group of experimental underground electronic DJs and musicians, and I was in the studio one day at NuGroove Records, a seminal and groundbreaking label, when a DJ producer asked if I could write a song to one of his tracks. I came from a musical background so it wasn't that much of a stretch for me. When I sang the song to him once I finished, he asked me to be the vocalist on the song. It was very successful in the UK as well as the US, and ended up being the best selling record on the label.

Columbia Records found out about the release and my poetry background, and signed me and my then-husband Peter, who I had been collaborating with on a number of experimental tracks as "The Daou." I would say that one of my major stepping stones was my dance background, as I had been incorporating improvisational modern dance into all of my performances, including my showcase for Columbia Records, and my first public performance at the first massive rave in LA at the Shrine Auditorium.

Alex: Many of our students majoring in theatre and dance take a course called "Artistic Collaboration" that asks them to combine their talents and independently create a series of performances. How important was artistic collaboration to you in your early years, from Barnard and Columbia through the creation of you first album, Head Music?

Vanessa: Collaboration is a necessary component of being a singer and performer, which always involves working with others - whether it's in the studio or on stage. When you're a student, the impression is sometimes that in the "real world" it is either a black or white situation: either you're an actor or a fundraiser, either you're a painter or curator. But I think that's an old model that doesn't work anymore, and that in the new cross-cultural world it's also an equally cross-disciplinary world where it would benefit students immensely if these interlaced professional boundaries were broken, and more than that, erased, so that artists could become more in charge and more fully aware of all aspects and potentialities of their art, creatively as well as technically and financially.

Alex: As instructors in the Theatre and Dance Programs at Mercer County Community College, one of our missions is to help students embark on the process of discovering their own unique and authentic voices as artists. Virginia Woolf was thirty-three years old when she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, and she wrote, even then, that she was only just beginning to discover her voice and identity as a novelist and writer. How do you understand this idea of "artistic voice," and when would you say you really began to discover and claim your own unique identity as an artist?

Vanessa: The idea of "artistic voice" has always intrigued me: it's descriptive of both the intangible essence as well as the audible aspect, where, as a singer, the "voice" is the literal vehicle that carries the message forward. I discovered my own voice early on, from my first recording. I felt immediately that my literal voice matched the poetic one I was developing, that my voice has a sonic quality which combined something ethereal as well as a direct kind of clarity. In my poetry I was exploring these dualities, confessional and intimate tones - through poets like Anne Sexton, Anne Waldman, and Wallace Stevens - and more universal and broad-reaching tones - through poets such as John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg.

Although I discovered my own artistic voice early in my career, it has been a slow and gradual process of honing, shaping and fine-tuning my voice and poetic vision, which is constantly being redefined as the years pass and the world continues in a constant state of movement, this way or that.

Alex: Despite the boom of independent art-making over the past decade or two - in film, theatre, music, and other disciplines - I'm sure many students still dream of "making it big" by signing to major agents, being cast in Broadway productions or studio films, or scoring a contract with a major record label. Your first album, Head Music, was released by Columbia Records, and your next two albums, Zipless and Slow to Burn, were released by MCA. What was your experience as a major-label artist, and how would you encourage young artists today to think about "success" in relationship to major labels and institutions?

Vanessa: I think "making it big" is a dream that is highly overrated. Especially too early in an artist's career, before they've had the chance to develop fully, it frequently puts many pressures on one's art which are impossible to overcome.

I've had the unique and rare opportunity to experience being on a small independent label, major labels, as well as running my own label. While there are undoubtedly advantages to being on a "major label," there are as many drawbacks, and for me having artistic control has always been negotiated in my recording contracts. It's something that I've fought for, but for the most part it's something that is usually relinquished once you sign your contract.

After I negotiated out of my contract with Columbia records, I put out Zipless on my own record label. It was after many months of success with it that Bob Krasnow discovered the album and signed me to MCA, and re-released it. For all the successes with large institutions, I can point to as many failures, and this leaves artists at a disadvantage when they become so dependent on these institutions that they are unable to navigate on their own, whether out of fear or lack of
know-how. Many artists will give up the fight or lose their artistic spirit once faced with too many rejections from institutions. Some artists will become emboldened and push into further realms where they self-release their record or self-publish their book, finding more success there than ever. It is from these artists that I've learned the most.

