PopMatters Spotlight: Dark Days, Luminous Nights: An Interview with Vanessa Daou

Dark Days, Luminous Nights: An Interview with Vanessa Daou
An exploration of love in the time of political unrest, Light Sweet Crude is Vanessa Daou’s musical thesis on regained emotional ground, a desire line carved from the departure point of doubt to the destination of self-made reality.

By Imran Khan

Vanessa Daou assumed her place on the dance music throne during the height of the cresting electronica scene in the 90’s rather reluctantly. The New Yorker’s music was never destined to be a staple of radio and, moreover, it required listeners to do two things at once: dance and think—two functions that don’t necessarily jibe well on a dance floor. Her heady brew of electronic beats and poetic implorations have both fascinated and mystified listeners alike; aiming at both the head and the feet, Daou’s music has never sought to be accepted as a genre defined by a playlist or the same marketing ploys used to sell lingerie.

 

Instead, the singer spent her time and resources wisely, mining the library for books to feed and supplement her musical diet. Take Zipless (1995), her first solo outing into lounge-hopping culture, where she would spark the curiosity and desire of both the literati and club-goers. Zipless, her proper debut, was the congealed lava of still heated emotions, cooling slowly over the bedrock of smooth, percolating beats. The sonic dressing, courtesy of producer and then-husband Peter Daou, furnished the music with the sweaty, carnal atmosphere of two lovers locked in an overheated sauna and deliriously happy about it. At the core was Daou’s voice, a haunting, diaphanous whisper that divulged only the most clandestine secrets in the listener’s ear. Zipless was so over-the-top in its impassioned femininity and, yet, so understated in its approach and intent that you might have missed what was the album’s most sensual cue: Erica Jong’s erotic poetry, of which Daou’s lyrics were based upon. Her association with Jong alone made Daou the talk of feminist circles amidst the album’s release; meanwhile, her tracks were doing time in the swankiest of underground cells, giving DJs a run for their wax and honey.

After the liquid fire of Zipless, Daou tuned into a lower frequency of sex, started reading again and discovered the lives of her muses on 1996’s Slow to Burn, a night out on the town in the lonelier corners of the heart. Bluer than Zipless but not as overheated with sexual magma, Slow to Burn showed listeners the right way a woman unwound for the evening hours—without a man and certainly without worry for it. Strange and fey feelings permeated the album and Daou, lost in the fog of deep regret and loneliness, ultimately essayed the personal triumphs of no longer being at the mercy and whim of a desired man. Her closing line on the album, “I’ll cross that bridge to you”, embodied the wisdom and spirit of a young woman finally learning the difference between simply having choices and actually making them.

After negotiating out of her major-label contract with MCA records following an internal shift of major players and talents, Daou opted to record independently and out of the ethers came the sex-in-space odyssey Plutonium Glow, released in 1997. A wondrous fusion of retro-electro beats, orbiting keyboard licks and dizzying sexploits, Glow took some of its inspiration from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and fancied Daou a traveler through an emotional galaxy lined with debutantes, soldiers, lovers and hustlers. Transmitting from some strange universe of grandiose desires, the singer communicated all the pleasures and grievances of love in the long stretches of electronic reverb hovering in the mix.

Having descended to Earth after her adventures in the mysterious unknowns of outer space, Daou then landed on the gritty streets of Harlem for her next offering. Extolling her poetic adulations for the late jazz legend John Coltrane, 1999’s Dear John Coltrane told summer afternoon tales of love in the city heat, philosophizing about jazz and death and the passing and ultimate rising of her mentor. In the psychedelic blur of soft funk, ambient sonics and drugged-out hip-hop beats, Daou encapsulated the desires of being at once imprisoned and released by a love both earthly and spiritual.

