Thalia Zedek: The Harder They Come


Via pushes Thalia Zedek’s solo work into kinder, (somewhat) gentler territory

“Walk Away” (download):

It can be daunting, being in a band that winds up one of the influential acts of its day. If Boston’s Come, one of the most acclaimed groups to emerge from the early-’90s indie scene, had released nothing but debut album Eleven:Eleven, its importance for musicians in that scene would likely have been established anyway. Hard, noirish, frequently violent in its approach to blues patterns and styles slowed to a molasses-drip pace, few bands hit as heavy as Come. And few musicians, in Come or elsewhere, came as hard to the stage and the studio as Thalia Zedek.

By the time she formed Come with Chris Brokaw, Arthur Johnson and Sean O’Brien, Zedek had pulled time in Uzi, Dangerous Birds and searing, staggeringly talented no-wave band Live Skull. When she threw in with Come, Zedek had spent years developing a performing style that was as necessarily forceful and emotive as it was thoughtful and personal. Zedek’s voice, a ragged-yet-powerful instrument that sounded like it had years of hard living underneath it, was basically the middle knuckle of Come’s heart-punch, the one that stuck out farthest and really left a bruise. Her guitar work, set against Brokaw’s equally riveting but somewhat more reserved playing, lent a constant tension to Come’s best recordings that makes Eleven:Eleven and strangely undervalued final bow Gently, Down The Stream two of the strongest albums to emerge from their era.

That Zedek was a woman in what was largely a boys-club scene; that she was a lesbian in the middle of an era wherein to be out was still to catch an inordinate amount of shit even from one’s colleagues; that she was essentially a melodic songwriter in the context of a series of noise-heavy bands; and that she spent some years struggling with hard drug addiction in the middle of an epidemic, could easily have made her a casualty of the era. There were several realities in play that might have caused Zedek to implode, or burn out, or otherwise cut short what’s become a striking solo career writing and recording dark Americana music.

But sometimes the brutal, stupid world cuts even good people a break, and none of those things happened. What happened instead was that Zedek began crafting a series of haunting, haunted albums that drew from her noisy past and looked into a calmer future. And now comes Via (Thrill Jockey), a record that finds Zedek striking off in new aesthetic and collaborative territory.

It started, in a strange kind of Spinal-Tap way, with the sudden departure of drummer Daniel Coughlin, who’d played on Come’s final recordings as well as Zedek’s solo albums.

“Daniel moved to Buenos Aires,” she laughs, as if saying it aloud still weirds her out a little. “It was completely amicable, I should add. His wife got a job, and it was a really great opportunity.” Still, Coughlin’s departure put a gap in the band, and Zedek began looking around, finally landing on Son Volt’s Dave Bryson.

“We’d been working on songs that had been written while Daniel was in the band, just after (2008’s) Liars And Prayers,” says Zedek. “But when Dave and I met, we hit it off immediately, and at first we didn’t really spend a lot of time learning older things. We did some of that, but we also started writing right away. So, Via kind of represents two different eras: stuff that we were working on while Daniel was still in the band, and new stuff we wrote after Dave arrived.”

It may seem like a small change, but Bryson’s playing style pushed Zedek’s music, if subtly, into a different register.

“It’s not that Dave is a ‘better’ drummer than Daniel,” Zedek says carefully. “If you ever saw Daniel live, he’s one of these drummers you just can’t take your eyes off of. He’s amazing, and he’d been with me for 13 years. But Dave’s style is much more relaxed. I didn’t even realize that, really, until we’d begun to mix what we’d recorded. Dave’s playing is a lot more spacious, and as a result, there’s a lot of room for things to happen in the performance. I remember thinking, as I was mixing, ‘God, this guy’s like Charlie Watts.’ Really open and laid-back. And I found that had changed the way I was playing.”

Andrew Schneider, who’d recorded and engineered Liars And Prayers, worked with Zedek on recording Via as well. Coupled with the changes in rhythm, Schneider’s shaping of the growing album’s sound caused Zedek to feel a bit cautious, at least initially.

“Andrew was doing all the engineering,” she says. “It was a little disconcerting to me, because I use a lot of different vocal styles on different songs. But this time I felt like I had the license from my band members to bring people in and out of the mix more, so I did more arranging in the course of mixing than I had previously. I did a lot more arranging during the mix than I have in the past.”

At first, Zedek frames her stronger production hand as a matter of increased confidence—an odd word to this listener, since lack of confidence wouldn’t seem to be a problem for the forthright, self-assured songwriter.

“Well, probably it’s not that I lacked confidence in myself,” she says, “as much as I spent a lot of time thinking about other people’s feelings. (With Via) I felt more like, ‘This is my record.’ It was a matter of having the confidence that I was going to be making the editorial decisions. You know, Come broke up in ’99, and then I went solo. But I don’t really write songs that are meant to just be played on guitar. And when I used to go out and play some of the Come songs solo, some people used to ask, ‘How can you play those songs without the band?’ I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone in that way. I didn’t want to feel tied down to anyone, and I didn’t want anyone to feel tied down to me. So, I thought, ‘OK, if I front this band, the Thalia Zedek Band, I can play with different people and still own these songs, in a way.’”

Zedek’s fourth album, in many ways, sounds like the most confident of her solo records. She still mines the “old, weird America”—the dark poetry, the stories of loss and redemption that have characterized her work for years now. And much of the language on Via still puts her declamatory voice, her primary tool of self-protection, in the forefront, right down to the song titles: “Walk Away,” “Get Away,” “Go Home.” But shelved just beside those songs are others—“Straight And Strong” and “Lucky One”—that seem to speak of the determination that comes with earned longevity. As the closing scream of “Winning Hand” has it, “I’ll get there some-how!!!”

In matters having to do with longevity and survival, Zedek knows whereof she speaks. Up next after the release of Via is a handful of shows with Brokeback, followed by a support stint on Low’s West Coast tour, then a month-long residency at TT The Bear’s Place in Cambridge, Mass., to coincide with the venerable club’s 40th anniversary. And Matador is re-releasing Eleven:Eleven in May. In all, it’s a full slate for a working musician, who’s learned that sometimes the best things result from selecting the right parts.

“It wasn’t an agonizing process, going solo, but I wanted to give myself room to change and grow,” she says. “When you have two guitars, bass and drums, all your songs are going to sound that way. My strategy has always been to pick really good people and let them do what they want. Three people can play together and sound amazing, but if you put them in another context, they’ll sound totally different. That chemistry in a band, that’s important to me. It’s important to listen.”

—Eric Waggoner

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