Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sweet Soubrette Big Band End of Year Show @ The Living Room


Thursday, December 22, 2011
The Living Room
154 Ludlow Street, NYC
No cover / $10 suggested donation
10pm Sweet Soubrette
11pm The Ramblers

Sweet Soubrette is sending off 2011 in style, with a big band performance at the Living Room featuring an expanded backing band. (“What's better than a ukulele band backed by a horn section? Nothing. Not a thing.” -The Brooklyn Paper)

Expect to hear some original holiday numbers in addition to Sweet Soubrette's usual dark love songs.

Featuring Ellia Bisker, Heather Cole, Mike Dobson, Stacy Rock, Erin Rogers, Cecil Scheib, Bob Smith, and John Waters.

"Edgy, honest and sultry...Sweet Soubrette has quickly risen as one of New York's most intriguing songwriting forces... Bisker has charmed audiences with her rock star command and intelligently crafted music, generating a buzz for Sweet Soubrette that extends way beyond the borders of New York City." -The Deli Magazine

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Don't Trust a Girl (With a Ukulele)

Back in the spring of 2006 I was in grad school studying arts administration.  I had recently (and accidentally) acquired a ukulele and I was writing a lot of songs I didn't yet know would take over my life, not to mention my arts administration career.  One of my buddies in the program, Craig, was a former professional opera singer with a home studio recording habit.  Every so often he would e-mail a new track he'd recorded to me and a few other friends: a deadpan cover of "Material Girl," some 80s synth pop confections, and a couple of originals (including the brilliant "Brizzing a Little Lockdown," a jailhouse holiday tune that must be heard to be believed).

Our difference of opinion was about something completely geeky and inconsequential -- the correct spelling of a word we disagreed on; I can't recall what the word was anymore.*  In any case, we made a bet.  The terms of the bet were as follows: the loser of the bet would have to write a song about the winner of the bet, as a tribute.  We looked up the word in the dictionary...and both spellings were listed.  And so we each had to write a song.

Craig's song was called "Don't Trust A Girl (With a Ukulele)," and, well, it speaks for itself.  Suffice to say it was a hard act to follow, so for months I picked at a couple of song ideas for him with no results.  Then Craig dropped out of arts administration school to go back to being a professional opera singer, which gave me some more material to work with, and I wrote "Cut-Up," which wound up on the first Sweet Soubrette album.  You can listen to both songs here:

Don't Trust a Girl (With a Ukulele) by Craig Phillips

Cut-Up by Sweet Soubrette

*Craig has reminded me that the word was straitjacket (or, as he would have it, straightjacket).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Peanut Butter Cinnamon Cookies

For the past few years I've attended an annual holiday recording party where the guests are all musicians and we're asked to write an original holiday song for the party and bring a bunch of charts with us so that others can play along (plus something to eat).  The songs are recorded during the party in a living room full of mics and people playing instruments, and a few weeks later everyone receives a CD with all the songs on it.  You can listen to the past two years of songs here, and mine are available for download here.  This year my song is called "The Littlest Reindeer" and I've baked peanut butter cinnamon cookies.  The recipe is below.  Enjoy!

Peanut Butter Cinnamon Cookies

This is a classic peanut butter cookie recipe with the addition of cinnamon (inspired by my love for PB&J sandwiches on raisin cinnamon bread). 

Dry ingredients:
1 1/4 c flour
1 tsp cinnamon (This is enough for just a hint of cinnamon; try 1 1/2 to 2 tsps if you want more cinnamon flavor.)
1/2 tsp salt (Probably not necessary if your peanut butter has salt in it.)
1/2 tsp baking soda

Wet ingredients:
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c (1 stick) butter (leave it out so it gets nice and soft)
1/2 c peanut butter (I used Smuckers natural creamy peanut butter. Crunchy would work too. Just steer clear of the hydrogenated stuff, and if your PB is so natural that it doesn't contain salt, don't omit the salt from the dry ingredients.)
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix dry ingredients and set aside. 
3. Using a fork or whisk or pastry cutter (or I suppose a mixer) cream together the butter, peanut butter, and sugar until it's a smooth paste, then add beaten egg and vanilla.
4. Thoroughly mix dry ingredients into wet (about 1/3 at a time).
5. Lightly roll dough into 1" balls and place on cookie sheet about 2" apart, then take a fork and press the tines into the top of each ball of dough in a criss-cross pattern so everyone knows they are peanut butter cookies.
6. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown. 
7. Let cool on the cookie sheets until they harden, about 5 minutes, before removing them with a spatula.
8. Exchange for love and adoration.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Show Report: Worcester, MA

Sweet Soubrette
After the Bethlehem gig, 2006

After a couple of minor hiccups on Saturday morning (Heather having spent the night in Staten Island; circuitous Google directions), Heather and Ari and I hit the road, Worcester-bound. Ari was subbing for Bob, who couldn't play bass on this show, but the new guy wasn't so very new. Heather knew him from a Canadian Klezmer festival a couple summers ago, and I knew him from a 2006 Cirkestra show in Bethlehem, PA where he played bass and a freshly minted Sweet Soubrette was the solo opening act.

When we pulled into the Worcester Polytechnic Institute campus we saw a drum kit through the front window of one of the buildings: Dobson had already arrived, en route from a concert in Connecticut. We lugged the bass amp and the rest of our gear inside. The Goat's Head (or, as Dobson kept calling it, the Goat's Nest) is a campus dining facility festooned with WPI sporting gear and uniforms and things. A low platform stage at one end of the room allows students to listen to (or ignore, as the case may be) live music as they enjoy their chicken tenders. The opening act was on, a guitarist playing to an attentive crowd of fellow grad students and fraternity brothers. Dobson and Ari sampled the $3.50 beers. Jess, our contact and campus radio station WWPI's publicity director (also the DJ who interviewed me when we were in town in April), told us about the different departments (Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Robotics...) and her project to make a disability-accessible motorcycle. These kids are basically rocket scientists. 

