Posted on May 26, 2015
[Taps mic] This thing on? Hey, Vinnie, can I get an AV guy in–Oh, hang on, there’s a switch.
Ahem. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I, Dessa, am honored to formally convene this week’s blog. As you know, it’s rare for Monsieur Lazerbeak to take a day off, and it sometimes takes a little forceful persuasion to induce him to cash in some PTO. But, with the help of a dayspa that specializes in executive abduction, Beak is now in very good [and unyeilding] hands. By now he’s probably got a cucumber slice over each eye, and a Mai Tai taped into his fist. Enjoy, Beak. And relaaaax.
Since I filed my last report, I’ve had a chance to tour most of Europe and a little tiny bit of Africa too. I set off in mid-April, boarding a night flight from MSP to Heathrow. The Current was kind enough to invite me to join their adventure in London [doffs cap], where a touring party of a dozen listeners galavanted through musically significant sites throughout the city. We had a chance to meet Joe Boyd (record producer to little-known hopefuls like Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, and Nick Drake), to tour the BBC, and to visit Speakers Corner where insane people and sane people gather to try and sort themselves out and exercise a little free speech in the open air. My favorite character, however, was the Bubbleman of Hyde Park. I spent a long time watching him at work. Sensitized by jatelag, I watched the passing children succumb to his brand of magic and I felt something in my own chest expand every time his wand managed to produce an especially large one, wobbling to find an axis and make itself sphere. Sometimes if a bubble drifted back towards him, he’d blow at it as it passed and a stream of new small bubbles would form inside the first. I spend a lot of time and money trying to make beautiful things; it was both exciting and vexing to watch this man make something so compelling and otherworldly out of a few cents of glycerine and a bit of soapy yarn.
Here’s a quick snap of a commuting Londoner, similarly impressed.
Not-so-coincidentally, London was the first stop on my first headlining run through Europe. Aby, Dustin, and I played two sold-out shows at the Old Blue Last in Shoreditch–the Williamsburg of the East End. A few show-goers were kind enough to post a few images of the evening. You’ll notice that Ms.Wolf is playing a drum machine in the image below. A woman of myriad talents.
Mark Wheat was slated to accompany the London cohort, but learned at the last minute that he’d be unable to join us. Wheat’s shoes are sizable, but I did my best to fill in, recording an interview with the English band The Vaccines in a BBC sound studio. The Vaccines are a platinum-selling arena act in the UK, teenage female fans go into hysterics at their shows. In the US, though, they haven’t quite reached that level of success (they played at First Ave during their 2013 visit to Minnesota). I’d braced for the worst: intolerable egos and condescending, monosyllabic answers to my painstakingly crafted questions. Justin and Arni, pictured below, were thoughtful, funny and honest. They told stories that made them seem like rockstars with the same honest affect that they share unflattering anecdotes or self doubts. In as much as one can glean from an hour-long encounter these two seemed like stand-up, charismatic dudes–easy to root for. (Also, please let the record show that No, that is not how my mother taught me to sit in a chair. And yes, that is the same shirt I wore at The Old Blue Last. Get off my case, huh?)
Photo courtesy John Getsinger
From London, Aby, Josh and I boarded a plane to Nuremberg to begin the continental leg of our tour. (A little exposition here: Josh is Aby’s fiance, the tour merch master, and a guitarist who briefly abandoned his post at the merch table to join us on stage for a few songs every evening. Lots of hats were worn on this tour–bags and bags full of hats.) Now, I’ve already gone on record with my disappointment with Ryanair. Can’t overemphasize the point. If you’re considering traveling with Ryanair, might I suggest a change of plans? Just Skype your loved ones, Google the sites, and stay where you are. Arbitrary fees, policies so opaque so as to have been translated from aramaic, and customer service you might expect at the intake desk at the county jail. Ryanair is way, way off fleek.
We took several Ryanair flights during our travels and on the last landing, the exit sign actually fell of the ceiling and landed at our feet.
When we arrived in Germany, Aby, Josh, and I met Leto–the Czech band with which we’d be traveling. This sort of meeting can feel like the start of a miniature arranged marriage: you’ll know you’ll be spending a lot of time in close quarters with strangers you’ve only heard described. I was nervous that the two members of Leto wouldn’t like us. I learned later that the two members of Leto were also nervous they wouldn’t like us–that we’d be some commercial hotshots, pulling diva stunts all over Central Europe.
I’ll spare you the sentimentalism, but suffice it to say that Leto became very, very dear to me and to Aby. Indos–guitarist, husband to Palma, and a Marxist PhD candidate–had a propensity to blame capitalism for all variety of mishap (“Kurva, capitalism broke my sunglasses.”). Palma–lyricist, keyboardist, graphic designer, thoughtful feminist, and wife to Indos–drove the entirety of the tour, deftly maneuvering through the foreign signage and city traffic.
