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.)