Swans | Jarboe | Article/InterviewSWAN SONG Watching the evolution of rock bands can be a slow, arduous process. Take Boston, for instance, which just appeared in Denver last week—it's taken them almost 20 years to make the same four albums. By contrast, look at Swans, one of the country's most challenging and powerful musical entities. In a shorter span, they've released an enormous body of work; some abrasive and nauseatingly harsh, some incredibly delicate and soft in contrast. Swans is composed of two main protagonists, Michael R. Gira, he of the governous basso profundo and egomaniacal nightmares; and his foil, Jarboe, of (until recently) a lilting soprano and angelic delivery.
Since 1982, Swans has released records at the rate of about two each year. Gira founded the group in New York, originally displaying a relentless, churning edge and a sound described as "Black Sabbath at 16 rpm." Since then, Swans' sound has never stayed in one place for more than an album or two at a time. From its ugly, brutal beginnings, a kind of violence characterized by songs like "Raping a Slave," "Your Property" and "Money is Flesh," Swans began to change.
One of the first alterations was the addition of vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe to the Gira-fronted lineup. She made her debut on the 1985 LP Greed, a dense, scary record about lust, commodification and their intersection.
"The first thing I did for Swans was a blood-curdling scream on "Time is Money (Bastard)," remembers Jarboe, who joined Swans 10 years ago when she was 30. At the time, she worked in a gourmet restaurant in Atlanta as well as pursuing a career in the performance art/museum scene. "My performance art that I did in galleries wasn't too different from some of the things I've done with Swans," she relates. "I'd have contact mics all over my throat and body and I did a lot of screaming."
On assignment, she was dispatched to New York City to do an article on the up-and-coming Swans. After meeting them and being completely won over by the band's music, she abandoned Atlanta for New York.
"I just became a gopher for them at first, just trying to somehow get into the group. At the time, I was very muscular, so I asked if I could be a roadie on their first European tour, hauling amps and stuff."
After her introduction into the group Gira began to enforce a change in the group's sound; for one thing, he didn't want screaming from Jarboe anymore.
"Michael wanted me to tone it down," Jarboe says. "He wanted these really breathy, fragile deliveries. This transformation was first felt on Swans' 1987 double album Children of God. An awesomely far-reaching release, the album contrasted the oppressive dark of Gira's tortured soul with a reference point—the gentle presence of Jarboe. The album ranks as their unmitigated masterpiece, universally heralded by critics.
Swans never looked back after that. They followed up Children of God with The Burning World, a Bill Laswell-produced record of world music for manic depressives, and also released a wonderful Jarboe-crooned cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," as well as a slick Gira version of the former that started earning them charges of "selling out."
Jarboe has always been relegated to a few songs amid Gira's torrential output on Swans albums. The two began a side project, called Skin, in 1985 and have put out three albums under that moniker; music that is generally more accessible and less monolithic than Swans material. But she released her first solo album. Thirteen Masks, in 1992, a wild romp through areas she's never been allowed to dabble in with Swans. The record, recorded with associates like Jim Thirlwell, Roli Mosimann, Gira and others, yielded a dance club hit in "Red," a lush, thick paean to Jarboe's Mississippi roots and her and Gira's relocation to north rural Georgia from New York City.
In the last six months, Swans has released a new studio album, The Great Annihilator, and Jarboe and Gira just last month unveiled simultaneous solo releases.
"I took classical voice lessons when I was younger" says Jarboe, which is her mother's maiden name, Jarbeaux, without the Creole spelling. "I had to unlearn all of it to learn to sing more expressively. And with Sacrificial Cake (her latest solo album). I was into exploring the opposite of what I'd been doing. It's parallel to what I've been studying—Tibetan Buddhism—getting into opposites. So I wanted get more ugly or raw or intense, to use that sort of vocal delivery to balance out the more traditional female, sensual side. That's why I was intentionally trying to sound more so-called violent.
"But I've also done 'I Feel Pretty' from West Side Story, which is really different, and on this tour I start out with something very breathy and sensitive and that moves on to something almost gospel-y, and my last thing is 'Yum Yab' (a hyperactive track about slashed wrists and barbed-wire kisses on Sacrificial Cake). And sometimes I feel like people are shocked by that, like they don't want that song to come from the same woman. But they're all related. I can't be one without the other. But I feel set free by being able to do it."