Feeling cornball, I once called Azalia Snail “an American original” — just couldn’t find a better way of expressing it. The self-taught, self-made, self-styled Snail makes a mostly low-tech music unfettered by hoary old rules about harmony, melody and structure. With the logic of dreams, these fantasias begin in one place and wind up on the other side of the world; she plays chords she doesn‘t know the names of (she made ’em up) and casts her tunes in nonconformist (for pop) settings: Zithers, Moroccan flutes, Casio, Mellotrons, specially tuned guitars and obscure percussion instruments rear their inquisitive heads.
On Snail‘s latest album, Soft Bloom (Dark Beloved Cloud), her ninth, she again reinvents pop craft by drawing on an enormous number of non-pop elements, often in the smart ’n‘ cuddly tradition of England’s Canterbury scene of the late ‘60s and early ’70s, in particular the whimsical popavant-garde intersections of the first two Soft Machine albums. Lovely, strange ballads give way to voiceovers and shadowy noises; she‘ll build golden cathedral rays on tons of layered guitars; Faust Tapes–like collage meets discordant chords striking other discords, spraying shimmering tones outward. It’s a hazy and sweet aura, bursting with weird beauty, and there‘s no skimping on the darkness.
Snail sees herself as neither guitar player nor songwriter nor singer, nor any of those conventional selling points: “Really, it’s more of a visual accompaniment [she makes films too]. Things don‘t have to follow a pattern in order for them to be successful. I don’t think a song has to have verse-chorus-bridge, whatever, as long as there‘s something intriguing about it.”
A Snail live show is an unpredictable affair as well. At Spaceland not too long ago, she and a French-horn player, for a film accompaniment, improvised a chillingly beautiful half-hour wave of textural washes. “I like creating a whirlwind sound. My favorite thing onstage is to do the jams, and to just get a few people up there and make it spacy and noisy. To do structured songs in just such a so-and-so way is not very interesting to me.”
Snail, who recently planted down in L.A. after many years in NYC, put out her first album, the fissured-folk Snailbait, in 1990. Featuring guest appearances by a member of Live Skull and John S. Hall of King Missile, its release was, she says, “almost too easy.” At her second-ever live show in NYC, two record-company guys had come to see her open for the Reverb Motherfuckers, “and then they saw me play and decided, ’Forget them, let‘s sign this chick,’ so they agreed to release my first album within the first year that I was playing out.”
Snailbait gained her immediate acceptance from a still-loyal cult of fans, and led to other labels offering to release her singles and albums. “This was the time [‘89–’91] of the big resurgence of indie labels,” she says, “so all of sudden there were, like, thousands of singles coming out by every little band out there, and it was a really great time.” The ensuing oversaturation, of course, helped foster indie music‘s demise, but Snail kept plugging away. Hundreds of live shows found her crisscrossing the States, Canada and Europe (as she continues to do), and she churned out the records.
Music comes to Snail in bursts; she’s not worried about having to create something every day in order to keep her career going: “You have to have something to draw from. I find it amazing how people who are so successful year after year just don‘t take a break and do something else, like paint or something.”
Snail makes her own impressionistic films, has scored for New York experimental film and video artist Cecilia Dougherty, and worked with filmmaker Sadie Benning, with whom she collaborated on a video shown on MTV. Soon, she hopes, she’ll be trying her luck here in Hollywood.
“Most film music is so obvious. I‘d like the chance to do an Ice Storm–type soundtrack. That was beautiful, minimalist. Buffalo 66 had a good score, too.”
For now, she’ll carry on making music her own way, for the love of it. While Snail is not a willfully obscure artist, “I‘m fighting the selling-out process all the way. I only want to do it for me. The people who like my music have discovered it on their own — they haven’t seen my picture in a magazine with someone saying, ‘This is hot.’
”I‘ve been doing this for 10 or 11 years now, and I’m still an underground thing. You know, when you call yourself Azalia Snail — maybe snails aren‘t supposed to get too high above the ground. And Azalias only pop out one or two months out of the year . . . “
Azalia Snail performs at Spaceland on Monday, December 6. Contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.