Talks with Noe Venable

 

Noe Venable

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The Summer
Storm Journals

 

The World is Bound
by Secret Knots

 

Boots

 

Down Easy

 

No Curses Here

 

You Talkin' to Me?

 

 

 

 

 

CEV:  Most everyone can remember when music became an important component of their lives, do you remember when music became more than just enjoying the latest songs for you?   

NV:  I was born with a love of music that eclipsed what I felt for any other art form, but it took me a while to discover that I could actually make it myself.  Still, throughout my childhood, I remember that music was always almost unbearably important to me.  Looking back, I think some of the most transcendent musical experiences I had with music as a young person were singing in a neighborhood children's choir at the San Francisco Community Music Center, under the direction of Carol Negro, when I was nine years old.   I remember that we both loved and were terrified of her.  We sang somewhat difficult music, I think, unusual for a children's choir, and she would never tolerate less than our best.  My first experience of acting was playing the role of Milo in Negro's musical adaptation of the Phantom Tollbooth, songs I still remember to this day.  And also Fauré's Messe Basse.  I loved singing these pieces, and Carol's unflagging commitment to getting them right impressed upon me early a sense of music as something both very ephemeral and very serious.

CEV:  Did you grow up with music around you or did you have to bring it into your life yourself? 

NV:  If there is a musical instinct in me, it comes unquestionably from my father.  He hasn't sung in public much since his college days in the Harvard Glee Club, but he is possessed of a really phenomenal, unearthly tenor voice, and he always used to sing around the house, especially while he was cooking.   

Beyond this, I keenly remember the spontaneous and constant music of the world around me, of car horns, sirens and morning doves.  When I look back, almost all of my strongest childhood memories are of sounds, more so than of images I think. 

The records we had were the usual suspects.  Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, the Who.  But we also had some classical music which I loved.  Grieg's Peer Gynt and Tommy the Rock Opera were my favorite records to listen to. 

CEV:  When was it that you started learning to play an instrument? Was there formal training involved? 

NV:  I took piano lessons for a few years as a child, but it never really stuck.  I just never seemed to have much interest in the music I was assigned.  I always preferred making up my own songs.  The exercises in my beginner's books just seemed so far from the magical songs emanating from our record player.  It sounds funny, but for a long time I don't think I really got that there was any real relationship between the music one played in piano lessons and the incredible music one could hear on a record.  So I never learned to sight read, and music remained quite a private pleasure for me.   When I was alone I would make up a song while walking or peck something out on the piano, a little tune, some words.  Sometimes I would sing the songs to my mom, and she would help me write them down, little songs based on my favorite stories, which were of the Greek Gods, about Pan and his nymphs in the woods, things like that.  But for the most part, I never really thought about music as being something that I could ever make myself, at least not with any degree of seriousness or ability.

What got me over that hurdle was that at some point, I simply started to have things I needed to say, and that just became more important than the gap between what I could imagine and what I could write.  I picked up a guitar when I was nineteen, and words and music just came flooding out.  I don't know that I'll ever understand it, what happened then, or what happens to any of us when we are suddenly seized with the need to create in a particular medium.  But I consider myself deeply blessed to have experienced it, and likewise moved when I see it happening to someone else.  Art has the power to unlock potential in us that we never knew we had. 

And it's phenomenal what unexpected blessings can enter our lives when we are moving with the current of our own creative instincts.So I taught myself to play through writing, just making up chords as I needed them and growing slowly out from there.  I never learned bar chords; I still almost never use them.  I did take a couple semesters of guitar lessons in college, but as with piano, I was less interested in playing things already written than in making things up.  For the most part,  songwriting is what taught me to play.

CEV:  What was it about the music that you listened to that touched and inspired you in your own writing? 

NV:  I recall a friend looking at some old beginner piano books and saying "this is where it all begins, doesn't it?  It's in these workbooks we played from when we were kids!"  He was looking at a book that he had used as a child taking piano lessons, and had come across a piece he remembered particularly.  It was called something like "March of the Trolls."  "This is it!" he said.  "This is what I've spent my life trying to create.  All my life, all artistic ambition somehow boils down to a seed planted by March of the Trolls."  Today he is a member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.  It all makes sense somehow. 