Unfortunately, no electrical engineers volunteered to come to our rescue during sound check when Ari's amp, the big monster he'd lugged all the way up to WPI, mysteriously did not produce any sound when the bass was plugged into it.  It seemed like a disaster, but our sound man Connor plugged the bass straight into the board and it sounded pretty decent.  The Goat's Nest had just opened for dinner and it was starting to fill up. We were ready to play.

Our set was an interesting experience.  If you've ever tried to musically engage a large room full of college students who are just trying to eat their dinner, for god's sake, you will know that their attention is devoted primarily to their meal, secondarily to their dining companions, and lastly and leastly to whatever band happens to be playing in the room. Our first college gig, and no one but the radio station kids and a weirdly attentive janitor seemed to be listening. I'm not sure what I could have done differently, but there must have been something. As challenging as bars and clubs can be, with some exceptions people are still there at least theoretically to hear some music, so once you go onstage they'll generally meet you halfway. I suspect this venue required more brute force, more high energy, and I wasn't prepared. 

But we played what felt like a good set overall, and a few people bought CDs at the merch table, and afterwards we went out for middle eastern food with the radio station kids, who were funny and great.  One of them told us about his radio show, which is all epic poetry read out loud over the air. He's doing Paradise Lost right now. We put Ari in Dobson's car for the ride back to NYC so Dobson would have some company and caravaned back to NYC. The boys beat us there because Heather was driving, and she tends to decelerate when she's talking, and we like to talk a lot. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Gorgeous drawing of the big band!

Check out this gorgeous drawing of Sweet Soubrette at Jalopy by Robin Hoffman (from her wonderful blog Ukulele Chicken)! Here's a video from that night so you can compare:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Love Poem to Lady L.

Before I wrote songs, I wrote poems.  On Lady Liberty's 125th anniversary, I thought it seemed appropriate to drag this one from the vaults. 

Love Poem to Lady L.

Longing for her thighs
As long as city blocks
For her hammered skin
Once the color of a new sun
One of her knees is slightly bent
The sandaled foot upraised
And balanced on the toe
As if she's waiting to be kissed.
Overproud, alone
She is remote and guarded
Stately in her exile
Silent, stranded
A giantess
In a land of tiny people.
The closer I get to her
The less of her I see:
She is too great
For the naked eye to handle.
She says:
Give me your tired, your poor
And I am drawn
To her battered island
To the vaulting heights
Of bolted metal girders
To the sculpted features
Of her graven visage
To the framework of her
Thin-worn copper structures.
I stand before her
In the wind that makes her
Resonate like a bell.
Everything smells of salt
And ancient pennies:
Metal, sea.
Lady, I swear this to you
By the birds that wheel above:
I am yours. 
I am like you. 
I am yearning to breathe free.
Ellia Bisker, 1999

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New review! "One of New York's most intriguing songwriting forces" -The Deli Magazine

Holy cow, The Deli Magazine just published a very awesome review of Sweet Soubrette in their new CMJ-themed issue!  (We will be performing in the Deli's CMJ showcase at the Living Room next Wednesday night.)  Check it out below:

For the fine-print-impaired, here's what it says:

"Edgy, honest and sultry in deliverance, Sweet Soubrette has quickly risen as one of New York's most intriguing songwriting forces to come out of Brooklyn. Featuring the vocal and musical talents of Ellia Bisker, whose first album Siren Song was released on the indie label MH Records in 2008, Sweet Soubrette hit the ground running with their sophomore album, Days and Nights, three years later. Both albums encompass Bisker's fantastic incorporation of poetry and life in her sweet-yet-sassy lyrics, and Days and Nights features the addition of band members Heather Cole, Mike Dobson and Bob Smith. An enigmatic performer, Bisker has charmed audiences with her rock star command and intelligently crafted music, generating a buzz for Sweet Soubrette that extends way beyond the borders of New York City."  (Christina Morelli, The Deli Magazine)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Songs #5: A Game of Thrones ("Winter is Coming")

The book for August's edition of the Bushwick Book Club was A Game of Thrones, the first book in a series recently made crazily popular by HBO's TV adaptation -- everyone and their mother seems to be reading it now (even my mother). It's addictive; I read the first four books in quick succession and had to go back and re-skim the first one to write my song.

I tackled the assignment by making a list of all the things that, if I were listening to a song about A Game of Thrones, I would expect to be included. I've written other songs this way, by making a list (my Ode to Greenpoint, for one). It's a good trick for an assignment song, or any song where you know exactly what it's supposed to be about. The list for this song is below (if you haven't read the book, it'll give you a pretty good idea what it's like).

I wrote the song on the ukulele, but it's long and a little samey and was sounding boring to me, even when I tried alternating strumming and finger picking. So I started messing around on the piano.  I haven't made a habit of playing the piano in public since recitals in the second grade, back when I took lessons; I wasn't a prodigy then, but I was okay. Nowadays, playing piano in front of an audience makes me feel the way I imagine most people feel about being onstage at all: not in control of the outcome, under pressure, on the spot, liable to choke or freeze. But I've made a couple of exceptions for the Bushwick Book Club. (Because if you can't push your comfort zone at Goodbye Blue Monday, where can you? This is a venue with a deliberate goal of encouraging the rough drafts that may transform into brilliant projects.)  

Unexpectedly, I ended up actually writing out an arrangement in something close to actual notation, something else I haven't done in a long time. I didn't have staff paper, so I had to make some up.  

Come the night of the show, the performance was effortful and didn't go exactly as planned, but was not totally embarrassing either. The live recording from the show was too rough to share, so I recorded it again at home to include in the bandcamp album from the evening (especially recommended: Casey Holford's "Five Plus One"). There's another song I wrote on there too, "Hard to be a Woman" (YouTube video here). 

List for A Game of Thrones Song:

The wall
The king in the north
Heart tree
Night’s watch
Take the black
Milk of the poppy
Dark wings dark words
Blue eyes black hands
Wall made of ice
Fear cuts deeper than knives
The hound
Valyrian steel
Mad king Aerys

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sunday Songs #4: Isabella Rossellini

Have you had the pleasure of watching Isabella's Green Porno series? If you haven't seen these brilliant short films about the sex lives of animals, which she directed and stars in (outfitted in a mind-boggling array of papier-mache insect and marine life costumes), get thee to the Sundance Channel's website post haste.  If you haven't heard Isabella Rossellini talk about whale penises and snail anuses in her beautiful Italian accent, your life is a sad and incomplete thing. 

