Bend Your Mind: An Interview with Jennifer Charles and Oren Bloedow of
There may be as many adjectives to describe Jennifer Charles’ voice as there are to delineate an entire musical genre. Hers is a vocal instrument so unique, so rife with the depth of her personality, it lends itself more to inspired feelings or visuals than literal reference. Somewhat unsettling but deeply sensual, languid, haunting, as smooth as honey-coated smoke and endlessly expressive, these vocal characteristics allow Jennifer to reflect a myriad of images back at the world as she fronts the NYC-based band, Elysian Fields, along with her partner of ten years, guitarist Oren Bloedow.
In 1996, Elysian Fields caught the attention of the MCA label, recording the well-crafted EP, Bleed Your Cedar, for the label’s Radioactive imprint. Ignited by the group’s incessant touring and Jennifer’s captivating stage presence, Bleed Your Cedar generated the kind of industry buzz that puts faces in magazines, but sadly, doesn’t necessarily translate to record sales. Radioactive was encouraged, however, by the critical praise, and sent the group into the studio for a full-length follow-up, with Steve Albini producing. That record, which led to their parting with the label, remains unreleased. Their latest CD, Queen of the Meadow (Jetset Records) is a charming, eclectic album that includes such gems as the darkly mirthful, torch-funk of “Bend Your Mind” (one of the disc’s more upbeat tracks), the slow-burning romantic tones of “Tides of the Moon,” or the brightest hope for a potential single, “Hearts Are Open Graves.” Sitting in a cafe on NYC’s St. Marks Place, Jennifer and Oren explained their music’s four year disappearance from the radar and talked about their exhilaration at finally having a new record out.
It’s been a long time between Elysian Fields records. Why did Radioactive pass on releasing the follow up album to Bleed Your Cedar?
Oren: Well, they thought [making that type of record] was a terrible idea from the beginning. Let’s give them their due. They were very consistent about what they wanted all along. Gary, the guy who ran the label, wanted something that he perceived as Jennifer’s personality as a kind of a frosting on top of a pretty commercial cake. She didn’t want to be frosting, we didn’t want to be frosting, we were trying to make things very real. He wasn’t totally wrong about what works and what doesn’t work but he wasn’t into exploring with us.
Jennifer: He didn’t like the record, essentially. He thought it was too direct, too raw, too uncommercial.
Oren: They used the word “dark” a lot over there, and we never understood what they meant until after we were done working with them. We learned a lot about what they were trying to say by blowing up the relationship. Like, if you take a clock to pieces and it’s exploded all over your floor, you finally know what goes into it. Now we know a lot more about what they wanted all along.
What’s that like, to have the record rejected but to know that they still own it?
Jennifer: I think that when you get in bed with the big boys, you have to take a chance. Of course, it hurts to have something that you made and is a part of your heart and soul be taken from you and be owned by someone else, but an artist does get benefits from being with a major label. What I learned is, it’s not worth it. We had the chance to dilute what we do. They said “You can go and re-do this record and get remixes and have some glossy person do it instead of Steve.”
Oren: And write more upbeat, sexy songs.
Jennifer: And we said no, we didn’t want to change our vision to suit their marketing. I said I would rather have a record not come out than do something that’s not us.
Queen of the Meadow maintains the sounds of Bleed Your Cedar, so your sound hasn’t changed, but obviously years have passed between albums and you haven’t exactly stagnated creatively. How would you say you’ve grown as artists and how does that show up in the new record?
Jennifer: I need to think about that for a minute.
Oren: I think one thing that’s still on my mind from the last question, and maybe that would help you set up to talk about this one, is the record company and what their expectations were. Looking back on it, I feel like Gary and his expectations were totally cool. When we went in to make the first record they were like, “You guys are great, whatever you’re doing is great.” Then we made it and they spent a lot of money on it and it was the whole music industry shtick. Then after we made the record, they were so far from having recouped — because you know the whole major label thing is such an expensive way of doing stuff, I mean, we made a video, a couple videos, oh my god — the accountant must have been going nuts. Every single band that I know that was signed in the mid-nineties — and there were a lot of them, during the label spending sprees that went on then — they were all having pressure put on them to come up with radio-friendly stuff so they could move product and recoup. Everyone was under tons of pressure and getting dropped right and left, as the nineties drew to an end, and we weren’t any different. I don’t think that there was anything that was really that unreasonable about it.
