Mon, 1 Oct 2001
Except for your CD I know nothing about you so I have to ask something about your history. Is "little window" your first album and how did you meet David Tibet?
Oh how I hate my history! My standard biography used to be this: Baby Dee began her carreer at the age of three. As a passenger on the Titantic, she valiantly refused to enter the lifeboats and stayed behind to entertain the doomed passengers with songs like "Be Optomistic" and "Smile Darn Ya Smile."
I would explain my longevity as the result of a leap to a nearby iceberg when the ship went down and the resultant effects of being frozen in a state of suspended animation.
That’s about as close as you’re going to get to a detailed biography.
Little Window is my first album. I’ve been a musician forever and a "performer" for years but I had never recorded much of anything. My best work was done on the street. I forget sometimes how that’s a thing that’s looked on as being kind of lowdown on the scale of what’s taken seriously. You have to realize though that my street act was not exactly like someone playing the clarinet in the subway or making balloon animals for tourists.
I’ve never met David. I recorded some songs and sent them to Antony hoping that maybe he might want to sing one. He sent them to David and David wanted to release them as an album. It’s funny when I think about it. That it was as simple as that. Isn’t that odd? Before the album came out I think they were the only two people in the world who heard the music.
Your voice and the often sad mood of your songs sometimes reminds me of Antony who you also mention in the booklet of the CD. Is it only by accident or did you work together with Antony in the past?
Antony is a close friend. We’ve known each other for some years. I played the harp on the first Johnson’s album. We have a lot in common but we’re very very different. Antony is a first class vocalist with a huge theatrical presence who also writes great songs. That’s an awful lot of stuff to be good at. I’m a song writer and a musician — not a singer, not really. I made my living mainly singing songs but at that time it was all comedy, more of a vaudeville act.
People compare us a lot, I suppose because of the emotional content, but it always makes me uncomfortable to be compared with Antony. He’s got a truly extraordinary vocal gift. I clearly do not. Sure, I hope the songs are good, but I have no illusions about my voice.
Sadness? It’s kind of a saggy word. I’d prefer sorrow — or even better a "godly sorrow" The danger is the descent into self pity. It’s a big pitfall. I try my best to avoid it but I’m sure there will always be people who perceive music like mine (and even Antony’s) as being mired in it. One man’s sorrow is another’s depression. Some people simply don’t want to go there and I can’t say that I blame them.
That sorrow. It’s certainly not something I’m wedded to — I hope not anyway.
Birds seem to be everywhere in the lyrics and the artwork of the CD. What do they symbolise for you and the album?
I’m not into symbols. But I’ll tell you what birds mean to me. First of all there are all sorts of different kinds of birds and they’re all wonderful but the ones that interest me most are the robins. They’re so amazing. They all show up on the same day and they all leave the same day. No one ever sees them come or go. You just wake up one morning in April and they’re there — one morning in early August they’re gone.
Unlike most birds they eat nothing but worms. They turn them into songs. The songs of robins are the souls of worms. They stay up most of the night singing. They sing non stop for about four hours before dawn and when the sun comes up they stop and go off hunting. I have a theory that they are the true creators of days. They do their work so well that the days keep on happening for eight months after they’ve left.
Every robin has it’s own song. Most are sort of generic but some are absolutely magnificent. There are some robins that have a song so profound that if a person really heard it and understood their life would be changed forever.
I guess the picture on the inlaycard shows you as a child and your father. You also sing a song about him on the album. You seem to have a very special connecion to your father. Do you like to tell something about it?
Maybe it’s more like I have a very special disconnection with my father — my late father — He died two weeks ago. It was a blessed event in as much as he’d been dying for going on ten years now. We were always far apart. As a child I loved him from afar and was scared to death of him up close. And at the end the honest to God truth of the matter is this — I was just sick to death of taking care of him.
There was once a very smart man who found out where God lived. He said that God lives in two different places. Beyond the heavens and in the heart of a man who has been brought to a ruinous humility. The terrible thing is that both those places are equally far away from us. That’s where my father got to.