The Green Porno series inspired the song "Isabella Rossellini," a love letter to the woman herself in the language of these films.  We provide no explanation when we play this number at Sweet Soubrette shows, where it has nevertheless become our first successful audience participation number.  I suppose it's not so hard to understand--everybody wants Isabella Rossellini to love them. 

(Okay, not technically posted on a Sunday, but whatever.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sunday Songs #3: Humble Bee

For Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009, the Bushwick Book Club took on On the Origin of Species, which I read (most of) on my iPhone, on the subway. A quarter of the way into it I was still wondering when we were going to get to the cool stuff, like the finches and the Beagle and the Galapagos islands and the monkeys coming down out of the trees (answer: never, because those are completely different books).

Even so, it was a surprisingly good read. I especially liked the parts where Darwin talks about the webs of relationships among different species that have evolved together, which are what inspired my song “Humble Bee:”
Humble bees alone visit red clover, as other bees cannot reach the nectar. It has been suggested that moths may fertilise the clovers; but I doubt whether they could do so in the case of the red clover, from their weight not being sufficient to depress the wing petals.
Hence we may infer as highly probable that, if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great measure upon the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Colonel Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that "more than two-thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England." 
Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Colonel Newman says, "Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice." Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!
After Darwin drew this connection between the populations of cats, mice, bees and clover, a contemporary of his, Thomas Huxley, extended the chain (in a spirit of humor, we think) to include the unmarried women who keep cats as pets. Then at some point either Huxley or someone else extended the chain even further to include the British soldiers who eat beef from cattle who live on the clover.

So the chain goes like this: old maids; cats; field mice; humble bees (now known as bumble bees); red clover; cattle; British soldiers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vaudeville Stardom

Sweet Soubrette was recently profiled by vaudeville expert and impresario Trav S.D. in the "Stars of the American Vaudeville Theatre" series on his blog, Travalanche. He describes Sweet Soubrette's act as "...distinctive, dark and passionate songs, not just sung, but performed." 

We're in fine company; the series profiles some of the hundreds of performers Trav has presented through his American Vaudeville Theatre in celebration of its 15th anniversary.  Full profile here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Songs #2: I Like to Take a Bath

This week’s song was written for the book release of The Zinester’s Guide to NYC, a guidebook oriented toward zine writers and other DIY artists edited by Ayun Halliday. Ayun puts out a handwritten quarterly, The East Village Inky, to which I’ve been subscribing for more than ten (!) years, and since her zine is largely about her family life (she began writing it as a way to stay sane while at home with her infant firstborn), along with its other readers I’ve watched her kids grow up in its pages.

Ayun is kind of a hero of mine for developing a vibrant creative life and maintaining her appreciation for underground art and performance while also being married with two kids in the city. She’s a fantastic writer and a master of the hilarious self-deprecating anecdote, with accompanying illustration. She has a bunch of books out now, too. You can check out her work here

Sometime after I started performing as Sweet Soubrette, I met Ayun at a craft fair where she was hawking copies of E.V.I. and introduced myself as a huge fan. Much to my surprise and delight, I was already on her radar (likely thanks to my choice of instrument and her interest in quirky local culture—thanks, ukulele). One thing led to another and a few years later the Bushwick Book Club had agreed to write and perform a bunch of songs at the ZG2NYC book release party at Housing Works. It was like destiny. 

My love for NYC’s communal spa experiences led me to focus on the section of the guidebook devoted to the city’s public baths. (Disclosure: I hadn’t actually been to all of the baths mentioned in the song when I wrote it, but I’m now on a mission to hit them all. Most recently, I visited the Brooklyn Banya, where I learned from the Russian lady who owns the place that wearing a wool hat while in the sauna ensures that only the bad things in your body escape when you sweat, while the good things, like vitamins, stay in. True story!) 

This video was shot in my bathtub. A nice sounding audio recording can be downloaded for free here (lyics are posted too):

Download: I Like to Take a Bath

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Show Report: Hudson Water Music festival, 7/20

We drove up to Hudson early on Wednesday afternoon for the Hudson Water Music festival. We were all a little cranky and hot when we left from Dobson’s studio in the Bronx, but escaping the city in the middle of a weekday to head upstate was a rare treat, and the farther north we got the happier we were, until we finally pulled up in front of the gazebo by the river where we would be playing later in the evening, and life seemed good again.

We set up the marimba and our other gear as the food vendors started setting up their tents in the back of the field facing the river. When the lemonade tent was up Dobson bought a cup and drank it almost instantaneously. “Do you think I could get this in that trash can from here?” he asked, holding up his empty cup of ice. “Definitely not,” I said. “If you get it in, I’ll give you a dollar. Actually, I’ll buy you another lemonade.” He eyed the distance and got ready to make the toss. “But if you don’t get it in,” I added, “then of course you have to buy me a lemonade.” And that was how I got a free lemonade.

Heather had brought a costume with her, a green fabric mermaid tail that she was hell-bent on getting me to tie around my waist before we played Siren Song. I told her I’d consider it, but only to humor her. She took a picture of me wearing it while sitting on some rocks by the water.

Most of Heather's time was occupied by her flash cards. She recently started a grad program in physical therapy, so she's been taking a summer gross anatomy (cadavers!) class. It turned out one of her classmates lives up in Hudson; when he turned up they drilled vocabulary together. She had agreed to the gig before she knew she would have an exam the next morning, but much to my undying gratitude, Heather's a trouper. (And the next day she sent me a message requesting for a gig the night before all of her exams, so I guess she did well.)    