Alex: In the late 80s and early 90s - right around the time you began your major-label recording career - there were no iPods, no technologies to create audio files of manageable size, and therefore no means to electronically share or sell music in non-physical formats over the internet. Back in 1996 when you left MCA, the mp3 was still relatively new, and you became one of the first artists to distribute an album over the internet, Plutonium Glow. How did the mp3 enter your world, and what effect did it have on your understanding of the relationship between art and technology?

Vanessa: One of the advantages an artist has that big institutions do not is their ability to be flexible and malleable and keep their finger constantly on the pulse of society, continuously on top of their craft. When you're in a corporate environment, your world becomes skewed and distorted, where itís about listening to the consensus rather than some private muse.

From the earliest days of the internet, I saw it as a tool as well as a vehicle for the sale and dissemination of music, as it was becoming for news and entertainment. I was able to retain digital rights on Zipless and Slow to Burn because, at the time, the major labels did not have the foresight to see that one day, this would be critically important. I've also seen the landscape shift to the point where many music industry professionals are predicting a total phase out of the CD format, where only digital downloads will be available. The problem with this is not only the
diminishing importance of the album as a form of expression, but a trivialization of the idea of what a recording artist is.

Alex: Something thatís really remarkable about your albums is how much thought goes into them. For Zipless, you chose nine poems by Erica Jong and arranged them for music. For Slow to Burn, you researched and incorporated elements from the lives of important female artists for each of the albumís eleven songs. I read that Plutonium Glow was inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, and you constructed an entire album around a biographical study of John Coltrane. This strikes me as a kind of "continuous learning" - the very kind that we encourage our students to embrace. Is there a part of you that always approaches a new project as a researcher, a student of new ideas, and is this different from the part of you that works off emotion and instinct?

Vanessa: Yes, absolutely. Even as a student, I was an avid researcher, always digging in library stacks and microfiche in order to answers my inquiries as well as feed my fascination. I've always been very "right" and "left" brain, and never really separated the two or felt that I had to choose between them.

As well as reading, absorbing, and learning, I've always used my art, taking pen or pencil to paper, in order to discover or uncover or shed insight into a subject that interests me. This is where the intersection of my interests in research, art, and science come into play. In 2001 I joined a team of scientists and researchers, and traveled with them to Brazil and the Biosphere in Arizona. I was recommended by a biologist from Columbia University who knew about my interest in research from my Barnard days as well as my visualization skills. I spent several months helping interpret visual data for their research which was used in the final presentation at Columbia University. This was an extraordinary experience for me, one which deeply inspired and informed me artistically.

Alex: One of the reasons weíre so excited to have you at Mercer is that your work encompasses so many mediums. You're a singer-songwriter, but you're also a painter, a poet, and an html coder and digital artist. What inspired you to bring these disciplines together for the multimedia and internet components of your new album, Joe Sent Me, and what do you think our students could gain by learning about and incorporating new mediums into their art?

Vanessa: Since releasing Plutonium Glow on my own label, I've been fascinated by the computer and the sense of limitless space and possibilities that it provides. For me, it's an ever expanding, continuously additive canvas that provides multiple layers of sight, sound, and time simultaneously. Online, one has the powerful sense of being fully connected - to society, to the world, connected to the past as well as to the future.

It is also a medium that has its own language and mysteries, which, as is the nature of technology, are constantly and continuously evolving. I gleaned early on that it would be necessary for me to learn and decipher its codes if I wanted to be free artistically. So, in 2004, I took some classes and embarked on a learning path which I have never turned off of. I saw so many creative possibilities in html, javascript, and java codes in terms of how they connected with my own ideas of poetry, words, music, art, and language. I love the idea of an artform that is appreciable on all these levels, and accessible to everyone, everywhere.

Alex: Looking back, what are two or three of the most important choices you made that allowed you to become the artist you are today?

Vanessa: The first important choice was to always retain creative control.
The third most important choice was to always trust my own vision.
The second most important choice was to always maintain my love of poetry.

Alex: What advise would you offer students as they plot their futures in the arts?