You are going to play live with Current 93. What will be your part in the show and are there plans to work with Tibet in the studio?
Well, the show in September is the release party for Little Window. But of course, in the eyes of the people who bought most of the tickets it’s a Current 93 concert and I’m the dubious opening act for David. It would be reasonable to suppose that I’d play at least some of the songs from the album. I’m not going to. For me most of those songs have gone the way of my father and I can’t pretend they haven’t. David is such a mensch. He says "Play what you want" so I’ll do just that. All new songs, mostly love songs. Hooray! Hooray for love!
I might be playing the harp and/or accordion (isn’t it a ridiculous combination?) for David during his set. That’s all up in the air. We won’t know until we meet the week before the show. It’s kind of hard to colaborate with someone at such a distance.
David and I will hopefully do some recording while we’re in New York. And there’s going to be a concert in London in the spring.
It’s seems ludicrous now to be talking about anything planned prior to yesterday. But New York is such a great town — I think so anyway — that I’m confident that they’ll still allow people to sing love songs there. In spite of it being such an unpatriotic activity.
What are your next plans concerning music?
Last week I finished mixing a new album and just today I realized I have to do most of the songs all over again. I think it will eventually turn out OK. It’s going to be a double CD. About a dozen songs on one and the other will be robins.
I’m hoping to make a single with Antony and David at some point this year. And I might put out an album of silliness. Hooray for silliness!
I know this is unusual but I would like to add another question to your list.
Can you tell us about the some of the people who have influenced you? Who are your heroes.
I’m glad you asked me that. One of the people I most admire in all of history and whose work had a big effect on me was a man named Alberto Santos Dumont.
Santos was the son of one of the richest men in the world. His father owned and operated a massive coffee plantation in Brazil. he grew up reading Jules Verne and dreaming about flying machines. Nobody bothered to tell him it was fiction so when he arrived in paris in the 1890s he was really dissapointed not to see any airplanes and submarines.
He started making his own airships. He made them out of bamboo and yellow silk from Japan. He would go crashing into the trees of his neighbor’s gardens and they would send him up an elegant lunch while they got him untangled and then off he’d fly. He once crashed into the roof of the Trocadero Hotel and had to be rescued by firemen. He was the darling of the Belle Epoch
There was a contest to see who would be the first person to fly from a point outside of Paris to the Eifel Tower, around the tower and back. When he made this flight the streets of Paris were so crowded with people watching that many of them fell into the Seine. (This is street theater at it’s unimaginable best) It was a timed event and when he got back to the starting point he couldn’t tell if he made it in time because back then men wore pocket watches and his hands were too busy manipulating the controls of his airship to get to it. He made it — the first man to fly. (the wright brothers were just a couple of yokels)
His best friend was Cartier the jeweler and when Santos told him about his problem with the watch Cartier made him a watch to wear around his wrist — the very first wrist watch. Now Santos was a real fashion plate and he was now the most famous man in the world — as big as the Beatles. Everybody wanted to look like him and dress like him. So the whole world went out and got wrist watches. If you’re wearing one now it’s because of him.
He kept a fleet of airships in the Bois de Bologne and would fly out in the morning and land in front of his house on the Champs Elyse. Then he would fly about over Paris and land at his favorite Bistro for lunch, dine in style, and fly home to his hangar.
This was only a few years before World War 1. I won’t tell you the rest of his story because it’s simply too tragic. La Belle Epoch — c’est fini.
could you please introduce yourself? who is "baby dee", who is the person "behind" baby dee?
Baby Dee is who I am. I realize it’s kind of an odd name but it’s my name. It’s not as if it’s a character that I portray or a stage name. I’ve made lots of changes over the course of my life — so many and so extreme that it’s a bit of a hardship to think back to the various people I’ve been. I hate talking about my more distant past. So for the present let’s just forget about who’s behind me. Don’t worry. You’re not missing much. There’s nothing very interesting back there.
since when do you make music by that name? did you maybe record music before under a different name? and why the term "baby" in your name?