The wind gusted through our sound check, amplified by the microphones. Rob, the festival's producer (and the owner of Musica, where we played back in April) showed up and told our sound man we sounded like we were supposed to. We finished and he came over and gave us hugs hello. Some early birds started populating the field, finding good spots for their lawn chairs. We decided to patronize the food tents. At the falafel tent, one of the two smiling women told us about her son as she ladled tahini sauce and falafel balls onto pita bread: “When he was two years old, he’d say, ‘Mama, before I was your little boy I was an old man, and we used to sing a song called The Hearth and the Kettle.’ And then he would sing it. It’s actually an old Appalachian tune.” Dobson asked if there was any other way for him to have learned it, and she said no.

I decided to get a rib sandwich from the soul food tent, which turned out to be two giant Flintstones-esque ribs precariously balanced on two slices of white bread, all piled onto a tiny plate. I immediately dropped the tiny plate and made a mess of BBQ sauce on the counter. Then we all sat down to eat and I dropped one of the ribs directly in my lap. I was glad to be wearing a black dress.

The first band, The Edna Project, was a trio, a man and a woman on various instruments and their young son on percussion, playing songs based on Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. They sounded good, and the music carried nicely through the crowd of people sitting in the grass. Heather wandered off to join the group of people hula hooping on the other side of the field. The Edna project took their bow. “Can we take our bow like that, all holding hands?” asked Dobson.

“If you and I were married, and Heather was our child, then we could bow like that.”

“Okay, but doesn’t it feel that way sometimes?” Dobson said. I looked over at Heather, hula hooping on the grass in her party dress, and back at Dobson in his immaculate summer suit.  I laughed and laughed.

We had a full hour for our set, so we played every song we can do in marimba formation, more than a dozen tunes, including the still very new Catch and Toss. The crowd was patient and listening, glad to be sitting outside with music washing over them. It felt wonderful to be playing in the open air by the river. Before we played Ana├»s, I told the audience that if anyone correctly guessed afterward what book it was based on, I’d give them a free CD. Guesses included Wicked, The Scarlet Letter, and Jane Eyre. I gave Wicked and the Scarlet Letter CDs for having interesting wrong answers. 

Siren Song was last, and I had been hoping Heather would forget about the tail, but no such luck. She enthusiastically reminded me from her position stage right that I’d promised to wear it, and when I mumbled that I'd had a change of heart, she argued that it was a great idea, and there we were bickering onstage. So I explained to the audience what the discussion was about, and asked what they thought.

Of course they voted for the tail.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Songs #1: Madame Bovary's Waltz

This post is the first in a new weekly series I’m planning: every Sunday I’ll post an audio or video recording of a song that doesn’t show up on any Sweet Soubrette album, because it’s either too new or too quirky, with a little bit about where it came from.
A lot of these songs come from my involvement in the Bushwick Book Club, a loose collective of local songwriters who write songs based on monthly book assignments by the club’s fearless leader, Susan Hwang. Susan’s reading list over the past two years has been incredibly eclectic, including everything from children’s books to reference texts to pulp to classics, and each book requires a different approach, so it’s an exercise that never gets stale. Writing songs for the book club has helped me learn to trust my instincts as a songwriter, figure out different ways to write, and work to a deadline (the songs are performed at our monthly events, so there’s no wiggle room). I love the challenge of having to figure out each time what I’m focusing on in the book, and what that means I’m trying to do with the song, and then trying to make that happen. It’s like having to design a puzzle and then solve it. I also love being surprised every time by the infinite variety that a single text can produce when filtered through the minds of a dozen different songwriters.
This past February the book was Madame Bovary, which as an ostensibly literary person I’d been half-heartedly meaning to read for a number of years. I confess I didn’t especially enjoy reading it (and might have left it unfinished, intellectually lazy as that is, if not for the song assignment). Flaubert is so cynical about all of his characters.The characters who populate the book are small, petty people, and even Emma, the heroine, is so unsympathetic—her contempt for her dull, complacent husband, her intelligence polluted by sentimental tastes and superficial desires, her dreams shaped by trashy novels. She gets involved in an affair, and then another, and creates an elaborate structure of lies to cover it all up, and then she gets in trouble with money, mortgaging everything to creditors in order to pay for the affairs--fake piano lessons, hotel rooms, gifts for her lover. It’s inevitable that it all come crashing down on her head.
But after it did, and the book was finished, I found myself feeling tender toward Emma in spite of myself. She brought it all on herself, it’s true. But what were her alternatives? Not only could she not change anything about her life, she wasn’t even in a position to know what another (more intellectual, more independent) life might have looked like. It can be fatal to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, to have vague desires it isn’t possible to meet in your situation and not be able to change your circumstances. The whole tragedy might have been avoidable if Emma Bovary had just been able to move to the city. So my song ended up being sympathetic to her plight after all. Poor Emma.
(Note: the creaking noise you can hear in a few places in the recording is the sound my rickety desk chair makes when I shift my weight. I decided I kind of liked it.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Family Heirloom Ukulele: The Showgirl and the Stockbroker

When my mother's cousin Michael wrote and asked me for my address while I was raising money for the spring Sweet Soubrette tour, I thought he was going to send me a check. We aren't especially close, but he has a history of unpredictable philanthropic gestures (for instance, sponsoring three urinals, complete with commemorative plaques, in a library men's room at the University of Pennsylvania, an institution he did not attend). Instead, a few days later I found a large box with my name on it in the lobby of my building. Inside, swathed like a mummy in layers of bubble wrap, was a small object: a very old ukulele, somewhat the worse for wear. Stamped on the headstock it said "C. F. Martin & Co., Nazareth, PA." The enclosed note read: This was my father's, and I seem to remember my mother saying it was a good instrument. Alas, the case is cracked, but I would think it is fixable. Enjoy, M.

Michael's mother, my grandmother's oldest sister, was a Ziegfeld girl, a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 1920s. She performed in spangles and feathers under the name Lucile Layton (originally Lucille Zuckerman, but Zuckerman sounded too Jewish, and then she had to drop one L to avoid the bad luck of 13 letters in her stage name). Some photographs of Lucile Layton—scantily clad, half hidden behind a screen, lounging on top of a piano—are archived in the Library of Congress and shared on a vintage photo blog. My mother says that according to my grandmother, my great-grandmother would walk around the house at night during those years, lamenting, "Where is my daughter tonight, what has become of her?"