Indos regularly lambasted himself on his imperfect English (still exponentially better, of course, than any scraps of Czech that Aby, Josh, and I could sweep together). Before a gig in Pilzen, he became especially exasperated trying to express himself, “Kurva. When I speak English, people die.” Palma promptly art directed this photo in which the three Americans had been killed by Indos’ English.
Only on the last night, after a week of joking and drinking and singing one another’s songs did our conversations turn serious. Palma and I did our best to compare notes about the lives and work of women in our respective countries. I asked Indos, all jokes aside, what drew him to Marxist ideology. His father, it turned out, was a miner in the Eastern part of the country–a beautiful but economically depressed region, where most men worked the mines. He’d died on the job when Indos was a boy. So Indos set out to study and critically examine labor and laborers. Before we parted ways, he gave me this copy of The Communist Manifesto. Although he doubted communism was viable at the state level, Indos said that he could draw what communism meant to him–communism was this tour: people sharing their music, gas money, sandwiches. On the title page I found he’d sketched a pair of stick figures holding hands. This book is one of my most prized possessions.
Our last show together was in Prague, a big room with great lights and a sizable crowd. Aby and I drank some whiskey backstage before showtime and Palma treated us to this impression of me performing the last few bars of Sadie Hawkins, Ask me to dance.
Aby opened the show, entrancing the room. She then sat in on several Leto songs too, adding harmony lines to Palma’s powerful melodies. After the performance, when the room had emptied and the lights went back up and we’d loaded our gear into a cab, I got teary saying goodbye to our new friends. By this point in a tour, the fatigue becomes an amplifier: a little loneliness becomes existential alienation, that little cough blooms into bronchitis. For me touring is the the best and worst part of this music thing. It’s exciting and utterly demoralizing in turn.
Which brings us to the next leg of tour, Paris and Italy. Aby, Josh, and I had a great show in Paris in a little club filled with a few fans and many friendly faces willing to give us a listen. Good food, good wine, and a kindly promoter Francesco who worked in artificial intelligence and set theory when he wasn’t busy throwing shows for visiting artists.
After the show, however, I contracted bedbugs.
I knew that my clothes must either be thrown away, fumigated, or washed and dried in very, very high heat to solve this problem. We were, however, in region where most people hang their clothes in the fresh air to dry them. For three days we sought out a laundromat willing to wash my backback and boots. Despite an increasingly bedraggled appearance, we were welcomed graciously Italy. Our hosts assured me that we’d find a way to wash the clothes. Sit, have some wine. We sat for a warm, coursed Italian meal. But something was wrong. I caught Aby’s eye across the table and mouthed Do I look normal? She leaned in, took a good look, and nodded. Nonetheless, the right side of my face was starting to go numb. I excused myself to the bathroom. Nothing obviously awry, but my thinking started to cloud and slow. A soft knock came at the door. Aby entered and within a few minutes we were in the midst of a new adventure.
As an allergic reaction started to advance towards the outside corner of my eye, Aby helped me collect my coat from the table and walked me to the apartment where we’d be staying the night. In Milan, the fashion capital of the world, it became clear that I would take stage with bedbug bites and a swollen eye, dressed in the clothes I had slept in. I called Lazerbeak, cried a little, and ate a bagful of biscuits for dinner.
The morning brought a brighter mood and I set out with a mission to prepare for the evening’s show. It was a feast day, and families frolicked happily at the beach. I found a tent full of EMTs, stationed to assist any revelers who might exhaust themselves in the sunny festivities. What I need, I explained, is one of these:
Through some pantomime, a little English, and some Spanish, one of the nurses correctly relayed my story to her physician: “This woman is a singer. She needs to cover her swollen eye for tonight’s show. No, no, not with a taped bandage, with an eyepatch. A black one.”
The physician suggested two possible solutions. 1) Find a costume store for bambini. 2) Find a sex shop.
The costume shop thing had occurred to me and I was grateful to the doctor for teaching me to pronounce the word ‘pirate’ in Italian. I admit I hand’t considered the kink solution. American role-play trends more towards schoolgirl than ship wench. As it turned out, I was able to buy an eyepatch from a toy vendor on the beach (packaged with a plastic sword and a nerf gun). A relief because walking into a sex shop with a swollen face and flea bites sounded humiliating–I could hear the proprietor thinking, You’re gonna need more than a little pirate costume, Honey. By the evening, whiskey and Claritin had worked their magic and a little concealer did the trick.
After Milan Aby and Josh were slated to return to The States, while I continued on to South Africa. Hugs, one missed train, two passport scares, and 20 some hours later, I arrived in Port Elizabeth for a week of educational programming capped off by a concert.