I was given the name Baby Dee by a night club promoter. At that time I was dancing topless and playing the accordion on the bar at the Pyramid Club. She had some convoluted reason for calling me Baby Dee which I can’t recall — something to do with an irate neighbor. But anyway, it stuck. Everybody calls me Baby Dee.
I had an act that I used to do on the streets of lower Manhattan riding around on a huge high rise tricycle with a concert harp and an accordion. I was dressed as a cat in a tutu and wings and I would sing. It was basically a comedy act (quelle surprise) a sort of traveling cabaret. I’d ride right up to the tables at the outdoor cafes and make people laugh and get them to throw money at me. I would sing songs like "Frosty the Manic Depressive Snowman" and "Rudolph the Disgruntled Reindeer" and "My Very Own Police Force" (en homage a Gulianni) — that one was very popular — and Shirley Temple songs and the songs of Harry Ruby. He was the one who wrote most of Groucho Marx’s material. And yes, I admit, I played La Vie En Rose every time I met two people of any gender who I thought ought to be in love. (Sometimes they turned out to be a couple of cops waiting for their wives to come back from the ladies room.) That’s life on the street!
It was a great gig and I had a lot of fun but I never recorded anything.
are there any other musical releases from you?
No, but I’ll have another album coming out soon. Mostly love songs. It has become my ambition to write nothing but love songs for ever and ever and ever. Hooray!
your music, and especially your voice, sounds very clean, very soft, even "fragile". this is something you have in common with antony from antony & the johnsons. did david tibet, who "found" you for his label durtro, get to meet both of you at the same time? how did the contact to antony and david start?
The really cool underground scene in New York was something I kind of missed out on. Antony had a wonderful conglomeration of weirdnesses called Black Lips. I didn’t meet him till after that was all over and done with. I went over his house one day and he played me some of the songs he wrote from those days. The ones that eventually became the first Johnson’s album. I laid back on his bed and cried like a baby. That was when he first started the Johnsons and I did some shows with him and played the harp.
It’s kind of funny. When I wrote the songs of Little Window and recorded them I had no intention of releasing them as an album. The idea was that someone somewhere who had a wonderful voice might possibly want to sing them. Well, the only person I know who has a truly wonderful voice is Antony so I sent the songs to him. My hope was (and still is) that he would want to sing some of those songs.
I’m quite stupid about the music business and I don’t have a clue how one goes about "selling" songs. That was all I did. I wrote them and recorded them and sent them to Antony. Antony sent them to David and David (bless his heart) liked them. I was floored when he told me he wanted to release an album of "me" singing the songs.
I’ve never actually met David but we correspond and in that way have become good friends.
the cover of your cd seems a bit strange to me, i have to admit. a fishing rod with a little cage, and an angel attached to the rope – what does that mean? is the "little window" maybe the window from looking out of a (this?) cage? [funny: the german word for "fishing rod" is "angel". :-)]
That’s neat about the angel. Well, back when I was a cat I used to love to fish. That was how I’d get the money. (Do you get the feeling here that your speaking to an American? A New Yorker perhaps?) I was very fond of those little fishies — and birds as well. And I would always encourage people to lavish little fishies on me. What can I say? I like to eat in good restaurants. We all have our little vices.
Now this gets complicated. I wanted to travel. I had a collapsible high rise trike made to fit in two suitcases and went to France. I bought a harp, did some street theater festivals in France and went to London. A friend in London made me this huge sculpture to fit on the crown of the harp. It had a mirror ball and three cherubs holding flashlights up to it. (Who me? A sissy?) And atop it all was one gorgeous little angel. By this time the act had become about 18 feet tall. I do not exaggerate.
I went to Edinburgh to work the Fringe Festival and was riding down Princes Street when my lovely little angel fell victim to an overhanging "To Let" sign. (Oh how I hate when that happens!) So I made the poor dear into bait.
there’s a song called "what about my father?" on your cd. are you talking about your real father here? it’s a beautiful "love-song", i would say. the picture in the cd-tray with a son and his father is from which movie again? (i know i watched it, but too long ago, can’t remember anymore.) so would you say you dedicated this song to your (dead??) father?