In fact, I too continue to secretly draw inspiration from a piece I heard in my childhood, one which is also troll-centric.  :)  It's from Grieg's Peer Gynt, the piece called "In the Hall of the Mountain King."  I could write a hundred "Into the Wilds" and maybe still never capture what that piece made me feel as a child.  But then, I suppose the same is true of the mass by Fauré, I could write twenty "Look, Lucks" and still not have written it out.  And there is one piano piece from that time that continues to haunt me, from Bartok's Microcosmos.  I think it was called "The Lost Doll" in my exercise book, though I don't think it has a title in Bartok's original version.  It is a simple modal piece that somehow says just about everything there is to be said about loneliness and quiet integrity. 

CEV:  What role did living in San Francisco play in the kinds of music that you enjoyed and would eventually compose yourself?

NV:  San Francisco, during the time I was living there, had the richest music scene I've found anywhere.  There were so many people doing extraordinary things, particularly in the worlds of art-rock and experimental jazz / avant garde music.  There, I was surrounded by so many phenomenal players and writers, all of whom had their own unique visions and voices.  Todd Sickafoose, Jenny Scheinman, Scott Amendola, Jim Campilongo, Faun Fables, Jewlia Eisenberg and Charming Hostess, Idiot Flesh (later Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), Tin Hat Trio, Emily Bezar, Bonfire Madigan, Etienne De Rocher, and so many more.  A bit later there came Jolie Holland, Vienna Teng, Johanna Newsom.   

What is it about the Bay Area that gives rise to so much diverse expression, so many voices to whom the wider culture comes to listen?  Is there something about the bay area that fosters a kind of individualism, self-directedness, and self-trust that encourages artists to drum to their own march?  Something about the ethos of California and the bay are in particular?  I don't know for sure... 

All I can say for certain is that I do feel like living in the Bay Area at the time in which I lived there, I was part of something extraordinary that was happening, and amongst the people I mentioned are many I feel privileged to have known and learned from. 

CEV:  When was it that you started to write your own songs? Did any of those early songs go on to be included on any of your eventual CD releases? 

NV:  I think I'd written a couple hundred songs before any of the ones which appeared on You Talkin' to Me.  Then there were another hundred or so between that and Down Easy, which, for a number of reasons were never released. 

CEV:  I guess this is a standard question to ask a songwriter but where does your inspiration flow from? Is it all personal experience or are your songs in part commentary on society in general? 

NV:  This is a challenging question to answer, not because I don't find it to be an interesting thing to think and talk about, but because it is constantly changing, always in process, for me, and I'm sure for most artists. 

I've heard some songwriters say that, if they're honest with themselves, they're really just writing the same song over and over again, always searching for the right words to say that thing they've always needed to say and can never get quite just right.  Or they've said it once, and twice, and a thousand times, but there is something about what it feels like to say it that makes them know that it can never be said enough times.   

As for me, I do feel like I'm saying the same thing over and over, but what that thing is has changed enormously over time.  I guess songs tend to express whatever I'm wrestling with at the moment, and it usually seems to take me months, years, and many many tries before I've worked through it.  That wrestling is sometimes emotional, sometimes philosophical, sometimes aesthetic, it really varies.  Needless to say, over the last couple of years I've been profoundly affected by my experience in college and now graduate school.  Studying religious texts and world mythologies has contextualized my experience of life in a way that is profoundly affecting the way I frame that process of wrestling.  I don't know that I've been able to put it into words on any of the albums I've released, but these new thoughts have been starting to come to flower in all of the songs I've been writing since Summer Storm Journals.  And I don't feel like I've come anywhere close to writing it out. 

CEV:  Tell me about your background in theater. What did these experiences mean to your music and your performances? 

