Think of Jill Tracy's music as the soundtrack for Union Station filmed in black and white during the eerie build-up to a startlingly romantic plot twist. Describing her sound as “the elegant side of the netherworld,” Tracy has a voice that prompts images of spirits haunting art deco hallways and a knack for writing songs that unfold like the story lines of F.W. Murnau movies that were never made.
The first time I caught the San Francisco-based singer and pianist live was earlier this year at Gothla, where she provided the musical accompaniment for renowned belly dancer Tempest, who resembled a silent film star. The image straddled vintage and modern worlds, creating a unique vision. With interest rising in modern interpretations of pre-World War II twentieth century culture, Tracy has become a cult darling in recent years. She has been performing with her band The Malcontent Orchestra, as well as taking on solo engagements, since the late-1990s. In 1999, they scored F.W. Murnau's classic Nosferatu, which can be heard on the 2002 release Into the Land of Phantoms. Tracy's fourth full-length The Bittersweet Constrain, was released last year. She will be performing at tonight's dinner and music event Cambret Noir at Citizen Smith in Hollywood alongside Nicki Jaine (Black Tape for a Blue Girl), Regan Remy and Paul Mercer.
Last week, Tracy and I engaged in a brief exchange on Twitter about sad songs and “the art of melancholy.” That conversation led to the following interview.
Jill Tracy “The Fine Art of Poisoning”
When did you first become intrigued by the idea of melancholy as something beautiful?
I think ever since I was a child because I was an only child and always felt out of sorts with the world. It was things like Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone and old Alfred Hitchcock movies and Jean Cocteau films, I wanted to live inside those worlds. I couldn't figure out how you get inside those worlds and I realized that it was the music also that was conjuring emotion and the mood.
The interesting story is that I never intended to play the piano. It was never a conscious decision I made. It became a vehicle because as a child I was obsessed with building a time machine so that I could conjure these other worlds and get myself to other places, these beautiful, imaginary, dark places. I would go over to this neighbor's house, this elderly widow who had this house. She would let me come over and let me play amongst the bric-a-brac and the weird statues and strange dolls. In her basement, there was an old, upright piano that was painted gold and it had an ornate bench. I sat down, I didn't know what I was doing, but there was something about playing particular notes on the piano. I didn't know what the notes were and I still don't. To this day, I don't read or write music, it's all intuitive, but I figured out through the piano, that was the closest thing that I've ever encountered to transporting myself to another world. As a kid, I thought if I just found the right sequence of notes or chords or something, that it's going to unlock a portal. I still believe that. I think that some of the notes I've found. So, that's become my purpose, to find these portals, the way in, the wormhole to these other worlds that I create in my music.
Did you ever see The Adventures of Prince Achmed?
Yes, I love it.
Thinking of that and Jean Cocteau, people did these fantastical things with technology that seems primitive now. Does that idea of making something without pushing the newest, fastest technology inspire you at all?
I think it's such a lost art, like you said, that they would go to such an extent. Like Prince Achmed, it's all handmade, frame by frame, and they weren't doing this on the computer and it took so, so long to do and they were doing it just for the sake of creating a beautiful piece of art. That's lost today, just to make something beautiful and ornate, like a piece of furniture. Today it's like, “Let's manufacture this as cheaply and quickly as possible and get it out there and then it's going to break in two weeks, so they gotta buy another one.” It's all about consumerism and I think that's what I appreciate about those films or antique furniture or anything of the past. It was done not for the benefit of the corporation, but this artist was expressing himself, he wanted to create a work of beauty. Sadly, people don't put importance on that anymore.
Is that part of the reason that you don't seem to rush your releases?
I am very meticulous and sometimes I feel like I'm almost too much of a perfectionist. I can hear them in my head and I don't want to let something go too soon.
Jill Tracy “Haunted by the Thought of You”
That seems to be the plight of the artist in any medium, that you can imagine something in your head so clearly. When you try to get it out does it every feel like it's not quite there?
It's never going to be perfect to you. The fine art is knowing when to say it's finished. You can always say, that cello needs to be louder or we should have used a different snare drum. You're always going to listen to that and I think you just get to that point where you say, “This is finished.”
I think what I'm really enjoying about my career right now is that there are so many facets. Like the show that I'm playing, I'm performing alone and I write the songs alone and I play them so that there is a freedom to play them a different way. The piano arrangements are different from what I would play with a full band, because then my left hand has to kind of keep the bass line and the drums, the beat of it. I have to fill in the gaps and complete the arrangement on my own, which is fun and challenging. It's a little looser when I play with a band because then you have this backing band to support you. It's a different experience in that way.
In that way, what's exciting are different versions of recording, doing a solo piano version of something. I've been wanting to do heavier remixes of some of my music because the newer music is getting heavier, heavier and darker, my dear. I do love the fact that there can be different versions of the same song. I don't abide by the idea that there is one definitive version of a song. There can be different variations and I think that keeps it exciting.
You end up singing a song differently. With “Evil Night Together,” melodically, I sing it differently than when I first wrote it. It's just like a wine, things age with time. You kind of massage it into place over time and get it to the place where it needs to be. That's always the rub, you end up having to record something, you write a song and you're going into the studio. Sometimes that's the worst possible thing because the song is still stiff. You haven't worked it into place yet. So, I feel like if I tour with the song for a little while and let the song live, it's better to record it after the fact. Usually, it's the other way around, you're releasing an album of brand new material and usually the songs are kind of stiff when you go into the studio.
It's like when a band puts out its debut album and it's solid because they've been playing the songs for four or five years before the album came out and then they have six months to write and record the second album. The second album will inevitably pale in comparison to the debut because it's all so new.
Exactly. You have your whole life to get that first album ready and then the second album, the demands, especially if you're on a major label, are something. You're on the road and trying to write in a hotel room or something. So, yeah, that sophomore album is always a really difficult thing to achieve.
With that said, it's an interesting time for people like myself who are independent artists. Going back to the technology thing, the advent of social networking and Twitter, the ability to have your presence online and have your fans be able to reach you has really leveled the playing field for all of us. You don't need these corporations anymore.
It's an exciting time because you have people leaving the major labels, they're suffering. It's kind of like the artistry can be put back in the hands of the artists.
Can you put a face to your fan base through Twitter or MySpace, get a better understanding of who is listening to your music?
That's the beauty of it, I think that's why we do this, to move other people. I got an email from a fan who was going to commit suicide and he heard my song “Just the Other Side of Pain” and he was going to jump off the bridge, but it was because of the song and what it meant to him that he decided not to. It's stuff like that, that makes me think, this is why I do what I do.
When you see me perform live, you'll always see some playing cards taped to the keyboard. People always say “What's the significance of these playing cards?” That's another beautiful thing that I share with fans. For the last twenty years, ever since I was a teenager, I've collected stray playing cards that I find on the sidewalk. I've found them all over the world. I have them all in these velvet boxes. I find a sense of divination and purpose in them and I learn to read them, sort of as a personal tarot. I share that with fans. Certain cards are really powerful for me and fans send these to me now. Like you said, just to be present with your fans, it's such a beautiful, intimate connection with them. I'll get a three of clubs in the mail and someone will say, “I found this in Minneapolis and wanted you to have it.” At shows, people will give me these playing cards and will sign them and put the city and the date. That's a lovely thing.