Photo by Anne FishbeinThere’s something going on here, something different and real that sticks. That was already clear four years ago, when Jennifer Terran put out her Cruel album, and it’s still clear. But what is her difference, exactly? The grainy soprano that stabs right through your head? Many can sing. The pure, clean pain? Everybody hurts, that’s part of it: “I can be cruel/as cruel to you as I am to me” (yes). The subject matter? Everyone feels despair when confronted with bargain imported beer, but she expresses it; freeway autoeroticism – a virtually universal topic (one imagines). “Steady at the wheeeeel . . .”
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Was that a hook? At first you might think there aren’t many. Then pieces of her songs turn up in your junk drawer, on your pillow, in your laundry. A bass riff, a moan. Pop? Uh . . . The title song of Rabbit, Terran’s follow-up release (an EP), is not totally unlike “Waiting for the Man” miscegenated with “Wedding Bell Blues”; on another track, she turns her credits into music. Spare piano, celestial harmonies, a chord change that pulls 20-mule weight. This stuff is constructed, bar by bar. But it flows.
Now Terran has hurled all her singing, songwriting, playing and engineering skills into The Musician, a work that dares you to ignore it while daring you to like it: It’s nothing less than an epic complaint about not being famous enough. Go ahead, if you’ve got the guts, and find a way to identify with somebody who fantasizes about killing an unresponsive record exec, and who sings, “Someday -I’ll be heard . . . naturally you’re threatened,” and “You can’t stand to witness the waste of your instrument,” and even “Worship me.” The music rewards the effort, so here’s how you identify: Picture all the humanoids who’ve ever stifled your dreams, and let Terran make them squirm for you. Everybody hurts.
Like a child. No, not that, you’re saying, I never want to hurt like that again, but Terran shoves your face in it on the very first cut, “Liberty Lunch,” drawing you from loving glow to crushed abandonment over two consecutive bridges, as the chords say first confusion and then stunned realization. There are other moods: a chimy Russian waltz with chamber orchestra, where “My ass hit the ground/And oh how bodies can bleed” (“Skating”); a song that breathes like a wandering horse, where she’s “certain and in need” (“Grand Canyon”). Emotions so delicately raw that even melodic beauty scrapes them open. You can’t stand it. So why are you listening again?
“There has to be a point where I connect with a song in a really deep way,” says Terran, squatting on the rug, which she prefers to a chair. “If I resonate with something personally, truly, I know I’m not going to be the only one. That’s why it’s so important to be honest.”
It’s not exactly the kind of honesty one associates with . . . whoever: Celine Dion, Britney Spears. Pop audiences are demanding, and they demand a lot less than Terran. “I want,” she sings, “to dance with you.” Well, she does. But she wants to lead.
This is a woman who took in a stray cat, which she adores. She always assumed it was a female. When the vet told her no, she didn’t change her mind. “I don’t like to think of her as a boy,” Terran says with quiet certainty. “I recently wrote a little song about it called ‘She’s a Girl No Matter What They Say.’” Stubborn? “I’ve been more stubborn than I am now, let’s say. Depends on what it’s about.”
This is also a woman who has a face. She knows it, and she does everything to avoid letting you look at it. On Cruel, she put a big leaf in front of it in an inside-booklet shot, opting for a photo of her twistedly beautiful mother, Adel (dead of leukemia when Jennifer was 13), for the cover. On the cover of Rabbit, Jennifer glammed herself out to the point of deliberate absurdity. Lately, in the art for The Musician and on her Web site (www.jenniferterran.com), she’s gone in for fuzzy abstract nudes and semi-clad poses in knee boots, with pistol. The target? Spin the bottle.
Her mother was a dancer, artist and jazz vocalist. “It seemed like her world was very concerned with what people thought — beauty, giving people a certain impression of who you are,” says Terran. “As a child, that was really disturbing to me.”
Along with her six siblings, Terran was raised in L.A. as a Mormon (a straitjacket she shed at her first opportunity), first indulged as the youngest and then thrust into the role of “sister/mama” when her mother remarried and had more kids. Her father is Tony Terran, a top studio trumpeter who’s played on everything from the Beatles’ Revolver, to a Sinatra farewell concert, to Jennifer’s own recordings; he changed his name from the Italian “Terrana” in the days when Tony Bennett was doing the same, and has a thing about discrimination ¾ he uses the word we when talking about those who worked to desegregate the Musicians Union. He’s proud of his daughter’s talent, but especially of her drive.
Jennifer played and sang from an early age, clubbing in bands before going solo. On top of her own making of music, she teaches the subject. “I really like working with children. I teach people to give themselves permission to make their own discoveries and get over the monkey-mind bullshit in the head that prevents them from being free.” She’s also an instructor in hip-hop dance, a physical fetish that seized her in her younger years and has never let go, though she has no special attraction to the culture or the sound. She lives with her husband and bassist, Brendan Statom, in conservative but nature-friendly Santa Barbara, “probably the worst place for the kind of music I do.” Well, she has friends there. She markets her CDs on her own label, Grizelda. (The name has personal connotations of witchery and ostracism.) “I’m not anti-record industry,” she explains, “I’m pro-music.”
Looking small and frail, Terran sits all by herself behind an electric piano in the bar at the Echo Park restaurant Taix on a Friday night in March. The room’s transition between extended happy hour and nightclub is not going smoothly. Terran sings a couple of songs, her voice wafting through the sounds of guffaws, cell phones, and Golf Expo conventioneers falling off their stools.
Terran stops, gets up from her bench and marches to the center of the room, where a table of post-middle-agers are whooping it up. She invites them sort of nicely to put a sock in it. They do. Shocked, a little.
Quite a few people have come just to hear her. The bar gets quiet as she asks permission to sing hurtin’ ballads. “Can you only hear me when I’m happy?” goes one lyric. “Beauty doesn’t always come in symmetry,” goes another one. And “I feel like a secret/I feel like a coiled snake.” On piano, she plays a strange but grabby little counter-riff behind her chording here, inserts charming “wrong” note choices there. Without Brendan’s bass, she sounds extra-fragile. She ends a tune singing a long, unresolved note and letting it drift.
When Terran is finished, she takes a Buddhistic bow and tells the audience she’ll be performing her encore in a few minutes ¾ outside. After packing her gear, she gathers her faithful, many of whom she knows; pattering on a miniature drum, she leads them through the door.
She stands against a brick wall in the parking lot, under a floodlight, still slapping a rhythm. She sings “Sticky Sweet 8-to-5 Lady”: “She’s so different from me/And she sings so off-key/But she does make me see/What it means to be . . . me.”
Watching her like a movie, people stand semicircled around Terran: some next-door-neighbor types, some casually arty types, a boho who pleads to marry her, a kid in a Marilyn Manson T-shirt. One, two, three . . . In all, demanding their last song, there are 19. It’s late, and it’s cold. Nineteen: You’ve got to figure she’s at least seven up on Jesus.
Jennifer Terran plays at the Mint, Wednesday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m., and at Genghis Cohen, Tuesday, April 17, at 10 p.m.