NV:  I did do a lot of theater in middle school and high school, Midsummer Night's Dream, The Threepenny Opera, and a number of other plays, including a couple I wrote myself.  Probably the most exciting theater experience I had was acting along with five other girls and an adult cast in Right Mind, a collaboration between George Coates Performance Works and A.C.T. in San Francisco.  The show was an experimental spectacle, involving some fifty odd slide projectors shining glistening patterns and images everywhere, enormous balloons with movies projected on them, Taiko drummers and the whole cast learned Karate which we did on moving see-saws.  The music was, to me, one of the best parts of the show.  I don't know if it's available anymore, but I loved singing it and it's all still very clear in my memory. 

I guess all of this gave me a greater comfort being in front of an audience, not that that had ANY bearing on the experience of actually performing my own songs in front of an audience, at which point I was quaking with fear to the point where I could hardly finger the chords.   

But once I got more comfortable, especially in my early twenties, I did start working theatrical elements into shows.  The instrumentation of my band had tuba, pedal steel, a drum kit made of pots and pans, electric guitar, banjo, harmonium, and a plethora of other instruments that changed song to song, so even our setup was fairly theatrical.  I used to make my band mates wear costumes, turn the stage into a barnyard, just do all kinds of weird stuff.  Ravens, somnambulists, hurdy gurdys, mechanical fortune tellers and pirates.  I think I had some fantasy living I needed to do. 

I have to admit, though, that I feel pretty far from that now; at any rate I feel far from the need to express any of that imagery in any concrete way.  But it was fun at the time.   

CEV:  When did you start performing your own music for others? What were those first few times in front of an audience with your own compositions like for you? 

NV:  I started pretty much right after I started writing, because though my songs were rough, I was certainly writing to communicate.  I started going to the open mic at the Owl and Monkey Café in San Francisco, which is no longer there, a shame because it was really a uniquely conducive environment to a whole little culture around songwriting.  It was the only open mic I've ever been to where people actually came to listen who were not themselves performing.  There was no amplification, you just sang to a packed room of people whose faces you could see, and people really listened.   

Mostly what I remember about those early experiences of performing were the physical symptoms of terror, my stomach gripping itself like a fist, my fingers shaking nervously and refusing to obey the feeble commands of my brain.  At the same time I remember feeling this incredible charge from the experience.  At that point my songs were quite fierce and I have to admit, pretty provocative.  Looking back, I can see that I had some anger and frustration I hadn't really had an outlet for up until then.

And letting that out, particularly as a young woman, felt very illicit, very necessary, and, to be honest, really good.  Scary, but good, in the way that it feels good to finally say something that you've been holding inside for so long.   

In retrospect, I chalk a lot of that up to growing up female in this culture, and to all of the hidden and not so hidden messages about what is and is not acceptable for a girl or a woman to be, embody, or express.  I wasn't even conscious of the extent to which I felt inhibited by such binding concepts until I began to break free of them.  Now, on the other side of that process, (at least for the most part), I feel much more positive about the possibilities of a very free and distinctly empowered feminine identity in the face of whatever limiting stereotypes may yet exist in our culture.  And I feel a solidarity not only with women who confront these obstacles, but also with men who for their part may also feel themselves caged by prescribed roles of what a man is and is not to be. 

And looking back I think those early performances were integral to making that transition. 

CEV:  Was there a point that you felt you'd like to share your music with a larger audience than just your local venues? Tell me about your efforts to start touring on a national level?

NV:  I have to say that on the touring front, I just got really lucky, because it was never something that I ever directly consciously pursued, or would have known how to pursue.  The more worldly aspects of figuring out how to get out there have never been my forte, but I've been fortunate to work with people who have really helped me in that regard.  Most instrumental were Todd Sickafoose, my prime collaborator and bass player who was the one who first suggested we book our own tour, and my manager, Bonnie Simmons, who has secured so many fantastic opportunities for me as far as performance, gotten my records to all kinds of people, and stood by me all these years, despite my apparent inscrutability to most anyone associated with labels, mainstream radio, or any of the conventional channels of getting music out there. 

CEV:  When was it that you felt that you had enough material to put together your first CD You Talking to Me? In 1996? Was this a self released effort or did you work with a label? 