Vanessa: My advice would be:

  • Hone your work ethic and revel in your discipline
  • Always feel the pulse of society
  • Never lose your sense of wonder and awe of Nature
  • Read books, blogs, and e-zines from all fields, everything from science journals to scrapbooking
  • Learn the roots of words, their histories, get the condensed Oxford English Dictionary
  • Read dictionaries in other languages, write poems in languages that you don't know
  • Draw anything in order to understand it better
  • Mark up your books, take notes, record your first impressions in the margins
  • Keep a notebook of thoughts, observations, sketches, meanderings
  • Read poetry and philosophy that instigates and intimidates you: John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Kant, and Kierkegaard
  • Learn from other artists who don't share your vision, voice, or aesthetic
  • Learn to love modern art
  • Use Babel Fish and YouTube as research and creative tools, dig deeply into language and history
  • Always try to reach those who cannot see or hear
  • Aim to move those whose hearts have been hardened
  • Stop yourself when you are jaded or too confident
  • Be as prepared for failure as you are for greatness
  • Sometimes lower your aims, goals, and expectations
  • Chose solitude over solidarity
  • Leave some things unfinished
  • Love the art you are in

Alex: On your album Make You Love, your lyrics and choice of poems by Erica Jong evoke a rapturously feminine world. Venus is at the forefront of the music, as is the figure of "Juliet," who circulates like a sort of Shakespearian "dark lady" through the universe of the songs - an object of the (female) speaker's love and erotic fascination. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote about a "lesbian continuum" that can represent lesbianism as well as a range of woman-identified experience, including "the sharing of a rich inner life between women." What influences were you exploring in Make You Love, and how did they lead you into a lyrical and sonic universe that Rich might describe as part of the "lesbian continuum"?

Vanessa: Venus figures prominently in my lyrics and art. On Make You Love I focus on the Female subject, Juliette, as a way of re-examining the idea of the Muse on new terms, and exploring the Venus archetype that my friend Juliette embodies. In my lyrics and vocal tones and ranges as well, I wanted to convey the manifold ideas of Venus, the interstices between her myth and reality: the "dark," furtive aspects on "A Little Bit of Pain," for example; hints of the femme fatale and seductress, on "Lovechild;" the callous temptress in "Mess Around;" the fleeting and ungraspable aspects of Desire that often lead to thwarted Love, in "Make You Love." The name "Juliette" is also the title and subject of one of Marquis de Sade's books, and at the time I saw Make You Love as a kind of offering to her "spirit," or redemption.

The idea of a "lesbian continuum" is a powerful one as it suggests the irrelevance of history, as a "continuum" occurs outside of a historical construct, one that every woman is in some way aware and a part of. Juliette, the subject/object of desire in Make You Love, represents to me the classic mythological archetype, as well as the quintessential post-modern woman who has cut a unique path in history by being all things, in deference to the past as well as in defiance: heroine and heartbreaker, wagemaker and homemaker, mythmaker and mythbreaker.

It's interesting to me to think of how the visual idea of Venus, who has traditionally been the human embodiment of (menís) desire, has changed over time, how she is now the subject of womenís desire as well. It's also interesting to see how our idea of Beauty is reflected in the changes in her physical form. Throughout the history of Western Art, Venus archetypes have been frequently portrayed with pronounced masculine traits, such as the "Venus de Milo" and the "Mona Lisa." I think this historic nod to the masculine has allowed both men and women throughout the ages to connect with the figure of Venus. Collin Kelly, an amazing poet from Atlanta whose work addresses these archetypes, has a new novel coming out titled Conquering Venus. The cover of the book shows a statue of Venus silhouetted against the sky where her figure is decidedly ambiguous and androgynous. Itís important that these boundaries continue to be pushed and re-drawn creatively, which translates to politically, in society.

Interestingly, many iconic works of art representing women, including images of Venus, challenge our notions of beauty as opposed to fulfilling them. A Google search of famous iconic portraits of women leads to representations of women who reveal a certain strangeness: works like the "Mona Lisa," "Ophelia" by Sir John Everett Millais, the often scandalous paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, the self-portraits of Frida Khalo, the raw portraits of woman subjects by Lucian Freud. It's fascinating to me that often the enduring images of women are the ones which present not the idealized women, but women who are in some sense flawed, martyred, doomed, or otherwise marginalized by society. It is as though, through Art, they experience a kind of redemption, not in a religious sense, but in a sacred sense that only an artist can express.