I never knew Michael's father, who died before I was born. Great-uncle Whitey (more formally M. Boyd) was a stockbroker who had made enough money by the age of 25 to buy a seat on the Stock Exchange. At one point he was suspended from trading because, according to Time magazine, he had "made money as the result of a confidential conversation he happened to overhear on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange," an episode that seems to have been only a minor blemish on his career. He was largely spared by the crash of 1929, but by 1932 he saw no future in the Stock Exchange and sold his seat. Not long afterward he heard a theremin being played in a nightclub and decided it would make a good investment. Along with a partner and the Russian inventor Leon Theremin himself, Whitey formed a company--mainly for the purpose of using Theremin's technology to make burgar alarms, but they manufactured some of his musical instruments as well. (Six years later Theremin, laid low by personal and financial troubles, returned to Russia and the company went under; more about this in the book Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky.) I had never heard it mentioned that Whitey played the ukulele, but at a time when the uke was so popular I suppose it would have been strange for someone like him not to have one.

After her Ziegfeld career ended, Lucile went to the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school, had three children with Whitey, and became an interior decorator. By all accounts she was a force to be reckoned with; a 1968 New York Post article about police riots describes her as a Yonkers matron butting in on four cops beating a guy with nightsticks at Grand Central Station and asking, "Does it take four your size to beat one kid?" She was a fierce and tiny woman by the time I knew her, a tyrannical matriarch with a taste for dirty jokes and calling the shots at all family gatherings. Here's some video of her at a Follies reunion event when she was 94 years old (she's introduced at 0:47). She was 102 when she died.

After a little research, I decided to bring the ukulele to Retrofret Vintage Guitars to see whether it could be restored. Retrofret is a lovingly run vintage instrument repair shop and showroom located on the roof of a former ASPCA building near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. You have to walk out across the building roof and then through a homespun screen door to enter the shop, and then you're surrounded on all sides by honey-colored wood instruments, guitars and mandolins and ukuleles from many different decades. The singer and guitarist Mamie Minch, best known in Brooklyn as one of the Roulette Sisters, was my luthier. She and Peter, one of the shop's owners, looked over the uke and told me it likely dated to 1921, because its knob tuners had been patented in 1924 but the holes in the headstock showed it had originally had peg tuners. It was made out of koa wood, slightly more upscale than the standard mahogany model—maybe a $25 instrument back when it was made, when Martin manufactured the best ukuleles there were. The instrument was very dry and there was a big crack across the back that had been badly repaired sometime in the past, but Mamie promised it would be playable by the time she was finished with it. I left it in her hands.

Over the next two and a half months I received progress reports from Mamie. The uke lived in a humidifier closet for a while to get "nice and juicy." Then meat tenderizer was applied to the crack, which had previously been filled in with carpenter's wood putty, so that the proteins in the putty would break down and then the crack could be repaired properly. Mamie found a piece of koa wood dating from the same era as my uke and used it to splice the crack, using old methods appropriate to the age of the instrument: French polishing, applying layers and layers of shellac and sanding in between each one. It rained all spring and the humidity slowed down this process, because each layer of shellac took that much longer to dry.
When I finally went to pick up the uke, Mamie showed me the repair on the back and explained that each piece of wood refracts light slightly differently. So depending on how you hold the uke, from certain angles you can see a darker line where the splice was inserted. There is also a very slight depression you can feel with your fingers. It recalls a scar long after an injury has healed, or maybe a tattoo. The front shows its age, etched with scratches, marked by an interesting life almost as long as Lucile's.

I didn't get to know Lucile well, but I had glimpses of what she was like. When I was eighteen I got a large tattoo across my shoulders, and that summer Lucile's grandson, my cousin Peter, got married. In the middle of July it seemed impossible to find something suitable to wear that would cover it; I ended up giving up and choosing a skimpy dress with spaghetti straps, but I was nervous about exposing the tattoo to my older relatives' disapproval. Sure enough, at the wedding, Aunt Lucile came up to me and peered sharply at my shoulders, which were at about her eye level. "What's that?" she demanded. "It's a tattoo, Aunt Lucile," I said, bracing myself. "Does that mean it's permanent?" she asked. I admitted that it was. She considered for a moment, then smiled broadly. "Why, that's marvelous!"

When the uke arrived, the strings were too loose to strum, so it wasn't until after it had been repaired that I got to hear what it sounded like. It has a sweet tone, its voice not as strident as the new-model uke I perform and rehearse with, and it feels more like a living thing too, temperamental and unique. So far it won't stay in tune for more than a few bars, but I'm hoping that playing it will stretch the new strings out so that they will hold. It will be a thrill to bring this instrument back to life after so many years.

I sent Michael a picture of the restored ukulele and he wrote back: It's lovely, but ukes, like women, are meant to be played, not looked at. Hopefully, this one will give you a lot of enjoyment.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Steve Buscemi and Me

Celebrity sighting: I was totally walking right behind Steve Buscemi on my way home from the subway just now! I suspected it was him (something about his furtive movements and incognito-style attire tipped me off), then had to walk REALLY fast to catch up and see if I was right. I was tempted to tell him about how I auditioned for the naked ukulele player part on that one episode of Boardwalk Empire, but I figured he gets that all the time. For posterity's sake, however, here is the tale...

Last year while I was at work one day the following posting appeared on a ukulele-related blog I sometimes read:

HBO Seeking Nude Female Ukulele Player
18-30, Beautiful, young girl, naked except for a ukulele.
Strumming and singing "The Japanese Sandman." No breast augmentation.
Nudity is required for this role.
I considered for a minute whether I thought this was intriguing, then got back to work. Later that afternoon I got an e-mail. The sender said a mutual friend from the circus had suggested getting in touch with me because HBO was looking for a female ukulele player for the show "Boardwalk Empire"...yes, the naked ukulele girl role. He was a friend of the assistant casting director, could he give her my contact info? Sure, I said. I figured if they were going to come find me, I might as well check it out. The casting director called the next day and by the end of the week I had an audition (clothed). I had to sit in a chair and sing an old 20s song on the uke. No sweat. They asked me to come to the callback. The callback audition, they said, would be nude. They advised me to bring a bathrobe.