(Photo credit: Rabea Ballin)
The day after arriving, I had the chance to perform in the courtyard of Patterson High, a coloured school in the Northern Areas (Race is gloriously complicated in South Africa, a crossroads of dozens of languages and cultures; the designation ‘couloured’ works differently there than it does here in the US.). I also worked with adult artists, sharing some of the career strategies that have been useful for Doomtree. And I learned of new approaches, tactics I hadn’t heard of before. Hope Masike, a musician from Zimbabwe, explained that Youtube involves much too much data to be a useful tool. Instead musicians often rely on WhatsApp. Some musicians, tired of fighting the bootleggers, hired their own army of vendors to sell their CDS on the street, for the same prices and on the same corners as the unlicensed sellers. Below Hope plays the mbira, a thumb piano ringed by a resonating chamber. For me, this was a spell-binding minute of music.
Schaik, pictured below, was my primary companion for most of the trip. He’s also a rapper. Funny and open, Schaik speaks coloured Afrikaans and a melodic English with heavily rolled Rs. We exchanged notes on our aspirations as emcees, our thoughts on race and gender and the media, and a shared enthusiasm for alcoholic milkshakes.
Quite obviously, South African artists face different challenges than my Minnesotan cohorts, and do so with a different set resources. I was asked to deliver a talk to other creatives at City Hall in Port Elizabeth and before embarking on my presentation I wanted a quick calibration, to make sure I had a rough understanding of the local arts economy. “Will people here part with $8 for a cover charge?” The assembled artists nodded.
“And how much do CDs sell for at shows?”
“100 rand,” said several voices. Just shy of ten bucks, about the same as what we’d ask for at home. I felt confident in continuing; the approaches I had in mind seemed likely to translate without too much friction. But a hand went up in the second row.
“But it’s not the money.” The speaker lived outside the city of Port Elizabeth, he said, and “It’s too dangerous to go home after dark.”
Ah. We talked about the possibility of throwing twilight shows in the summer months. I thought of Jeremy Messersmith’s supper club tours and I mentioned the Sofar series: small shows set in private apartments, which might save showgoers the danger of a long commute in the darkness. Email lists weren’t effective, but SMS lists were. We talked piracy and merch and social media. I delivered my short Powerpoint presentation. Then I mentioned that Twitter had served me patricianly well, especially when trying to connect to people far away. For example:
Several months ago, Amanda Palmer visited South Africa. She posted a picture online of a bowl full of what looked to be small squares of bread. Rusks, she said, were incredible. I’d never heard of rusks. When I landed in South Africa, I sent this tweet.
Amanda Palmer sent this one.
And within 24 hours, 3 bags of rusks had arrived to my little hotel room.
I assure you, they are delicious.
On the night of my own show in Port Elizabeth, I met with DJ Keniche in his basement studio. I chose my songs, handed him a flash drive with my instrumentals, and we discussed two spots in the set where he’d scratch a solo–then the lights went out and we were engulfed in complete darkness. After a beat, ”Welcome to Africa, Dessa.”
The power in Port Elizabeth is regularly shut off, in rolling blackouts. Many suspect that coloured neighborhoods and black neighborhoods are more frequently subject to “load-shedding,” 2- or 4-hour periods without electricity. Those who have them, switch to generator power, those who don’t flip on battery-opeated LED lights, or navigate dark hallways by the glow of their cell phones. Sometimes these blackouts are announced in advance. Sometimes they are not.
Mercifully, the power held for our concert. I got to see Schaik in action and he caught my set too. On stage, I was elated to find that a couple hundred people turned up for our show and was struck but how quickly they learned choruses. By the end of a song, the front row could rap along to the hook–that happens never at shows in the US.
The revelations of travel don’t always translate well back at home. But as I prepared to fly back to Minneapolis, I tapped out the following note on my iPhone.
I am lucky that my money and my language are accepted in far-away places.
Lucky to have a serviceable singing voice, inherited from my mother.
Lucky my brain works well and quickly.
Lucky my face is symmetrical (except my mouth, which lists starboard just a little).
Lucky to have received an excellent public education.
Lucky to live in a culture where women are allowed to give voice to their ideas.
Lucky to hold a passport issued by a country whose citizens are permitted to travel as they wish.
Thanks to those to helped set me up and bail me out on this run. (Particularly to Adam and Rushay for shouldering the logistical burdens of bringing in a foreign artist.)
Alright, alright, before I go all the way soft, let’s shut this thing down. Before I go, however, a couple of notes about the goings on here in Minneapolis.
And, Mr. Lazerbeak, who should be getting a hot stone massage by now, will be back on his feet by Friday, spinning some of his favorite favorite records at Surly’s Bitter Brewer Release Party at Como Dockside Pavilion. 5-10pm. Luther Vandross and Meghan Trainor jams pretty much guaranteed. Click here for details.
And next Friday, Sims will be performing at the Icehouse.
Alright, comrades. Thanks, as ever, for your time and support. Your friend,