Coming off the high of a love supreme, the singer readjusted her frame of mind for a more direct approach to pop music with 2000’s Make You Love, a gorgeous swell of plush atmospheres, French cosmopolitan cool and plenty of pop hooks sharpened to kill. Full of juicy pop songs, Make You Love was a radio luxury of catchy rhythms and iridescent tunes designed to bring you to your knees in the bedroom rather than your feet on the dance floor. Her lone muse this time, a Parisian friend named Juliette (a name often recalled for its Shakespearian myth and beauty), provided Daou’s album the principle tenets of womanly love, which (in the fantastic-reality of pop music) would temporarily free the singer from the male gaze for as long as she was cast under her muse’s spell. A tour with famed French singer-songwriter Etienne Daho followed and Daou would soon find herself in the hotly-tipped pages of Europe’s most fashionable magazines.

A wind-down and eventual divorce from producer-husband Peter gave Daou time to explore other areas of interests, investing her time in a series of research projects over the years before returning in 2008 with the ghostly late-night jazz lullabies of the self-produced Joe Sent Me, the singer’s unsent letter to the torch-singing casualties of New York’s long-forgotten speakeasies. A retro-dreamworld of sax solos, nightclub tears and inner city blues, Daou made a quietly arresting statement of reclamation, her designs now on the offerings of a century’s worth of jazz rediscovery. Still toiling in the inventions of a self-made artist, Daou also experimented with textual images, allowing Joe Sent Me an extension outside of music where the singer explored her themes of reclamation with the objective of defining the sound of jazz visually.

Light Sweet Crude, Vanessa Daou’s newest opus to date, reintroduces the musical lexicons of her previous work while tapping into far more hedonistic, intrinsic joys. At once revealing and coded in a semiotic riddle of aural-visual language, the album’s title and acronym open up a gatefolded theme of love, sex and politics. Often, the three merge fluidly with the sleight-of-hand of a musician building roadwork between emotion and activity: Light, Sweet, Crude/Love, Sex, Commerce/Love, Sex, Control… language, sex, chaos. Once again, Daou explores the literary angles of song, splicing fractured and formalist poetry into her stories of weathered romances, often challenging both syntax and semantics in a single verse. At times, the album’s surreal air of enigma and danger and its thematic overlapping of subtexts make it sonically adjacent to the experimental fiction of writer Nicole Brossard.

After the desolate nights detailed on Joe Sent Me, Crude, a headlong dive into the more bracing waters of hip-hop, house and dub, removes the excess tears of her previous outing for the wide-eyed exhilaration of new experiences and new loves. This time aided by an assortment of producers, each skilled in a particular offshoot of electronic music (including Turkish rapper and beatmaker Da Poet, who signed onto the project simply because he loved her voice), Daou finds other facets of self-expression in a series of grooves, either on the deep hip-hop pulse of “Camouflage” or the heartbeat rhythms of “Bar D’O”. Some inventions stretch far and wide and the singer travels a path not altogether unfamiliar, but still cautiously walked; in “Love Affair”, chess-moves are made in the name of sex and diplomacy, the stop-start rhythms of an upright bass signaling the change in love-strategy. Here, the beats provoke rather than invite and the sudden desire to challenge, debate and confront is meted out in the interplay between a programmed hammering beat and a live, thrumming bass. The album’s most playful, sensual cuts find the singer in new spatial spheres of experiment and sound; the gossamer pop of “Chances” takes reggae and ska to levels of haute couture with Daou’s vocals trailing behind the skipping guitar lines. “Goodbye” creates an electrical storm of buzzing synths and metallic hip-hop drums in the eerie, sonorous grind of a purple, Lynchian night. And while the bruising eroticism that has always been the fabric of her work is still present here, it is now balanced with an inner sense of avowal.

In the musical world Daou describes, her days have always been dark, swept up in the struggles of waking life. But her nights are wide and luminous; the restive desires that blossom into song remain charged with the electricity of language and sound. Here, in this world of emotional transference, Daou forges space for lovers in the bedroom and on the dance floor alike, where the troubles of the day are redressed by the transformative powers of night. Like the aforementioned Brossard, whose text-murdering literature has jostled the minds of many, Light Sweet Crude creates its own mauve desert of fortitude and danger, a vast space where night and emotion slowly descend like music, existential dramas you can dance to.

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Can you go into detail about your entrance into the music world? You moved to New York, where I believe you met Peter Daou, who would soon introduce you into some of the underground music scenes happening at the time. What was life in the arts and music like for you at the time and what was your first forays into music like?

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