Jarboe | Truth and consequences

This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 30/07/2018.

Jarboe doesn’t need to be introduced: core member of Swans along with Michael Gira until 1997, ever since then, she keeps on singing, creating, shape-shifting, and growing, working with artists as different as Neurosis, A Perfect Circle, Phil Anselmo, Justin Broadrick, and In Solitude, in the process. Ubiquitous and discreet, appealing and eerie, muse and mentor: she knows no boundaries and follows her path in the shadows, where experimental music, extreme metal, rock, and contemporary art meet.

Thanks to a lot of luck and a bit of nerve, I managed to meet her somewhat against all odds after her show with Father Murphy at Roadburn, a couple of months ago. The interview was short, but when Jarboe talks, sharp and generous, time stands still. It’s like a whole part of the history of contemporary music coming to life. Off the record, anecdotes abound: she recalls a visit of Budapest with Attila Csihar as a guide, gently mocks the members of some Swedish black metal bands, “charming when they’re alone, insufferable when they’re together…” Under the pretext of talking about her haunting collaboration with Italian occult psychedelic duo Father Murphy, she evoked seminal episodes from her childhood, her relationship to spirituality as a musician, and some memorable live performances, outlining her own approach to art, unique and visceral, humble and uncompromising, sensitive and quietly stubborn.

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That’s when you saw Father Murphy live that you had the idea of collaborating with them. What caught your attention and what made you want to be a part of it?

I was riveted by their performance, mesmerized like I had encountered a spell. To me, the whole thing was flawless. I felt overwhelmed, and I don’t ever feel that way! When I see a performance, I rarely feel that transcended. I felt that it was genuine, sincere. They were so focused that they weren’t even there anymore, they weren’t aware of the audience. They were just looking at each other and were so focused on what they were doing… To me, it was ritualistic and so spectacular that I was just aghast. That was what drew me to the live performance. First, when I asked them if I could join them, they said no. Other people had asked to work with them before and they’d always refused… But eventually, Federico came to me and said that they would be open to doing it now. I was very excited.

They do look like they’re in some kind of symbiosis on stage…

They’re always that way, they’re so connected… That was why I deliberately wanted to face them instead of them standing behind me. I wanted to watch exactly everything they’re doing, everything that [Chiara] is doing with her hands and everything that [Federico] is doing with his instruments. That way, you can only focus on what you are putting out, nothing else. The people are seeing the process that might happen when you’re recording: it’s all about the music, the singing, and the emotions of the songs. It’s not about being in front of the audience like it might be for some other performers.

I’ve always been that way, I’ve always put myself in a diminished position with the audience: I’ve done tours where I was in the crowd the entire time; I wouldn’t use a monitor and just listen to the PA, right in the people. The crowd would open around me in some kind of protective circle. It was really great. I would be down on the floor, completely on the floor with the microphone… The band got to be in the lights and on the stage, not me. I enjoy that. I did a tour where I would go to every single member of the audience, dance with them, and hug them. That was an experiment. The musician working with me couldn’t even see me anymore, he would be scared and wonder what was going on. I did that until one particular city where I realized that it was egotistical of me to assume that people would want to be touched, would want to engage with me… Some people were very happy and loving, but then there was this one particular man at the back of this room who was almost trembling and sending me this message… I had this bell go off: “Let’s no do this anymore, I have to give these people their space.” I learned that you can only go so far. And to be honest, when I go and see a performance, I wouldn’t want the person to engage with me, I would just want to watch the performance. That was a lesson for me.

We also did a show in an art gallery in California I think which was packed with all these people talking and drinking. It was just impossible to perform. We were doing a quiet show with a piano and an acoustic guitar… I wish I had an extra long mic chord then: I wanted to make a commentary about my situation there, and while the musicians were on stage, I tried to just lay down on the bar, as a drink! Since it was all about this wild partying going on… But my mic chord wouldn’t reach, so I decided to just do it down the mat, with the spilled drinks and the people’s dirty shoes. I just laid down the mat, and if they wanted to see me, that’s where they would have to see me [laughs]! I felt that we were put in such a position of humiliation that I thought we might as well go that way all the way. They loved it and we had a great time performing. I decided to be a sacrifice. What could you do? You can’t make them be quiet, so just go ahead and let them win. It’s their loss… You have to work with every situation, with whatever you’re given.

You’ve been doing so many different things in so many different settings indeed…

That’s true. We’ve done things where you could hear a pin drop, where the audience was absolutely respectful, and that’s actually the best ones, I think. I don’t like to play areas with bars, people drinking… It’s very difficult to focus sometimes.

The EP you released with Father Murphy is quite short but you toured intensively. Did you intend it to be, first and foremost, a live collaboration?

[She turns to Federico from Father Murphy, and laughs] We did the EP to kind of connect the live tour that we did last fall. The idea was to give the audience a memento of the performance that they’d seen.

That’s true. We’ve done things where you could hear a pin drop, where the audience was absolutely respectful, and that’s actually the best ones, I think. I don’t like to play areas with bars, people drinking… It’s very difficult to focus sometimes.

The EP you released with Father Murphy is quite short but you toured intensively. Did you intend it to be, first and foremost, a live collaboration?