One of the ways that we grew as artists was by surviving the loss of our parachute. Because we had money to make our lives easier, for awhile there, and now we’ve gotten used to not having it. So that changed things for us, but we learned how to function with less support again. For a moment there, we had a little gravy train and then no gravy train again, and that’s cool. Now we do business with a really great label that just people like us.
My favorite song is “Hearts Are Open Graves,” which sounds like it could be a hit, a single. Your lyrics are very dark and poetic and you have such a gift for turning a phrase, where do you draw your inspiration from?
Jennifer: I guess I draw it from literature and poetry that I read, and people and life, the life that I live, and everything like that. Actually that particular song was a song that we wrote and that we had on the Albini record. We re-recorded it for this record. Our former label had a big problem with that song. They didn’t want a song that had the word “Graves” in the title. We were arguing that this was a single and they said, “Not with those lyrics. Nothing’s going to be on the radio that says ‘graves…’ “[laughs]. You gotta be kidding me.
Oren: “Open Graves” sounds reasonably ghoulish. I think you should talk about how James figured into your creative process. I think you should give him a prop.
Jennifer: Oh, yes, that song — or rather, the lyrics — was inspired by this book called My Dark Places by James Elroy. He wrote The Black Dahlia Murders.
Oren: He’s the guy behind L.A. Confidential actually, if I’m not mistaken.
Jennifer: That book is about the investigation of the murder of his mother, and things like that. It just ended up exploring the ideas about how everybody has these dark secrets and how, to be a truly liberated person, and to be and open person — a person with an open heart — you have to embrace all sides of yourself and others to truly love. You have to go to the dark place, you have to go to the forbidden place and come to terms with it. Everybody has dark shit that haunts them, everyone has skeletons in their closet and it’s about discussing that and not having a judgement there. It’s about saying, “Look, I want to accept you, with all your stuff.”
Well it is a dark song. You’re being very stark with your emotions, and that makes people squirm. But I think you’re right on the mark. “Bend Your Mind” is another funky, sexy, cool song, and it’s fun, not dark.
Jennifer: Yeah. Personally, for me, I don’t feel the songs are depressing, if you really listen to them.
Oren: I’ll tell you what’s depressing. It’s that Britney Spears can have a hot record with a title like Baby One More Time. To me, there’s no more times for Baby, we’re out of times. That’s the thing, you’re sitting in a hospital, waiting for somebody to get over a cancer operation or a quadruple bypass, you turn on the TV, and some android is bopping around the screen going “Baby One More Time.” It’s suicide music. To me, that is depressing. To me, McDonalds is depressing. Mall culture is depressing. You know, having every part of American culture — world culture — under the umbrellas of two mega-corporations. That’s depressing. I don’t think our music is depressing.
Jennifer: But we have been accused of that before, that it’s depressing, and I think that people might try and lump it there because it’s… real.
I read articles that focus on Jennifer, personally, and I don’t think they’re being that fair to the band, to the music, because they are all obsessed with how sexy and sultry and pouty-lipped you are. Just because you happen to be beautiful, why can’t anyone get past that? It pisses me off.
Oren: That was the biggest problem with Gary. He’d call me into the office and give me a dressing down for her not selling out fast enough for him and he would say, “Look, America’s got a love affair with beautiful women.” And that’s what he saw her as. Every time he had a new artist, all he wanted to do was get her in a bathtub with her limbs hanging out…
Jennifer: And I wouldn’t do it.
Oren: He was like the Howard Hughes of the music business. I’m sorry, Gary.
Jennifer: It’s frustrating. I have to constantly kind of find my equilibrium. I mean, not everyone’s going to be able to find their way into this music. It’s almost like the music page in a newspaper, it’s really more about fashion. I really do want the music to be heard.
Do you sometimes write what you think is just a poem, and then realize it’s really a song, and it needs music?
Oren: I would say that, somewhere in between in generally and always, what the song is about and the mass of the lyrical material is coming from Jennifer. And, a lot of the music, especially the instruments, is coming from me and the melody is a place where we work together very closely. But we go over things a lot until they’re seamless.
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s a very integrated process. A lot of what people hear me do, the melody that I sing, comes from me, but we cross into each others’ territory a lot of the times, where I’ll have a melody first, I’ll be singing and then words will come with that, sounds will form into words.
Oren: You know what, a lot of times if you’re listening to the lyric, and you notice that she’s saying something again, that was my idea, because very often, when she comes up with something, she’ll go through all the material and she’ll just stop, and I’ll be the one who says, “You could say that word, or that line, again” or “let’s go back there…”
Baby, one more time.
Oren: [Laughs] Oh, boy. But I’m into getting her to repeat things so a lot of time if something comes back, hopefully in a pleasing way, you can thank me for that.
If someone had never heard your music before, and wanted to know what kind of music you play, how would you describe your music?
Oren: I never do. We don’t do it.
Jennifer: Yeah, we just don’t do it. I wouldn’t say this to a stranger, but I’d say that the best way kind of see what it’s about it to come over for dinner and get to know us [laughs], get to know me a little bit, and see what we’re like. Or come to a show, or get the record.
Oren: We had so much trouble from the get-go with the “Lounge” thing, because in the mid-nineties, when we made our first relationship in the industry, the lounge thing was starting to take off at that time and that really hurt us. We ended up getting booked into shows on the lounge circuit and we played this place in San Diego that was like a Tiki bar.
Jennifer: To us, lounge means kitsch.
Oren: We have a very, very slight element of camp, in some of the things that we do, you know, but I would say that 90% is not that way. A lot of those bands are evoking a culture or an era which isn’t theirs, in a campy or kitschy way. We’re not doing that. We’re not a lounge act. If we’re going to offer up any elements –whether it’s Indian music elements or Edgar Alan Poe — whatever it is, we’re only going to present it to people if we feel that we’ve digested it and it’s a breathing part of us. Otherwise we won’t put it out there, because it doesn’t feel good.
Jennifer: I think that when something is integrated, it becomes crystallized. It’s something that becomes pure essence. I think that people, there’s really not a need to define something. Either it moves you or it doesn’t. You’re let into that world, and you either go there or you don’t.
Oren: A really good example for us about how our influences are synthesized is that our number one favorite singer, for both of us, is Billie Holiday. We adore Billie Holiday, the both of us, and no one has ever said anything about Billie Holiday in connection with our music. Between the two of us we’ve spent so many hundreds of hours studying and caring about Billie Holiday — we’ve covered a lot of her songs. Jennifer’s Billie Holiday impression is just as good as anybody who’s out there selling a Billie Holiday impression. And nobody ever talks about Billie Holiday when they talk about our music, because it’s integrated. If people start talking about it, then I’d feel that we didn’t do it that well. I would much rather listen to someone for whom it comes out with in a subtle way, like Jeff Buckley or someone like that, then one of her clones — and they’re all over.
Jennifer: Also, a lot of it comes down to power and to fame. Because we’re this kind of underground band people feel that at this stage it’s only relevant if you can reference it to other things that are famous. Then we start getting compared to bands that I really don’t think we are like.
So, are you happier being on a smaller label now?
Jennifer: Oh yeah. I’m really excited to be on a label where the president is a woman. It feels really good and comfortable for me.
Oren: We really do believe that people who like our music are special — I’m sure that every band does. We’re not any different from anybody else, you know, emotionally. We do our best to make the kind of music that we’d like to hear and that has the kind of values that we like. All I can say is that we feel really lucky to be able to share it. It feels great to have a record out an to be able to share it with people.