Now this is truly odd. This very day that your questions found me. My father died. Don’t feel bad. He’s been dying for several years now from Alzheimer’s. That’s what the song was about. I suppose I ought to be grieving now instead of answering questions about the fabulous baby dee. Maybe I got all my grief out in advance with that song.
The picture is of me and him. (Ain’t no movie) It’s very characteristic of our relationship. I stand beside him a million miles away like a little moon. Promise you won’t tell anybody I was born a boy!
are you religious in any kind of way?
No. At least not in anyway I’d admit to in print. But I’ll admit to this. The biggest influences on my music are all religious music. This is another thing I hate to talk about because it makes me seem like such a nerd. Palestrina was a huge influence, and Morales, the anonymous masters who wrote the Glogaur Liederbuch, Gospel Music (In a former life I used to run a Gospel Choir in the South Bronx) and also a big influence was the sacred music of Santeria though that one is probably hard to detect in Little Window. All these things with the exception of Gospel are very ancient. What can I say? I love or have loved all that old stuff. And just about everything that old is religious.
Religion, as in Christianity, or Catholicism, or Paganism, or whatever gives me the willies. Most of the people I’ve met in life that define themselves as being religious don’t seem to have a clue how good god is. Something awful and wonderful happens and men with great insight write about it and then other men who are less insightful make it into a religion and go about the world beating people up over it. I know nothing about religion except that it can’t be completely ignored and it can’t be completely trusted either.
I suppose I’m a bit of a heretic.
the first song, "hymn to anne", is written for anne frank, if i understood the info-text on your website correctly. what does she mean to you, or her diary, or maybe something else?
This is a hard one. It’s hard because it’s impossible to adequately explain. As you can gather from what I’ve answered so far up to this point in my present career I was a money grubbing hermaphrodite. I made a good living and had much fun on the streets of lots of wonderful cities. When I arrived in Amsterdam I decided I wanted more than a few laughs and some good meals. I had seen some beautiful street theater in Europe and I wanted to change my ways.
I love Amsterdam. Up until then I had thought of it only as an open minded, oddball friendly, pleasantly sleazy sort of place — like New Orleans, say. But I began to see that there was a huge beauty and mystery hiding there. I set out to find the heart of that beauty and I wanted to create an act where people wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
So I settled in and started poking around trying to do things differently. I am a person who never goes to museums or anything touristy. I always prided myself on playing for the natives. OK I thought. I’ll go someplace where people go who are unlike myself. What shall it be? Rembrandt? An organ concert in an old church?! The Van Gogh Museum? The Anne Frank house? — OK I’ll try that one. So I went. I saw the postcards on her bedroom wall. Cute babies and forgotten movie idols. I bought the book.
I opened up the book and started reading and I died. You have to understand. I didn’t have a clue about all that devastation. I knew nothing about anything. And all of a sudden I’m reading about the end of the world — in the heart of this girl — this child. It simply killed me. And all I had wanted was to make some silly street show.
I knew it was important so I slowed down. I read slow bit by bit. And even though the thought of doing street shows seemed already lifetimes away I knew I’d go mad if I just shut myself up in an empty apartment reading this book. So every day I’d get up and put on my cat outfit and ride out to Vondel Park on my ridiculous tricycle and weep and play the accordion.
It was then that I realized that there are only three sounds in the world that are truly beautiful. The wind in trees (Holland, of course, has the best) the singing of birds, and the laughter of children. (Good God, I must sound like a hippy!) But I’m not a hippy. I’m a cat and I’m hunting. I had a bird call attached to my accordion and every day I’d read a bit and go out to hunt birds in Vondel Park.
So the cover of the album is a picture of the ingenious device of a cat for catching birds. It’s a magic thing for catching something that you don’t even have enough sense to be hunting for. I hope that makes sense to somebody besides myself.
i guess it’s you who’s playing the piano so beautifully on this cd. were you an autodidact, or did you learn to play from someone else?
