Bringing Up Baby

Baby Dee creates magic out of life

Baby Dee is an eclectic character. After moving to New York City from her childhood home in Cleveland, she played organ in a church in the South Bronx, played harp in Central Park dressed in a bear costume, and played the role of the bilateral hermaphrodite in Coney Island’s Kamikaze Freak Show, like Josephine Joseph in Tod Browning’s 1932 classic, Freaks. She’s a transgender performer classically trained in piano, harp, and a million other instruments, and her words are just as powerful as her music.

But Baby Dee doesn’t like to talk about gender politics, and she’s asked her publicists to actively shield her from those kinds of questions. I wanted to ask her about her involvement with the LGBT community, but it was censored from my questioning. At first I was irate, for the exclusion alone, but after hours of thought, I realized that her sexuality doesn’t make a lick of difference, and I can understand the bore of answering the same personal questions every day and the frustration of having those decisions overshadow her true love. (NPR ran a fantastic story on her last month.)

She's a model of life and wisdom, and I didn’t need to ask her that question in order to realize it. The songs speak for themselves: the brilliant vaudeville tune “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities,” the saddened ode "You’ll Find Your Footing,” and the blissful “Fresh out of Candles” off her fifth album, Safe Inside the Day (Drag City).

It's an album full of rejoice and disappointment, and it’s the story of Baby Dee’s life, who has since moved back to her native Cleveland. I spoke with her via e-mail – not ideal, but she was on the road and doesn't have a cell phone – about the new album, the tour, and the process.

Shut Up: Safe Inside the Day is currently taking me to faraway places and long-gone times. Can you tell me a bit about your vision? Did you enjoy the recording process for this one?
Baby Dee: Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re letting it take you places. I hope they’re not bad places. I wish I had something intelligent to say about it, but I kind of don’t. I just write what I have to write. There’s not really that much of a choice for me except the ultimate one of “Do I really want to put this out into the world?”

I had serious doubts and misgivings and second guessings. That’s where Will [Oldham] and Matt [Sweeney] and Andrew [W.K.] and Maxim [Max Moston] and the others came in. I’m not good at making decisions even at the best of times, but given the way I felt about many of these songs, I was totally at a loss. Thankfully that burden was taken off my shoulders. All I did was go along for the ride.

And it was a very fun ride. We had a lot of laughs. A lot of really wonderful things happened in the studio. For Will, and Matt too I think, it’s really important to capture the freshness of everybody discovering the music for the first time. And I think they were really successful at that. That’s what made it all so fun.

SU: I read that Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy [aka Will Oldham] nudged you away from your harp and toward the piano. Did the change in instrument affect your songwriting at all?
BD: I write everything at the piano or at least with a piano in mind. Sometimes I write while driving.

SU: You seem to be the definition of “multi-instrumentalist.” What instruments are you favorite to play and why? Can you even count the number of instruments you can play? What are you bringing with you on tour?
BD: I’ve brought my harp and accordion on this tour. I’ll never bring myself to get an electronic keyboard. I’ve tried, but unless I know it’s just for one night and just for stupidity, I can’t stand them. The sound is just so terribly finite. It’s not like that for, say, an electric guitar. They can make big, huge, living sounds. But keyboards just make combinations of relatively dead things. I hate them. I’d rather play a fucked up, old, out-of-tune upright with missing keys than the best digital piano money can buy. They just don’t work for me.

SU: The livelier, vaudevillian tracks on Safe Inside the Day are such vivid characterizations, I’m wondering where these people came from. Does “The Earlie King” live solely in your imagination? Did you meet a brilliant albino in your years with the circus?
BD: "The Earlie King" is from a poem by Goethe. The other characters are real people. Except the albino. That was just a fortuitous stupidity, something to rhyme with Dino Town.

SU: What’s more important to you in your songs: imagery, symbolism, or melody? Of course, if none of those enters your mind, what does?
BD: For me, the words of a song are the important thing. They have to ring in a certain way.

SU: You excel in covering the full spectrum of emotion on this album, from the saddest piano notes to the humor of “Big Titty Bee Girl.” Was the writing done over a long period of time, or did you draw from specific times in your life?
BD: Some of the songs are older – maybe 4 or 5 years old? Others, like “Safe Inside the Day,” were begun years ago and just came to fruition a couple weeks before we recorded. Some took only a few hours to write.

SU: Can you tell us a little bit about your live show? I know this is your first time touring with a full band. Who’s coming to Austin with you, and what can we expect?
BD: The band is Paul Oldham, Emmett Kelly, John Contreras, and Alex Neilson. They’re a great band. The shows are very alive and improvisational. I keep adding new (old) songs, stuff from my earlier albums, and they’re taking them to places I’d never dreamed of. I like the idea of a tour being more of a development of something. I hate the idea of re-creating an album note for note. I could never do that. I’d go nuts with boredom.

SU: You accumulated quite the crew working on SITD. How did Andrew W.K., Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Matt Sweeney, and everyone else end up in the same room together? Or did they?
BD: They did. Andrew, Matt, Will, Bill Breeze, and John Contreras all came through David Tibet. David introduced me to Will. And all the others play with me in Current 93. Matt brought in James Lo on drums and Robbie Lee on woodwinds and Nicolas the sound engineer brought in Lia Kessel for backing vocals.

SU: Can you tell me a little bit about working with Antony? How did that come about, and how was the experience?
BD: We met at the Pyramid and really hit it off. Ant was just starting the Johnsons. He had gotten some sort of a grant, and he wanted to use the money to form a band to record his first album. I played harp on that album, and we did some shows together.

SU: Anything else you’d like to add?
BD: Just how happy I am to have a band. Life is so much sweeter with a few friends along.

Baby Dee plays Thursday, Feb. 21, upstairs at Lamberts (401 Second) with Austin’s own Weird Weeds. See their website for more info.

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