NV:  I had been writing songs for about a year at the time we started to record You Talkin to Me.  I wasn't really sure I was ready to make a CD, but was encouraged by Tom Meshishnek, a guitarist and engineer I had met at the Owl and Monkey.  He had a home recording studio and a cat named Mo, and hosted house concerts which in San Francisco are the stuff of legend-- they took place in his basement, a cozy, dark little space outfitted with rugs, tables and chairs, and a little stage.  Teapots and brooms hung from the ceiling, there was a little sound system and a table for beer and cookies.  It was called Mo's Melody Mansion, and it was my favorite place to play.   

We made the album at Tom's house, on a couple of ADAT machines, and I really fell in love with the process of recording, particularly recording at home, where there was nobody looking over our shoulders, and we could just experiment to our hearts' content.  I don't think we tried to find a label to release it.  I can't remember for sure.  I pressed them myself. 

CEV:  What was the reaction that you received to the release of You Talking to Me? Was it what you expected and were you encouraged to think about the possibility of doing a follow up to that one? 

NV:  I don't think the CD got much of a reaction, but it's hard for me to remember, because I was so focused on my own process of writing and playing, and at that point, I was evolving pretty quickly.  I don't know if we sent it to any reviewers, I don't think it ever got a review, not any that I remember at any rate.   I got a few negative letters from friends of my grandparents letting me know that my voice was poor, or suggesting mainstream songwriters I ought to try to emulate if I wanted to succeed.  But none of that went in too deep, because at the time I was listening only to Tom Waits.  His sonic world had affected me to the extent where I could only hear comments that resonated at those kinds of bassy, theremin-esque, surreal and "surural" frequencies, to use his word.  Like, if someone had suggested that one of the songs might have sounded better arranged for a bass clarinet, to that I would have listened. 

Tom did send the album to two people in the music industry, neither of whom he knew personally.  Amazingly, one of these two people, producer Lee Townsend, responded and secured the opportunity for us to work together on creating a record for a German label called Intuition Music and Media.  That was the record that become No Curses Here. 

CEV:  Was your second release easier than the first because of experience you gained from working on the first one? 

NV:  No Curses Here was a very different process from You Talkin To Me, because we had a budget, a studio, a group of professional musicians, and at the helm of it all was a producer who had a particular vision of what we might all create together.  The greatest part of the experience was getting to know and to work with Lee, who is a wonderful person and leader, and a unique and interesting artist in his own right.  But at the age of 21 or so (I think I must have been 21 or 22 at the time we recorded No Curses Here), I don't think, in retrospect, that I was really seasoned enough to make the most of the experience. 

I didn't choose most of the songs that were on the album, for one thing, and my choices would have been different.  But I did learn a lot from the experience, and I remain grateful to Lee for having created the possibility for that experience to happen, and for all I learned from working with him, his ear for three dimensional arrangements, and his strong but subtle leadership in working with musicians. Ironically, No Curses Here is probably the album of mine that has seen widest distribution, the only

album that was funded by a label, and the only album that was actually recorded entirely outside my living room. I say ironically because in fact, I know that it wasn't until long after this experience, when Todd and I started making records in living rooms, that I really started to come into my own and to find my own voice. 

CEV:  Do you actually set aside time to write/compose your music or is it more spur of the moment as inspiration hits? If the inspiration hits while you are elsewhere other than home how do you get the ideas down before they fade? 

NV:  Oh to have more time!  These days I am in graduate school and this fall I will be student teaching at a high school, which leaves me a good deal less time than I'd like for music making.  I'm looking forward to finding a better balance in the future, because in the meantime, songwriting is generally relegated to stolen moments.  I record scraps of music into my phone while walking, bits to return to late at night after my work is done.  I have gotten to where I can write on buses, planes, and trains. 

It's interesting...   while I do miss being able to devote more of my hours to creative pursuits, in a pinch I have to admit that there is something to be said for the stolen moment, for those moments when one is headed hither or thither, alone, not really thinking, head not screwed on quite straight perhaps, one sock on inside out... It's a very particular kind of distracted, and I think it's very necessary for us, creatively.  It's amazing what can sneak through when one isn't expecting. 

