“It’s a rewarding challenge to ignite visuals in the listener’s head and to bring out specific emotions,” says Glassell Park–based singer-songwriter-producer Dorian Wood, speaking to the L.A. Weekly from the middle of a promotional road trip. “A great deal of strategizing is involved in making this happen. It’s almost a terrorist act, if you think about it.”
The topic is influences. The goal is to try to trace the aesthetic lineage of Wood’s new self-distributed CD, Bolka, a beautiful, baroque work spawned by a failed love affair. Sleeve credits boast (or warn), “There are no loops on this album. There are no guitars.” There are, however, harps and accordions, and a lovely choral arrangement of the song “Kletka ot Sniag,” which was translated into Bulgarian from Wood’s English-penned lyrics by the ex-boyfriend who inspired the album. (Bolka is the Bulgarian word for pain.) I read him my list of first-impression names and genres evoked by the CD — folk, spirituals, jazz, dancehall/cabaret, torch songs, Björk, Antony Hegarty — and he chuckles.
“Folk and spirituals are labels I’m happiest with, for now,” he replies. “Of course, I can always rely on new genres popping up to best define what I’m doing at that time. Folktronica is one I heard of recently, which is too funny. The fag in me will always adore torch songs, naturally. They come in handy when I get the urge to sing while I’m out binge drinking with friends. Björk is my superhero. She does what she wants and gets paid for it. Antony is beautiful. I met him once at the Amoeba in-store he did a couple of years back. I held his hands and told him he was lovely.”
He pauses for a beat, then continues.
“Influences are tricky things. Nina Simone is the closest thing to an actual influence, in that she accepted that she was a freak of nature and was fearless in laying her heart out for the world to see. I love Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Son House, Yma Sumac . . . I suppose my tastes tend to be dark and lyrical. I do love words. And people. Darkness, words and people.”
Born in Echo Park 32 years ago to Costa Rican and Nicaraguan parents, Wood inherited his gift for music from his grandfather, the pianist Calasanz Alvarez, who took the prodigy under his wing and guided him to his first piano recital at the age of 5. Wood speaks with obvious pride when talking about his blood elder, who now lives in Florida. “I played him Bolka and he fell asleep,” confesses Wood. “Later, he told me that he doesn’t like my music but that he appreciates the arrangements. It hurt me a bit to hear that, since I look up to him so much. But hey, he was honest and I love him more for that. Of course, now I have to push myself to create something he’ll wet himself over. I’ll get there.”
As a teenager, Wood attended a high school of the arts in Costa Rica. Later, four strained semesters as a film student at Los Angeles City College convinced him that music really was his true calling. Before recording Bolka with producer Rebecca Stout (of the duo Hendersonville Song Company), he fronted the art-rock group the Dorian Wood Guilt Trip and the ?improvisational gospel choir the Northern Embers. Ironically, it was the end of his relationship with his Bulgarian boyfriend that pushed him to the next level of his career: actually recording his music. He openly acknowledges that the CD is a document of the relationship and its aftermath. While there are a few songs that predate the presence of the Bulgarian in Wood’s life, marrow-spilling efforts like “All Hail the Infant Elephant” and “Pianos and Bricks,” which are both less lyrically abstract than much of the rest of the album, dive right into the abyss of post-coupledom anguish. On those two tracks especially, the androgynous emotionality of Wood’s singing voice lends itself to the demanding theatricality of the lyrics, arrangements and production. The nakedness of a lover’s need and the wide-eyed madness that ensues when that need is not met twine around one another.
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“It’s very much a breakup album,” he laughs. “Even the songs that don’t deal with my breakup were created either during my relationship or after its demise. So yeah, it’s all ultrapain. Without any effort to be subtle about it.”
As the interview comes to an end, I ask Wood how the dual identity of being Latino and queer has shaped his art.
“I put very little emphasis on being either one,” he replies, “and the people who listen to my music are able to see beyond what I look like or who I fuck. True happiness comes from being able to embrace who we are as individuals. It’s the biggest ?cliché on the planet and yet it’s so ?rarely practiced. I don’t want to be the ?next Nina Simone or Cesar Chavez. ?I want to simply do the best I can, and hopefully inspire others to do the best ?they can. To spread the love. But rest assured that I will be around to stir shit ?up for years to come. Not as a leader, but ?as an instigator.”
DORIAN WOOD | Bolka | www.dorianwood.com