The callback was at Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which might as well be the moon, it's so huge and remote and surreal. I followed signs through hallway upon hallway of the Stage 3 building until I finally found myself in a sort of holding pen filled with young women in 1920s-ish hairdos (many bobby pins at work), all holding ukuleles: my people.

Imagine us all changing into our various bathrobes in the toilet stalls of the studio bathroom; disembodied voices say things like "wow, my legs are covered in bruises," and "I have spray-on concealer if anyone wants some," and "my bathrobe has static cling!" On exiting the stalls the variety of bathrobes is fully evident: a yellow flowered kimono, a turquoise satin number (that of the static cling), a powder blue terrycloth robe, a very sheer one, a short white one that keeps getting tugged down. Mine is long black polyester with a dragon on the back. Back in the holding pen we discuss ukulele positioning (over the boob? under? one girl confesses she borrowed the biggest ukulele she could find) and the single chair on which we will all be sitting, nude. "I'm going to leave my robe on the chair," says Turquoise Static Cling. "No offense to any of you."

I am picked to go first. The room holds a chair facing a table with 4 people seated in a row, like when you see an audition on TV. I sit in the chair. They ask me some normal questions about playing the uke and where I'm from and so on, and then it's go time. I cross my legs in a ladylike manner, open the robe, and play the song. After I am finished one of the four says, "That was the most interesting thing that's happened all day." This seems plausible, as prior to casting Ukulele Girl, they were casting young girl twins, so that while we were all waiting to get called in we saw a couple of pairs of scary blond children straight out of The Shining running around in fancy party dresses; one pair had left glitter all over the chairs. When they tried to come back into the room while we were in it the parents quickly ushered them away: we were clearly Bad Ladies.

Afterwards Powder Blue offers to drive Short White and Yellow Kimono and me to the subway. We are all a little punchy. I suggest starting a band of naked girl ukulele players in faux 1920s hairdos called the Fake Naked Flappers. Short White says "It's the golden audition – if you get it, great. And if you don't get it, great!" Someone suggests that maybe the presence of a naked ukulele girl will become an iconic part of the show and we'll all get cast for it in rotation. It is generally agreed that whoever gets it, we'll all have to watch the episode.

I got an e-mail when I got home saying I was on the short list. After a few days of not being sure whether I was hopeful or apprehensive, the update came. The bad news: I would not be appearing naked on TV. The good news: I would not be appearing naked on TV.

It's for the best, really. I don't work blue.

Monday, April 25, 2011

FINAL Tour Report, Day 7: Tritone, Philly

We found parking right in front of the bar. Our poster was displayed in the front window right under another poster for a band called Bitchslicer. Philly was hot and muggy on Easter Sunday; we sat in our T-shirts and ate falafel platters on the sidewalk outside a hookah restaurant as the sun went down.

The opening act was a weird guitar guy playing with his eyes closed in what can only be described as a masturbatory way for what seemed like forever. The other opening act decided not to play at all, just sat in the back of the nearly empty room and didn’t so much as say hello. Weird Philly drunks on the street outside the bar mingled with hipsters decked out as zombies in honor of Easter.

All of three people came out to see us, but one, a dear friend of mine from grad school, had a baby at home and an early morning at work Monday morning and could only stop by to say hello. The other two, a couple I know from the NYC uke scene, waltzed to “A Lot Like Being Alone” as if it weren’t a song about being desperately lonely, which was sweet.

I was feeling a little ragged, and in a rare relaxation of my death grip on our stage image, I told Heather she could keep on the colorful sundress she was wearing that I’d gotten her in Italy last spring. I put on my blue sequin dress (bought for me by my mother at TJ Maxx and recently complimented by a drag queen at the Stonewall Inn) but no eyelashes or makeup – like Clark Kent having to lift up a car, said Dobson after the show.

At one point I asked the audience if they’d been to church that morning and told them we would be conducting services during our set, which earned a laugh. Masturbatory guitar guy suddenly came up up to the stage and hissed at us, “Why are you mocking religion?” I wasn’t sure if he was serious; my comments were pretty innocuous, and here he was himself, playing out in a bar on Easter Sunday. He added, “What are you, Jewish?” “We must be,” I said.

In the end we seemed to win over the bar audience, since they asked for an encore. The bartender blew us a kiss at the end of our set. People signed up for the mailing list, including one guy who had just moved to Philly from Albany and knew Stephen and company from our first tour stop, which seemed strangely appropriate. We packed up and went to the single hotel room I had booked at the last minute for our last night, which was unexpectedly fancy (thanks,!) but had no minibar. There was nowhere else to buy booze at midnight on Easter Sunday, so Dobson bought a ton of snacks from the vending machine and we ended the tour slumber-party style, eating popcorn and M&Ms and watching Glee and Arrested Development on his computer. In the morning we had pancakes and eggs from a local diner delivered to our room before hitting the road back to NYC to a soundtrack of Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

It took the rest of the day to drop off Dobson’s gear at his studio, Dobson at his house, and then Heather at her house before loading out the remaining gear at my place and returning the rental van. I walked back to my house in the late afternoon light feeling strangely light.

In summary:

  • 4 musicians in the van
  • 4 radio show appearances
  • 11 musicians onstage
  • 7 different bands sharing the stage
  • 7 shows in 7 cities in 7 days
  • 1,165 miles on the van
  • and miles to go before I sleep

Huge thanks to Peter Bufano, Davina Yannetty, Cecil Scheib, John Waters, Erin Rogers, Patrick Cronin, and Stacy Rock for playing with us; to Rob Caldwell, Stephanie Bindlestiff, Bob and Diana, Peter and Camilla, and Chris and Linda for your hospitality; to Cat at WCHC, Cyrus and Kelley at Live Yurt Radio, Ann, Richard and Tom at WGXC, and Jess and Connor at WWPI; to Bury Me Standing, the Salvation Alley String Band, and Jimmy and the Wolfpack for inviting us to share the stage/accepting our invitation to play; to our awesome street team members for putting out flyers and telling your friends to see us; and to everyone who came out to the shows, bought a CD or a T-shirt, shared your photos and video, or told us how much you liked the music. Huge thanks also to our RocketHub tour support campaign contributors, who made this all possible. You all rock big time.