CEV:  It seems like your output has been pretty steady with a CD every couple of years. Is that about the length of time required for you to mull over new ideas and work through polishing the gems of what will become your songs? 

NV:  How long an album takes to release depends on so many factors.  As someone who has decided to release albums myself, I count myself lucky that I have never had to deal with the label politics encountered by artists on major labels.  But worldly concerns play a role for me as well-- creating a record involves so many different phases and people, each of which takes time, resources, and synchronicity to be gotten just right.  There have been times when I was writing enough material to have released three records in a year and still send a few records worth of material back for recycling.  More recently it's taken me a lot longer as I've tried to figure out how to really keep doing this, and how to do it sustainably.   

CEV:  Given the state of digital technology these days do you do much recording at home? 

NV:  Home recording has always been my favorite way to record most instruments, at least given my limited resources, but these days I am also often the one engineering.  Learning ProTools has been incredibly rewarding, and in some instances it has influenced the writing of a song, allowing me to conceptualize several parts at once and to play with them before I give them to musicians.  I do appreciate the sense in which ProTools turns the computer into a sort of instrument in its own right. 

But lately, I'm not sure why, I've been starting to go back to some earlier roots, thinking about composers who have written entirely for acoustic instruments, and becoming interested in what kinds of textures can be coaxed entirely from those voices and instruments which are not dependent upon amplification of any kind.   The kind of music that can be written in one's head while walking, without even being tied to an instrument.  I guess I am always trying to set music free, somehow.  Or myself free from dependency on the many whirring, whizzing gadgets that surround us.  I like that my guitar is portable.  I like it when songs are portable, not dependent upon hard drives or screens.   

CEV:  Your latest CD called The Summer Storm Journals which came out in 2007 was 4 years after the release of The World is Bound by Secret Knots. This was about twice the length of time than your previous releases, was this just a time to slow down and spend more time on life (your move to Brooklyn for instance) instead of on your music? 

NV:  Yes, that period of time did encompass a number of really significant changes in my life, and moving to Brooklyn was one of them.  Another one was going back to school to finish my college degree, and then deciding to continue on to graduate school.  A company which I had been working for, which had been the way I had been able to support myself in my life as a musician, ceased to exist, so I had to figure out how to make a living.  These were only a few of the factors that made me feel that I needed to shift the focus from music to just living for a while.  Summer Storm Journals was the project I was carrying around in my suitcase through all of the living.  So it took a while not only to finish it, but also to get to the point where I felt ready to let it go. 

CEV:  Who are your main musical collaborators these days and how do you work together when it comes to composing and recording music? 

NV:  It really depends on where I am and what I'm working on at the moment.  I do write alone, and that often includes a good deal of arranging, but all of the musicians I work with have a huge part in creating their parts, or at least developing the germ of an idea into what it will ultimately become.  This is not always possible these days, with me living in Cambridge, MA, far from all of my musical collaborators, but it remains my ideal way of working.  I like parts to reflect something of the musician who plays them.  Ideally, I think a record should carry some element of the voices of all who have contributed to it, not only in the playing of the parts, but in their composition, somehow synthesized in such a way that the songs are revealed.   

A great joy of the process of making The Summer Storm Journals was the opportunity to work with Payton MacDonald, the marimba player best known for his work with the avant garde chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound.  Some of my other collaborators are Dean Sharp, who is versatile, creative, and subtle, Greta Gertler, herself a fantastically gifted songwriter and arranger, on keyboards and vocals, Jacob Lawson and Yair Evnine on strings, and Russ Johnson on Trumpet.  Alan Lin and Todd Sickafoose, my dear and most long term collaborators still join me when they can.  It's not as often as I'd like, Alan living in California, and Todd being often on tour, but they remain integral to my musical world, even in absentia.   

Very much missed is Dan Morris who played drums and percussion on Secret Knots, and who passed away suddenly this past December.  A tremendous loss to all of us who were privileged to know, love, and to work with him.   

