Creative Loafing Jarboe Interview / Atlanta Show Preview
Former Swans collaborator Jarboe reflects on Michael Gira’s influence, Atlanta’s place in the group’s history, and staying positive
Jarboe joins Swans tonight (Fri., July 22) at Terminal West.
Swans are on the road, playing songs from the group's latest album, The Glowing Man. It's the last stand for the current incarnation of the group. On July 21, word spread that former Swans collaborator and longtime Atlanta resident Jarboe is making an appearance with the group tonight (Fri., July 22), at Terminal West, singing the World of Skin's "Blood On Your Hands." Before the show, Jarboe took a few minutes to talk about her time working with frontman Michael Gira, Atlanta's place in the group's history, and staying focused on positive energy in the age of the internet.
Aside from singing on “A Piece Of The Sky” from Swans 2012 album, The Seer, you haven’t been active with the group for nearly two decades.
I was at the 2011 show at Variety Playhouse. That’s the only new Swans show that I’ve personally seen. Michael asked me to sing when they came back in 2012, but I was out on my own tour. So it's great that I'm here now. He asked me to sing “Blood On Your Hands,” which became a standard in my repertoire. And I just came back from Tasmania, where I was playing the Dark Mo Fo festival where I performed the song in June. It was a great show, I played with Chelsea Wolfe and Jim Thirlwell. So this is a song that I just did an interpretation of, it’s fresh, and it's something I’ve worked on recently. And it makes a lot of sense to do this one — it’s a song with a lot of mixed meanings. Plus I can do it pretty much a cappella.
When I performed it with Swans I did it while taping down some notes on my keyboard so there was a drone that only I could hear, for the most part, kept me in pitch. I think Christoph [Hahn] is going to create a drone on his pedal steel. I can sing it in multiple octaves and in multiple keys, but it's about hearing the drone that he creates for me to sing to. I can sing it in D, I can sing it in C, and I can sing it in different vernaculars. I first recorded the song for Blood, Women, and Roses, the Skin project that Michael and I did, I did a lot of harmonies. There are a lot of non-words. I did all of these multiple harmonies with it. I've performed it that way when I've had other people on stage with me to do the harmonies. I did it Tasmania with a guitarist playing a drone on an acoustic guitar. At Terminal West, I’ll do it with just a drone on the pedal steel. It’s completely spontaneous. It came up a few hours ago, "Hey. do you want to do this?" It’s not like it was pre-planned.
Also, this is the final tour of this lineup, so it’s cool to do it in this city. I was planning on going anyway, just to say hello to the guys in the group. Also, Atlanta was always important in the history of the band. The first end of the band, in 1997, Atlanta was the last U.S. show. It was on the 29th. My birthday was on the 30th of January. It was a really amazing show at Variety Playhouse.
When I moved to New York in 1984, people had a lot of associations and thoughts and prejudices about the South. I would say “Ok, I was born in Mississippi, and I was raised in New Orleans and Atlanta. I’m a product of where I was raised, and I’m a pretty progressive, radical artist. So let’s not judge. I’ve always flown that banner, and have been proud to be a Southern woman, so it’s really cool that there’s a trajectory with the project, Swans, and here.
Have you and Michael Gira stayed close over the years?
There was a period when we were not close. There were some disagreements, and some fallout. Then various dramatic incidents in our lives, that had nothing to do with each other, brought us together — returning to each other as friends. The underlying connection and friendship has never left. Different things have happened where we’ve turned to each other for support, and that shows the value of this friendship.
He hates it when I say this, but he was a huge mentor for me. When I left Atlanta and moved to New York, he was a big teacher for me in terms of pronunciation and vernacular, and how to tap into my roots and my life as a singer, instead of the way I’d been taught to sing by vocal coaches. He had a big impact on me as a performer, and as an artist. That has never left. He’s been the single most important influence in my entire life. ... But he hates it when I say that.
I think it went both ways, too. There’s a Swans documentary being made right now, and one thing I’ve talked with the filmmaker about is that I remember distinctly: In 1984, I was in Switzerland when they were working on the period that was Cop and Young God, or Raping A Slave, as it was called originally. I was in the studio, and I remember saying to Michael, instead of shouting, try do descending notes. Sing from the belly — from deep inside your chest — instead of from the throat. He did so, and it worked. So in a way, I shaped and influenced aspects of his work. It was a two-way dynamic that was very special to me.
He has been on the receiving end of a lot scrutiny and criticism on the internet, regarding Larkin Grimm’s Facebook post alleging that he sexually assaulted her. Is your appearance on stage with Swans a show of support?
When I first got wind of all of that, my support was very clear. On my Facebook page — for me, pictures speak louder than words — I posted a photograph of him with his arms around me, and the two of us embracing each other when we were younger. That was my statement about the incident. My fans on that page got it. They understood what that meant. I wouldn’t have posted that if I had any remote belief in those accusations. You’re talking about a major mentor for me, and a great love of my life, and I will always support him in that way.
I want to focus on what's positive, what's healing, and what's good, especially right now, with our country being the way that it is. I don't want to focus on any negative energy, if you catch my drift. I'm focused on the positive, and staying strong. There are a lot of currents that are counter to that going on around the world right now, whether it's women's issues, suicide bombers, or politicians, and that's the kind of thing I walk away from.
The thing about the internet is that it’s good and it’s bad. Social media is good and it’s bad. Anybody can get on there and make a comment. That is so not me. I’m old school when it comes to dignity and restraint. I don’t believe that people should go onto social media and make comments that are inflammatory and ridiculous. It’s beyond tacky.
Swans play Terminal West tonight (Fri., July 22). With Okkyung Lee. $22-$28. 8:30 p.m. Terminal West, 887 West Marietta St., Studio C. 404-876-5566. www.terminalwestatl.com.
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