First Thought, Best Thought: Baby Dee Returns to Her Music
Baby Dee’s Drag City debut Safe Inside the Day, an album that seems plucked out of a twenty-first-century interpretation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, wouldn’t have happened without Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham.
Dee had given up on music and had taken a different route in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Her involvement in music began as a child when she took classical piano lessons. Later she found work as a music director for churches, released two full-length albums, and performed in a wide variety of circumstances. “I wanted to stop being an artist and I just sort of wanted to live like a regular person might live if they weren’t constantly filtering their life through this thing they call art, you know,” she explained over coffee at Rapture Cafe & Books, formerly the Karova Milk Bar, on Avenue A. “So I had my own tree business and did tree work for about four years.”
Dee’s company specialized in big trees and takedowns, and the last year of her business she described as hell. One of her teams was dismembered, a huge tree crashed on a house, and Dee was forced to spend all the money she had to fix it. “On that day, when the tree fell on the house, that same day I came home and emailed everyone I knew, begging them to get me back into music in any way shape or form.”
Oldham (formerly of the Palace Brothers, currently doing business as Bonnie “Prince” Billy) responded and invited Dee to open for his Superwolf tour. At dinner with Oldham and Sweeney one night while they were in town, Dee had a realization about her music. “It happens to me every once in a while, you know,” Dee explained, “My music did not belong anywhere in the world.” She went on to list the many places where her music just didn’t fit, including churches and nightclubs. “So I figured that if it belonged nowhere then I could play it anywhere. That was my epiphany for the year and that’s what I did.” Dee sang and played her harp for the first time during the tour because of the lack of decent pianos in any clubs. Then her thoughts turned to putting out a new recording, which she originally envisioned as a reworking of a project that she’d done a few years back in a tiny edition of 150. But Oldham and other friends were telling her to do something completely new.
“I had started writing more, and the problem with [the songs] was that they were so dark,” she said. “The thought, the tangent was not a nice one. That’s not a nice realization.” Oldham convinced her to go there anyway. “What he said is that the whole reason to record music is to put in us what we don’t have in us. And that totally turned it around.”
Dee decided to confront her darkest memories of growing up in Cleveland, which she described as a typical American industrial city. “There’s the steel mill, there’s the people that work at the steel mill, and then there’s the people who own the steel mill,” she said. “I lived on the other side of the town from the people who owned the steel mill.”
Safe Inside the Day is Dee’s testament to the city, where she recalls the river on fire, her father patrolling the fireboat to distinguish the flames, a place where she’d go play in the woods that she described as hoboish terrain, “a hardscrabble sort of woods.”
“It was very ethnically diverse and contentious,” she said of her neighborhood. The Irish, the Germans, and the Italians sparred with each other and especially with the displaced persons (or “DPs,” as they were called by the locals) who came as refugees from World War II. The only time the feuding neighbors came together was when Freddy Weiss and Bobby Slot dragged an upright piano outside and began to break it to bits, a moment that’s recounted in “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities.”
The swing-y, minor-keyed cabaret tune, filled out with plucky banjo and swelling strings, masterfully mingles joy and pain. “There’s a harp in that piano/And there’s a girl inside that boy/And my daddy’s crowbars/Are his pride and joy,” Dee wails at one point, and the way she accentuates, no listener can doubt that these words are heartfelt.
“Everybody wanted a piece of that thing, you know. They all brought their hammers and just beat the hell out of that thing,” she said. “The hillbillies, the Irish, the DPs, the Italians, you name it. They all had so much fun destroying it.”
Out of that destruction, the tragedy, and the moments of bliss—that’s where Safe Inside the Day comes from. It also comes from years and years of musical obsession, including her obsession with Gregorian chants, counterpoint, and Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
At one point, in one of her many years spent in New York, she took a counterpoint course at the Manhattan School of Music. Her first assignment was to write a cantus firmus, or Gregorian chant, the basis of polyphonic composition.
“You write one of those, and the idea is you weave other things into it,” she explained. “There was something about that, just the purity of one thing, the one line, the simplicity of it, I just fell in love with that idea. I thought, Hooray, I’m going to write these for the rest of my life. That’s the way I was.”
She went back the next week to discover that rather than writing cantus firmuses all semester, the class would be moving on to other aspects of counterpoint, which she described as “almost a capsulization of an abstract thing of music history.”
Her fixation with this form led her to a longtime stint as a musical director and organ player for a Methodist church in the Bronx.
When asked about the New York she remembered, she recalled it with the utmost fondness. “When I came to New York in 1972, I was living with two other people in an apartment on Ninth Street between Ave. C and D and we were paying $33 a month rent apiece,” she said. “And for $2 you could buy a six-pack of beer and go to a movie theater and have a whole night of great movies at St. Marks Cinema.” She lamented the changes of the city, a place she said she moved to because she was passionate and wanted to be around other people that were equally passionate at whatever it is they might be passionate about.
“People used to come to New York to do music, to do art. Now people come to New York to have a career in music, to have a career as an artist, and that is just not the same thing,” she said. “I’m afraid that’s changing.”
She paused, and then, perhaps to convey that perhaps New York would persevere, decided to relate a story that had taken place in the very place we were talking, on the occasion of its one-year anniversary.
“The opening act was a rabbi, and his act was to impregnate himself anally with a bottle of tequila…I had the misfortune of being right up front for that one,” she mused. “But it made me happy because you don’t get to see a thing like that in Cleveland very often. It was stupid and horrific but kind of cool. That’s what gives me hope for New York.”
The night before, Dee had played Joe’s Pub with Oldham, Sweeney, and other musicians who’d recorded Safe Against the Day with her. She was ecstatic about the performance and kept gushing about how much she loved those guys. But she admitted that it was weird to actually be out there rather than just obscure. She then began a long-winded rant against certain online music publications that had given her less than favorable reviews.
“[It] reminds me, basically, of an adolescent-boy mentality. It’s like high school boys, that’s what music criticism seems to come down to, doesn’t it?” she sneered.
But, what quick-to-judge listeners—who just take a peek because Dee had the help of indie stalwart Oldham, or because the album is on Drag City—are missing is a personal story told by a masterful musician who just happened to have a lot of help from her more famous friends.
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.