CEV:  What effect did the move to Brooklyn back in '04 have on your music? What is the difference between the music scene in New York as opposed to what you had back in San Francisco? 

NV:  Well, I met the man to whom I am now engaged, so I wrote a lot of love songs.  But I also stopped spending much time in clubs, so I can't tell you much about the music scene! 

CEV:  Tell me about what your fans will find tucked away in The Summer Storm Journals CD. How is it different than what has come before?

NV:  Well, as I mentioned earlier, it was born of a period when I was facing a lot of big changes in my life.  But whereas Secret Knots is somewhat fierce in the face of turbulence, I think Summer Storm Journals is quite a bit softer, more inward, with clearings and moments of peace.  A lot of it is about what comes after the storm, or just before it.  The calmness of feeling the ground beneath one's feet.   

Tucked inside it, what will one will find?  hmmmm...  Various flora and fauna, two ice dragons, twinkling boats, a prayer for beauty, and an army of nows.  You know, the usual.  :) 

CEV:  And in all of this you recently graduated from college as well. First congrats on that. Second what role does/will your studies play in shaping your music and the ideas that get included in your compositions? 

NV:  The main impact of starting to delve deeply into the study of some of the religions of the world has been to encourage me to trust my innate sense that the big questions are worth asking, worth thinking about, worth wrestling with-- that however many eloquent others have addressed them in writing, music, visual art, song, or myth, the book of them will never be closed.  I too must ask them.  And that we all do live these questions, we each live them in our own particular way, perhaps sometimes without a need to put any voice to it at all.  Because ultimately, we do so not to be heard, but to hear.  Not to be seen, but to see.  I am one voice, the voice I was given, but now I also understand that I am part of more than I knew. 

I just came across this quote by Whitman: 

"I too am not a bit tamed.  I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

This speaks to me of something in all of us, something which emboldens me and in which I take heart.   

CEV:  How have fans taken to Summer Storm Journals since its release? 

NV:  I'm embarrassed to admit that my school commitments have made me very very remiss on keeping up with the response.  That combined with server difficulties that have prevented a lot of communication from reaching me at the address listed on my website (fixed now) means that I couldn't give any broad weather report on the response, but I have received a few moving letters about it, enough to know that there are those to whom it has meant something.  I am grateful to these people for letting me know. 

CEV:  You have also lent your voice to other projects besides your own CDs over the years. Tell me about some of the ones that really stand out in your mind or that you are really pleased with the way they turned out. 

NV:  Most exciting to me at the moment is the new recordings by a New York based band I sing with called Edison Woods.  www.edisonwoods.net is their site. 

Julian Summerhill's "Heart Gone Missing".  It's a really special song. 

CEV:  What lies ahead for Noe Venable besides graduate studies in literature and comparative religion at Harvard Divinity School no less? 

NV:  This fall I'll be student teaching literature at a public high school, which I'm sure will be an adventure, all working towards the completion of my degree, which I should have finished by next June.   

Along the way, I continue to refine and spend time with the songs I've been writing in the evenings and in the cracks of the days.   

I don't really know what form the next album will take but I promise, for any others who have survived an academic graduate program that it will not include any of the words that may have tormented you as they continue to torment me.  I will not, for example, use the word "counter-hegemony," even if I am utterly stuck for a rhyme for macaroni.  Nor will I group the songs I have been writing under the title of  "Divinity School, the Musical," however sorely I may be tempted, for a laugh.   

CEV:  Will you be out on the road anytime soon doing some of the music off Summer Storm Journals and where can fans keep up with where you will be appearing? 

NV:  My school schedule rules out any possibility of touring at this moment, but I do still manage to play in New York and San Francisco a couple times a year, with dates posted on my website, www.noevenable.com  All in all, the internet remains the best way to find me these days. Unless you're student at Arlington High School, in which case, watch out, I just might be your English teacher (!):)

CEV: Thank you Noe for such in depth answers and for sharing with the readers of CEV an open look at your life and your music. Your time is much appreciated and I would like to wish you much success in all your efforts both academic and musical in the coming years.