Two books that influenced me greatly during the writing of Make You Love were Uncontrollable Beauty and Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. Some argue that Beauty and Truth are inextricably connected. For me, the search for Beauty/Truth is partially tied to Desire which finds resolution in Love. But, as Desire can never be fulfilled completely, by capturing and projecting the object of desire in a work of art, the artist in essence keeps Desire alive. It's a kind of "Feminine Creative Continuum," to expand on Rich's phrase, and this "continuum" includes every artist - regardless of gender - who is examining ideas that revolve around the subject of Venus.

Alex: I'm also curious to hear your thoughts on the resonance of your music for gay men. In 1994, the frankness with which you sang about men through Jong's poems - eroticizing them, reveling in the shameless sexual "abandon" of the album's original title - was absolutely staggering, particularly since so much music was (and still is) focused on the sexualization of women by men. I imagine many gay men identified with Zipless and saw in it a reflection of their own sexual lives and fantasies. How does it feel knowing your music speaks specifically to gay men as well as women? Had you anticipated that your music would attract a gay following, and was this ever an issue - for better or worse - in your dealings with major labels as they worked to market your music through mainstream channels?

Vanessa: My desire to work with Erica's poems had a lot to do with my being part of the "continuum" that Rich writes about - but, for me, it's less restricted to the idea of a "lesbian" continuum than it is to the female literary and artistic one: the "Feminine Creative Continuum." So many of my muses - from Anais Nin to Erica Jong, Josephine Baker to Nico, Maria Callas, the poet Anne Carson, artists Cindy Sherman and Nadine Robinson - have explored the literal as well as creative boundaries of their gender by pushing them and sometimes challenging and overstepping them.

It's interesting to me that the word "muse" refers to the female embodiment of inspiration; there is no equivalent word for the male embodiment. At the opposite end of the mythological female spectrum, there are the "Furies" who exact retribution and revenge on those who broke certain natural laws. The "Muses" and the "Furies" have no male equals. The "figure" of the female has been explored, expressed, distilled, and all facets discussed and dissected throughout history.

Also interesting to me is the literary idea of the [Male] Gaze ("La regard") - especially as a performing artist where the body is on public display. The notion of the Male Gaze is challenged further when the woman/object is:
  • desired sexually by the female who is gazing

  • not desired sexually by the male who is gazing

Any art that subverts, inverts, challenges, and in essence diminishes the power of the Male Gaze - which is so fundamentally rooted in Euro-centric art - and the male historical view of Art as a whole, is at its core very powerful and provocative. By making Zipless, I was exploring and expressing my personal freedom as an artist as well as a woman, and for me the creative urge is as vital as my gender identity. I decided to call the album Zipless, a shortened form of Erica Jong's phrase "The Zipless F-ck" which relates to the sexual act, because the idea of being Zipless relates to all aspects and modes of existence.

It's deeply gratifying for me that my music and art has resonated so deeply with gay men and women who connect with the messages I'm conveying. I think those of us whose minds are flexible seek out music and art that speaks to this openness. I initially released Zipless on my own label, and my motivation for making the album was - as it is always with me - purely artistic. When Bob Krasnow signed me to his label on MCA, the fact that Zipless was on its way to becoming "popularized" did not diminish the artistry of the album. The 'Parental Advisory' sticker was an unfortunate byproduct of its release on a major label.

One of my favorite artists is Adrian Piper whose philosophy of art is intricately connected to her imagery. One of the phrases she has incorporated into her work is "Decide who you are." These four words have guided me in many directions over the years: the idea that it's the individual who decides one's identity, not society. It's a very powerful realization, for men as well as women. There are so many obvious ways that society inculcates a sense of gender identity, but it's the subtle ways that are the most damaging. I think that artists who express these and other hidden realities in their art will always be stickered, censured, flagged, and generally considered subversive. I say, that's fine, because, ironically, it is that gesture of "stickering" that creates the forward movement of this "continuum."

Link to original post on Elixer Productions Blog

No comments: