She’s the One
Diane Izzo laughs when she recalls a review of her debut album, One (Sugar Free), that stated the singer/songwriter is “‘Riding the wave of critical acclaim.’ It’s strange,” she says, “because it’s not as if I came from anywhere. I just think that [my music has] suddenly come to the attention of people whose work it is to listen. I seem like a new presence on the horizon, but I’ve been writing songs for ten years.”
Izzo was living in a small, rural Wisconsin town when she first picked up a Burl Ives song book at the local library in order to teach herself the guitar (so she would “have to do something with my hands” while she sang, she jokes). A musician friend of her mother’s also gave the young songwriter some guidance. “He would play me records and songs [by] Leonard Cohen and the early Neil Young records, and he would say ‘Just listen to this, because this is good song writing’.”
Being the product of a decade’s worth of life experience and a sometimes painful period of soul-searching, One presents a collection of folk- and country-tinged rock songs so astounding, they have earned Izzo widespread critical acclaim and justifiable comparisons to Bob Dylan. The songs of One are a complex, lyrical unfolding of moody poetry — not unlike darkly troubled nursery rhymes — on which Izzo’s ability to turn a phrase is perfectly mated to her endlessly adaptable vocal instrument. Izzo’s voice mutates from a mournful wail to angry growl on the gorgeous “Walking Out,” while a breathy, gravel-textured whisper floats above the acoustic strumming of “Faker.” Elsewhere, the deep, warbling croon of “Ground” has her taking a bow in the direction of Patti Smith. Sensitive production values by Brad Wood (Liz Phair) and a first rate band whose intuitive feel for delicately layering-on the accentuating tones of accordion, toy piano, trombone, and mandolin, lend even more feeling to Izzo’s already plaintive lyrics. It is an emotionally effective mix.
Themes of shedding one’s skin or burning to the ground in order to rise phoenix-like from one’s ashes show up throughout One , but this is not a musical downward spiral. Rather, Izzo’s music is a message of triumph. Because her songs are metaphorically dense, they encourage imaginative extrapolation. Because the action is not explicit, again, the mind can fill in the blanks. Izzo embarked on 17-date tour with critical favorites Sparklehorse and Mercury Rev in early June; an opportunity she refers to as “very serendipitous. These three bands, myself included, seem to gel, on a musical and on an emotional level. This music is so much about transformation.” Ultimately, Izzo says, the success of One “has made me very forward-thinking about what I want to do next.”
You’ve been writing songs so many years now. How has having your first record out there changed things for you?
Diane Izzo : I think it’s changed things creatively for me, in that I feel that there’s a sense of finality with one period of song writing. It’s made me really challenge myself, I think, more as a song writer…to continue to just improve and to let that develop naturally also. You know, you listen to a record that you’ve completed and you see flaws, or you see where you could have been more expansive creatively…I think you’re happier with some things. Probably it’s just a chance for me to be done with that portion of those songs.
Are most of the songs on One songs that you’ve had sitting around years?
No, actually. There are so many songs (laughs) I don’t even know what will ever happen to those songs. Brad Wood heard a lot of it and we had to just weed through a lot of songs. For some reason — it wasn’t any intentional thing — those are the songs that just ended up on the record. I think the oldest song on the record is “Lavender Street.”
Do people tell you that “Lavender Street” sounds like a Doors song? That one where Morrison sings “She lives on Love Street”?
I think it has the same kind of dark, like a carnival, aspect that some of their music has. Maybe that’s what it is.
How did you get hooked up with the band that you have now?
Well, I started playing shows by myself in a small, sort of cabaret atmosphere here, with some people who are more like in [the] fringe theater movement in Chicago. I started doing some shows there once in a while. [I became friendly with] people who were involved in that group, or around that scene, I suppose, who were musicians. We started to talk and I thought they were really very good musicians. I was hoping I would meet people who I really liked as people but also who I knew were very tasteful musicians. It sort of all just fell together. We started playing with one another. I played originally with cello accompaniment and Jim Becker, who plays guitar, which is a bit more atmospheric and experimental sounding. Then it sort of formed into a band because when you’re playing large rock clubs, it’s a little bit easier to get stuff over. People respond to that. But then it’s interesting, to do the Sparklehorse-Mercury Rev thing, I might do it either alone or with one other musician and kind of go in a full circle. I’m starting to really think about where I started from before it blew up into this band. There are so many musicians, I would say the majority of rock musicians, just don’t understand the subtlety of playing. It’s not about playing “so many notes” [laughs] and getting in as much as you can.
You have such a remarkable voice: it’s so malleable and emotive. It’s almost tactile. When you sing, do you feel at all possessed by some kind of creative spirit, so to speak, or do you just not think about it?
Hmmm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know if “possession” would be the word that I’d use, because of the connotations of the word. But I definitely feel that when any artist performs or any human is involved with some sort of act that is like performance, it’s sort of ritualistic. There is a heightened sense of yourself in that moment and things sort of come through that you really don’t even, with your conscious mind, anticipate. I think that probably the best performances are those [where] you really just allow yourself to be open. It’s conducive also for the audience, because there’s an exchange that happens with the performer — I don’t really know what that is. It’s unnamable and it should remain unnamable, what ever that force is. But to some degree, yeah, I’ve felt what you’re talking about.
Your songs are so emotionally charged, I wonder if some more than others are painful to sing or perform?
[On certain songs] there’s truth there [pauses] or whatever that is, I’m not sure. Truth is fairly ambiguous. I think that [with] “Polyphonic,” [for example] I can’t even express it, but it’s some sort of a release. There are songs on the record that sometimes are painful for me. “Wicked Spell” is a really painful song. I really sort of shy away from talking about what songs are about, because any moment or any interaction you have can be about so many different things, depending on your perception. To say a song is about one thing, I think is limiting, but if you were to say is there some sort of theme, or narrative that runs through that song, it would be mental illness. That’s something that I’ve had to, in the realm of my life, deal with [concerning] different people. I think it’s a song that people take as a rock song and I feel kind of funny playing it because I don’t know if anyone is listening [to the words].
Greg Kot ( Chicago Tribune ) said that your songs are “horror mixed with reverie,” which I thought was pretty right on. For example, my favorite song is “Venice,” and that song really chokes me up when I really sit and listen to it. The way that you play with the words, it’s kind of frightening but exhilarating at the same time. Like a shedding of skin or something or a death that is necessary to get to the next level of growth. Were you actually in Venice when you wrote that song?
No, I was traveling with my fiancé; and he was reading Philip Roth’s book, Pinocchio in Venice . He was reading passages from the book to me as we traveled. [This was] after a very difficult period of time. The story of Pinocchio, the original story, not the Disney version, really resonated with me: the sense of wanting to get past your skin and that sort of longing. It struck an emotional chord with me. Of course, it applied to other things that were going on at the time. So if that translates and you have that feeling that you do, then that’s very beautiful, thanks.
Hey you’re welcome. You know, when I first listened to One , before I had read any of your press, I got very visual impressions from the music, the feeling that these songs had been written as you traveled around. And later I found out that is exactly how they were written. Did you and your fiancé live a kind of — for lack of a better word — vagabond existence?
We didn’t have a home for awhile. I guess vagabond is a much more elegant way to put what it is when you don’t have anything. But yes, we had done that and it’s a very difficult thing to do, but it’s also very liberating. I, for a long time — and most Americans [are this way] –was very attached to consumption and to having [material possessions]. And when you don’t have, you just have the present moment. We had our car and when we didn’t have enough money for gas we had to figure out ways to do that and to keep going.
You’ve said that you write songs because the songs “help your mind work.”
I don’t know what it is. I just think it’s a sense or an opening to sort of elevate yourself for a period of time into a different way of perceiving. It seems to break up the monotony in the regular day to day life. How can anyone — and I realize I’m getting very abstract with this — ask why you would write a song? It’s like, “why do you put one foot in front of the other and why does your body move?” I don’t know; it just does. So, that’s why I do it. It’s a function, it’s a part of who I am. Recently I read something where some musician was saying that they were listening to a lot of popular radio to see what it is that makes a hit song. What chord changes people like, and what kind of verse-chorus, and I thought, that seems like such a monumental waste of time to me [laughs]. I was just thinking to myself “Who IS this person?” Someone needs to tell them that there are better ways to be [laughs heartily]. I mean, whatever, I guess it could work for somebody but whatever is going to come out, just let that be your own. I don’t think you need to rely on what the populace loves. I think if it comes from something that’s honest in a person, that will translate to people. You don’t have to go for some formula…you’d be surprised how many people look for that… like what’s the latest color of nail polish. I think it’s just the concept of what is [pushed on the populace by] mass advertising, really and mass marketing. You have billboards all along the highway and you pass by three or four different billboards, or it’s on television constantly. It’s a subliminal thing. You hear a song…I mean there are certain artists who I don’t like, and I’ll hear their song just in the environment, in the grocery store or at work, over and over. Then I find myself thinking of that song. And it’s not a song I even particularly like.
But you can’t avoid it.
You can’t. It really is subliminal…it’s everywhere. Your consciousness absorbs that kind of stuff and then eventually you go “I think I’ll go buy that…”
How do you feel about your success with One ?
I’m trying to disconnect from [how the record is doing commercially] to tell you the truth. I started getting really crazy with “How are the sales, is it in such and such a market?” And I found myself just talking about it as if it were this block of concrete. I just thought, this is not what this means to me and why am I having conversations about this? Other people can do that if they choose. Certainly there is a wish there to have people listen when you put something out and it’s really wonderful. I definitely feel a great deal of gratitude when people like yourself say that they have a reaction to what you’re doing. That’s great. But on the other hand, I think that the more you’re connected to that then the more you’re connected to the expectation. Whatever that means, it may be reaction in the press or in sales, [but] it just drains the source of what I was really doing to begin with. I started to forget about the music and the songs on the record. I don’t know when the last time I even listened to the record was. So I just withdrew from that and started writing [laughs].