Tour Report, Day 6: Parkside Lounge, NYC

Dobson and I went out to breakfast at the Miss Florence Diner with Chris and Linda before heading back into town to meet Heather and Bob. We piled back into the car for our last full-band car ride to the last full-band gig of the tour. Massachusetts and then Connecticut and then Westchester flew by. We crossed into the city like salmon returning to their native spawning grounds. When we finally found parking on the LES and got out of the car, we found that warm, muggy spring had arrived in New York.

Parkside Lounge is kind of a DIY venue. Heather and my brother ran the door, and my friends from Jimmy and the Wolfpack set themselves up to play. Their set was raucous and hilarious and loud, featuring songs like their popular number “Put my Cannoli in Your Mouth.” The crowd loved them.

We played as a band of nine people: the core four plus Stacy Rock on backup vocals, Erin Rogers, John Waters and Cecil Sheib on horns, and Patrick Cronin on keys. We made a beautiful noise. The show wasn’t quite as tight as our Cambridge show, but it was a close second, and it was glorious playing with so many of us onstage. We had a nice house – the room was full with 35 paying audience members plus the other band plus various entourage members, and everyone was listening. It was a good show, and so great to hear those horns and keyboard parts coming through. Mental note: more horns.

After our set we took a photobooth picture for posterity with all four of the touring band crammed into the booth, which can be viewed here, and then we sat in the car and played DJ Chris’s “Fett’s Vette for my brother (as big a Star Wars nerd as Dobson) before driving Heather to the subway, Dobson home to the Bronx (for the night) and Bob home to Queens (for the duration).

In the wee hours of Easter Sunday, I was blessed with ample parking near my house, for which I was truly thankful.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tour Report, Day 5: The Rendezvous, Turners Falls

We left Boston and drove to Hampshire College in bucolic Western Mass for a live performance on Hampshire's radio station. When we arrived there was an alternative medicine festival going on near where we were parked on campus. Heather immediately ran over to it, and by the time I got out of the car she could be seen hula-hooping on the lawn. I called Kelley, our contact at the radio station, who said she was on her way over to help us bring our gear to the yurt where the campus radio station was housed. (Apparently the yurt was someone’s final project a couple of decades ago, and then putting a radio station in it was someone else’s final project a few years later. This is what happens at a hippie school.) I got a text from Heather asking if she had time for a Reiki treatment, and I loved the idea, so we all went for some medicinal…Heather, give me back the laptop. Obviously uptight bandleader said no, Heather should get her ass back to the car to help unload.

Once in the yurt, a long setup process unfolded; headphones and then jack adapters had to be located, and then mics were set up, and then we tried to get it so that we could hear ourselves through them. Testing my mic over and over, I got bored and started reciting Robert Frost’s “Walking Through the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which I suppose was appropriate enough considering our location. The headphones started working and then stopped working and we decided to jettison all but one pair for me. We played in a circle, facing each other, for a five-song set.

As it turns out (we discovered via Bob’s dad, who was tuned in the whole time), this entire sound check preceding our radio performance was broadcast, including my Robert Frost recital. I’m hoping it makes it onto the podcast version also.

The Rendezvous in Turners Falls (about half an hour north of Northampton) was a restaurant where they clear away some tables when it's time for the band to play. The Salvation Alley String Band, for whom we would be opening, was 5 guys playing country music in matching plaid shirts (stagecraft, or just the Northampton uniform?) with a lap steel and a young woman singer with great pipes. So not a perfect fit, but we did okay, and won over a handful of new fans (including the sound guy, who bought 2 CDs).

After the show Heather went to stay the night with a friend of hers from college and Bob went to stay with the relatives whose enthusiastic cheering and dancing in the back of the room during our set (they especially liked “All That Glitters” and “Tenderness”) has endeared them to me deeply. Dobson and I went home with my friend Chris to the large house in the mountains where he lives with his wife, Linda. When we woke up in the morning, everything outside was covered in snow.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tour Report, Day 4: Lizard Lounge, Cambridge

No one was eager to leave the lake house in the morning. Bob’s cousin came over with her three little boys, and Dobson was immediately adopted as their new favorite babysitter. Bob’s aunt and uncle fed us breakfast and then lunch. Heather went for a walk around the lake. We watched Dobson and the boys running past the dining room windows on the deck outside, running and sliding in their socks. (He definitely has a backup gig if this touring musician thing doesn’t work out.)

Then it was past time to hit the road so we could get to Boston in time for a rehearsal with Peter Bufano from Cirkestra, who would be playing accordion and keys with us, and a local singer/uke player who would be singing backup. We drove about 15 minutes in the wrong direction and had to backtrack. Rehearsal started half an hour late, and the backup singer was underprepared; apparently she thought she could wing her only rehearsal with us, but our backing vocal parts aren’t that fakable. Then we spent half an hour driving in circles trying to park the van near the venue.

The show was the best of the tour so far. We were so tight that it felt like I was playing the whole band like an instrument every time my hand came down on the strings. Our backup singer rose to the occasion and nailed her parts. Hearing the accordion and keyboard parts coming through was a treat. The low-ceilinged red-lit room that is the Lizard Lounge was filled with an appreciative audience on all sides of the stage, and our set flew by. When I realized we had only two songs left I felt a little shock of sadness.

This show was part of a residency by Bury Me Standing, a local Balkan rock band. They opened with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother” and segued into original and traditional numbers with close eerie harmonies and a huge number of people onstage. A couple of Bulgarian girls in the audience started folk dancing, hand in hand, and Heather ran over to join them, grabbing a free hand and dipping and stepping in time.