[She turns to Federico from Father Murphy, and laughs] We did the EP to kind of connect the live tour that we did last fall. The idea was to give the audience a memento of the performance that they’d seen.

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Father Murphy define their music as the sound of the Catholic sense of Guilt. How did you relate to that with your own cultural and spiritual background?

I’ve been raised in the Catholic church; my mother was a devout Catholic. Our household was full of rosaries and holy medals, and she was always praying the rosary around the house. As a child, I went through all of the rigors of training in order to receive the sacraments. It was a very important part of my childhood. The thing that we were taught as children was the suffering, and the guilt is something that you do always feel I think. It’s ingrained in you as a child: you would be kneeling to receive the communion, you would be unable to eat all that day, and there were some masses where we couldn’t even have a glass of water by the time we got up and left. So you’re always in pain, kneeling, hungry, and thirsty… It’s just ingrained in you. It was an interesting household because while my mother was extremely Catholic, my father was agnostic, then he became a practicing Buddhist. We had all these statues… Towards the end of his life, I think he knew he was getting sick, and as a gift to my mother he said, he became Catholic. He was Catholic for one year before he died, and I think it brought a lot of joy and happiness to my mom: when he did die, she felt that he had joined her. That was an interesting bond that they had. He wouldn’t go to mass and didn’t do anything at all, but in those days, the mother had to raise their children Catholic, especially if she didn’t marry a Catholic. I hear things that are reminding me of the mass in Father Murphy’s music and in their singing.

You tackled a lot of different spiritual practices in your music, whether it coming from Magick, alchemy, Hinduism etc. How spirituality and music relate to you?

I think they’re one and the same. You’re right: I did concept albums where I deliberately put myself into a position that may cause a lot of discomforts to understand what I was trying to explore. It’s interesting to explore different levels of spirituality. One of them indeed was Solomonic Magic, which bled into my fascination with the Goddess Kali, Mahakali, and all of this merged into some kind of ritualistic study. I also did a series of magick recordings which were all about studying and exploring these things. I did step into that community to try and understand it. The entire Mahakali album is about environmental destruction and global warming. Mahakali is the great destroyer, the creator-destroyer. That’s the theme, and we did “Overthrown” tonight, a song about the end of the world; the environment, the Earth being destroyed.

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Besides Kali, there are several occurrences of some kind of dark, feminine power in your music. What drew you to that?

In the case of Kali, it was all about my sense of the connection with creation and destruction. I was also embodying it myself; I portrayed her, sitting with that black stuff on me, with my tongue out for a very long time. Afterward, the picture has been enhanced digitally, but that’s actually me, in the dark, black make-up, pulling my tongue out and really feeling what that was. It was extremely intense and painful [laughs], it felt almost like my tongue was coming out of my face! That was an album related to darkness and suffering, but again, in my mind, it was all about environmental destruction. I don’t know if it’s always dark. I was reading the love poems of Rumi—the Sufi mystic—at the same time the election campaign for the last president of the United States was going on. I was drawn to the hatred spoken at that time, so I decided to combine the two, the love poems of Rumi and the anger that I saw coming out the political allies of Donald Trump. I chose visceral rock songs for that as well as recordings I made of members of his rally, his audience: I put effects on them so that you just get a sense of the squalor and chanting of “Lock her up!” It was horrifying to me, so full of hate… I thought it was interesting that it was happening while I was studying these love poems. Of course, the Sufi mystic being a part of Islam makes it even more striking. I decided to put them both on the album so we hear respect, love, and gentleness against the rock. So it’s light, it’s not all dark there. The light comes from the inspiration of Rumi. It was a very painful thing to do because I felt very upset over what I saw happening in the United States. I’m still experiencing a lot of pain over this.

This record is entitled As mind dissolves as song begins, right?

First, it was only a digital download and then I did the Artbox which has it as a CD. That took me a whole year before I actually finalized it because I played all the instruments and did everything myself.

You are both very prolific as a solo artist and known for your many collaboration with various musicians. What do these different ways of working bring you? Are you envisioning them in a similar way?

To me, collaborating is really great. I would recommend to all artists to do it. Initially, as you learn about it, you may make a number of mistakes every now and again, but you may also have an instinct about who you would like to work with. What I like about it is that you are not in control and you are understanding the other person’s point of view. In my opinion, it’s very important to not be a domineering, controlling person. In my life, I have assembled many musicians as a band to work and tour with me, and I always try and see what is the skill they want to express to let them all shine instead of saying: “Oh no, you do this!” Collaborating helps you see other points of view. There is something that develops in the room that’s a third person, so to speak: that’s not you, not them, but it’s something else. You have to let go of your control. I think it’s a helpful and valuable tool.

What’s next for you now?

We’re gonna do a few gigs in Australia in June, and after that, a number of albums and things that I’m working on will be coming: three albums for labels, and a bunch of other non-label things. I’m pretty excited about that. And then hopefully some more shows next year, not with Father Murphy anymore but with someone else!

Thanks to Federico from Swamp Bookings for setting this up, and thanks to Jarboe of course for her time, patience—and all the rest.

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