How nice that you say it’s beautiful. I studied piano as a child but I was a very bad student who never practiced and loved to play. I only learned the parts of the songs that I liked and would repeat them endlessly leaving the parts I didn’t like unlearned. I drove my teachers mad. If I didn’t absolutely adore something I would never ever ever play it.
And I hate the way pianos sound — all pianos. I can’t bear to play a piano without the soft pedal down. Pianos have three strings for every note — That’s too damned many strings. It makes the fillings fall out of my teeth. The soft pedal makes it only two strings (but the third rings sympathetically) That I can bear.
I did however study to play the harp and the organ and I got very hung up on the study of counterpoint — not a good thing! It took years to get over that. And I read music reasonably well so I suppose you could say I’m literate but I never write down my own music. People would think I’m a sissy.
what inspires you when making music?
That changes. Now it’s love — as in the man I love. When I wrote little window it was different. I wanted to do justice to anne. I wanted to do justice to my father. my mother. That sort of thing. I think I’m more of a song writer than a performer. A song ought to be a way to get somewhere. A way to understand something. A way to take in something that’s impossible to take in. Good songs are impossible things, like trees and children. Like robins. Rivers. I’m not saying I’ve written anything that good but that’s what I try to do. Something impossible.
i suppose, when you are in contact with anthony, you come from a similar "scene". i heard that in new york there are several small clubs ("joe’s pub", for example) where artists "like you" make music occasionally. is this true? or are you more like and "underground"-artist and this cd is the first thing that came to the surface?
Well, I’ve been living in Cleveland for the last two years — the aftermath of Anne. So I no longer know what’s underground in New York. I don’t even know for sure if there is an underground in New York anymore. When I was there I worked in a lot of sleazy places and if sleaze counts as underground then yes, I was an underground artist. But more than that I was a street artist. So my CD is not so much coming to the surface from the underground as it is coming inside off the street. I suppose I was lucky in that I was able to work in so many unlikely places. Some were very hip, like the nightclub Jakie 60 (now defunct) or Florent (a wonderful French restaurant in the meat market) or Bowery Bar (a very snotty place but they treated me like a queen and the steak au poivre was excellent) and some were not so hip, like Picolo Angolo, a family run Italian restaurant where they treated me like family. I’d show up and sing "When the Moon Hit’s the Sky Like a Big Pizza Pie" It was great fun (and the cannelloni was out of this world)
Some of my best customers and most ardent admirers were construction workers. (Those union guys can be unimaginably generous.) I played plenas and merengues for drunks outside of bodegas in redhook brooklyn. I sang old Italian favorites for old Italian ladies and Fat’s Waller for babies. I sang twisted christmas carols for firemen and policemen. I once did a little show for the cops at the 6th precinct in the East Village. They wanted me to play a beatle’s song on the harp — no problem. I was a good whore and they loved me. They were quite sympathetic the day when somebody started my tutu on fire. (Such things actually happen!) I was not particular about what I played or who I played for. It was much too sweet to qualify as underground and a bit too sleazy to bring indoors.
what are your future plans? any live-performances planned (after the ones together with current 93 in new york, end of september), maybe even a tour? or some new material (when?), or any other plans?
I’m a bit tied down here and I don’t plan on touring. I’ve had such a belly full of traveling anyway! I think I’m doing a gig with David in London in the spring. And this is funny. I’m going to play Carnegie Recital Hall in March. Hah! Who’d have thunk it. Somebody’s putting together a concert of harpists who do comedy. (It must seem odd to people that Little Window is the work of a clown.)
I’m at the stage of mixing the next album. It’s going to be a double CD — one of robins singing and one of songs — dark songs and love songs and dark love songs. With any luck it’ll be out before spring.
I’ve recorded some ridiculous organ music, a silly song, and a dark sexy song. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with those. And I wrote a song special for Antony which he’ll record with the Johnsons. Hooray! I have high hopes for that one. We’ll put out a single together — he and I and David. That’s the plan anyway.
photos by Alice O’Malley