Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Web Exclusive: Artemesia Black Interview/Live

Negotiations With The Dead

Sabine’s voice starts out cold and remote, piercing like a steel pin going in. The Australian singer is dressed in black pin stripes with a red skull and crossbone printed onto her shirt, like a rotting apple, like a ruby drop of blood. Kenny, her guitarist, performs in matching pin stripes, honey-curled hair pulled back at the nape. He is playful and quick on the guitar with the dust-bowl quality of John Fahey. Together, they are Artemesia Black: a comfortable circle of two—intimate and shy to the crowd perched inside Alchemy coffeehouse in late August. Their music sounds like strange objects in the darkness, things petrified in stone and doll and spoons. Kenny’s guitar bubbles like a kettle. Sabine’s voice splashes about like a stricken bird.

Salt Lake City is the couple’s first stop on a tour from San Francisco to New York City and back in the next two months. Sabine left her lucrative career in Australia as a graphic artist for the tour.

“I started feeling, ‘What if I died tomorrow?’ I started going through that thought process, thinking what if I did, would I be happy? Would I feel like I accomplished anything? I thought there is a lot of dreams I haven’t accomplished yet so I am going to quit everything, get on a plane and come here to do music for awhile and try to organize a tour across the country and live another type of mind space going from very structured life to where I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” she says.

Kenny too left his job of fourteen years in 2007 to travel to Australia after the couple met over MySpace to record their group’s eponymous debut.

“Kenny bought a makeshift recording rig and we worked on the album sporadicallywhen I wasn’t working,” says Sabina.

Kenny notes, “With this album I heard a lot of percussion but we didn’t have drums and stuff so I found things around the apartment that sounded really good like her washing machine for instance that was used as the bass drum, or stomping on the floor and all sorts of things. I tend to use lots of non-traditional, in fact non-instrumental things to make sounds."

Kenny is a classically disciplined musician from San Francisco. He recorded and released Basement 3 Under last year in Australia while also recording the couple’s album. When asked how he manages to pair his distinct sound with her lyrics he notes,

“For me what I’ve always enjoyed doing is taking people’s songs and then sculpting them, taking their raw ideas and sculpting it into a song because I play many instruments so I have a lot of textures available.”

He continues, “I also have a broad palette instrumentally and I have studied everything from Jazz to Classical so there is a lot of things I can borrow from so I have a never ending source of sounds coming to me.”

Artemesia Black is an album rich in swampy lullabies similar to PJ Harvey’s White Chalk. The soft country influence plays it part in a gothic narrative told through the haunting voice of Sabine, a voice like a huge knife dripping blood onto a nightdress. The guitar and percussion give the album the quality of The Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session. Kenny’s presence is untreated and tender, the sound of something whimpering and scratching at the door.

“Sabine is like making a painting when she writes whereas I come from a very technical background so there is a lot of technique involved which in some ways hinders me.” Kenny says. “On this album I stripped it down a lot and on the new stuff I am stripping down even more and trying to get to be more about the feeling and less about the technique."

At times the album is of soap-powder and fresh air, other times it is the clean lines of broken glass, the soothing edges of razor blades packed at the bottom of a cradle. Danger plays like strange comforters in stories told through the memories of dead girls and devil whisperings.

“Songs sometimes will come to me in visitations, from a person who is dead. Whether it is imaginary or real it feels like someone comes and says, ‘I’ve got a story for you, I had this life and now it’s forgotten because I’m dead. Maybe you could just tell the story of me so that I am not forgotten.’ It’s kind about the past,” says Sabine, “but a person presents it to me themselves in this moment,” she continues.
Songs such as “Rosie” and “Beautiful” re-tell these stories from the dead, narratives overcrowded with inimical action and death, stories about young women falling in love with men that will kill them.

“These stories, most of them about women, like girls that come to me, I call them my dead girls, that come and tell me their stories about their lives and sometimes about how they’ve died,” says Sabine. “Because their stories are such a sad thing for most people I like to juxtaposed that with pretty melodies so people won’t even know what the story is about because it is hidden under this nice melody."

The result of these negotiations with the dead is an original and haunting collection of songs. A wholly imaginative collaboration between the living, the dead, a guitarist, and an inventive singer.(Tara Jill Olson)

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