There are some great photos from the show posted here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tour Report, Day 3: Nick's, Worcester

Stephanie Bindlestiff made us an amazing breakfast, veggie frittata and oatmeal with pink lentils, and then we hit the road, Worcester-bound. Bob Dylan, Santigold, Cat Power and Judy Collins played on the car stereo as Heather and Dobson and I told each other unflattering personal stories of romantic failure. These will not be repeated here.

Our first stop was the College of the Holy Cross, where I was scheduled for an interview at WCHC. Nostalgia: the radio station looked a lot like the one at Vassar, where as a student I didn’t have a show of my own but loved sitting in on friends’ shows when they’d let me. Cat, my student DJ interviewer, invited me to wait in the lounge while we waited for the radio station’s faculty advisor to show up with a working microphone. I tuned my uke and looked at the posters for bands I listen to covering the walls and felt a little thrill. The interview went smoothly. I told Cat the story of my last extended radio appearance, when I impersonated Juliana Hatfield on a friend’s college show when Juliana was going to be playing a concert at Vassar. I said it was nice to finally redeem myself with an interview where I wasn’t pretending to be someone else. I left with an armful of WCHC T-shirts for the band. Heather and Dobson hand been hanging out in the campus coffee shop listening to the show, and they said I didn’t sound stupid. Success!

Next it was on to Worcester Polytechnic Institute for an interview at WWPI, the school’s internet-only station. WPI seemed like an interesting place, an engineering school with a liberal arts bent, and my new DJ friends, Jess and Connor, seemed like great examples of that combination of right-brain and left-brain talent, bright and friendly and engaged. We talked about Days and Nights, they played some tracks from the CD, and I played a couple of tunes live. That show was recorded and will be a podcast, so I’ll post a link to that once it’s up. Connor hooked up a printer so I could print out the chart to the new song we would be playing at Nick’s (which I had printed at my parents’ en route to Albany but left on the kitchen counter) and Jess made copies for the whole band, god bless them both. We all got WWPI bottle opener keychains with the station logo, a goat wearing headphones.

When Heather and Dobson and I got to Nick’s, Bob was there waiting for us: full band reunion! We got to order delicious German food off the menu and I ate a giant platter of sausage and potatoes and cabbage before we started loading in. Nick’s is a charming bar with a pressed-tin ceiling and a tiny cabaret stage with red curtains and shell-shaped footlights. People started arriving when we were still sound checking and slowly filled the tables by the stage in the back room. The Worcester Magazine reporter who wrote the article on Sweet Soubrette gracing the cover of the nightlife section came over to say hello. I changed into my sparkly dress in the basement, where there was a mirror propped next to shelves filled with pickled beets and condiments and spices: a step up from the dim bar bathroom at Valentine’s, though not as homey as Chloe’s bedroom in the Musica loft.

We played two sets to a largely appreciative crowd that filled the back room. In close quarters on the tiny stage, Bob knocked over Dobson’s glockenspiel early into the first set, but Dobson got it put back together quickly and disaster was averted. By the end of the second set, the remaining tables of people were getting talkative, but people bought CDs and T-shirts and signed the mailing list, and Nicole, the owner of the bar, was gracious and complimentary. After the show we drank at the bar, even Sweet Soubrette’s uptight bandleader (that’s me) was talked into doing a couple of shots, Dobson taught Heather and me some swing dancing moves, and we danced to the jukebox until it was last call and we had to load out our gear. Then Heather drove us through the wee hours to Bob’s aunt and uncle’s house, where I woke up to the sight of blue sky through the bedroom skylight and a red-painted dock jutting out into a lake.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tour Report, Day 2: Musica, Hudson

On our way down to Hudson from the Albany Ramada on Tuesday morning, one of the hosts from a show on WGXC, Hudson’s local radio station, called to confirm an interview. We got into town with hours to spare. Rob, the owner of Musica, the music shop above which we’d be performing that night, gave us a little local history as he drew us a map of the places in town we might want to check out. “Until 1950, Hudson was whore town,” he said. “Every one of those buildings on the main drag was originally a whorehouse – there were a hundred years of whores here.” In 1950 the feds came in with 20 panel trucks and there was a big raid, and since then the town has not been quite so colorful. Nevertheless, we managed to amuse ourselves in town. Most excitingly, Heather scored a pair of black and white polka-dot shoes at a thrift store that are a perfect match for one of her show dresses.

Rob’s daughter Chloe ferried me over to the radio station, which is so new the doors inside still have stickers on them instructing the contractor how to hang them properly. In the studio there was a blackboard over the window with phonetic spellings of all the nearby towns so that the DJs would pronounce them properly: Delhi = dell-high, Milan = my-lon, and so forth. We did a quick interview and I played “Stick Around” into the microphone on a uke that had already gone out of tune since I had tuned it a few minutes ago.

The Musica loft is also where Rob lives, and it was clean and light and homey. We ate dinner with him and Chloe and a friend, and then moved tables to make way for more seating. Our preparations made it feel like we were getting ready for a wedding at someone’s home, the funny combination of formal and informal, women in fancy dresses and stocking feet arranging chairs, putting on our makeup in Chloe’s bedroom. Liv Carrow, a songwriter from Brooklyn who recently moved upstate, opened with a set of beautiful, witty songs. The chairs in the room filled with people as the windows got dark. After she finished, we followed with the same marimba set we had played at Valentine’s the night before but to a very different crowd, quietly sitting and listening.

Afterwards almost everyone went across the street to get drinks at Helsinki, where Sweet Soubrette played in February and where their weekly open mic was going on. The Helsinki folks gave us a warm welcome back, and the emcee of the open mic asked if I would play a song in the show. When I told him I’d packed up my ukulele, the sound guy went and got his ukulele for me to borrow, a 1920s Martin that sounded beautiful. I played a new song called “Catch and Toss” that no one has heard yet other than there. All I could see from the Helsinki stage were the twinkling lights of the table votives.

Stephanie of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus put us up for the night. Before we went to bed she fed us snacks and gave us a tour of the hot sauce museum that lives in her fridge. I got to sleep in the juggling room.