Janet Feder: "Imagine somebody steals a guitar like that, and they're sort of dismayed to open up the case and find out it's a freak."
While guitarist Janet Feder has made a number of instrumental recordings, she sings on most of the songs on her latest effort, the fittingly titled Songs With Words, slated for release tonight at the Mercury Cafe. Producer Joe Shepard encouraged Feder to do anything that she wanted. At first, she envisioned writing an album and inviting other people to sing on it, but instead, she ended up singing the songs herself, in addition to playing all the guitar parts.
We caught up with Feder in advance of her CD release show this evening to talk about the new album, which was recorded in stereo using fifteen microphones, her shift to baritone guitars and how she got into playing prepared guitar after a long career as a classical guitarist.
Westword: What was your intention or goal when you started writing for this album, or are there songs that you've had for awhile?
There were a couple of pieces that I had for awhile. And then, like it says in the liner notes, when Joe [Shepard] invited me to come and make the record and to start in two weeks, I was sort of like, "What?" I guess I admit now that I kind of bluffed it; "Oh sure, I'm ready to go." I had this brilliant opportunity, and I wasn't going to pass it by just because I wasn't sure I was ready. So I just said, "Yes."
It was terrific inspiration to pay attention and start to really think...I had actually had a very short list of things I had wanted to do on a record in the future. I had this list, and it was really clear in my mind, and when Joe said, "I want you try any of the things you've been thinking about. I want you to feel like you can totally try anything."
Well, there was this list of things that I had. I had wanted to write songs again, songs with words. I had this idea that I would I write songs with words, and I would play the music and people that I know who are brilliant wonderful singers would sing them. That seemed like a great idea because I didn't view myself as a vocalist. I was reticent to move into that kind of idea. I'd never seen myself as a singer-songwriter. I've always been composing instrumental music so I figured I could write...I was really intrigued.
I have friends who I've talked to and said, "If I write a song will you sing it?" People with great voices like John Grant and Erin McKeown. So I had sort of had them in my mind to write songs for them, but then Joe said, "Let's start in two weeks." I did have a couple of songs and I really thought that I would go to the studio and try some of this stuff out, and it would probably be really evident that somebody else should sing them, but that's not what happened. I was probably the most surprised out of anyone.
If you had more time would have tried to get some more singers on the album?
Actually, once it sort of started and I was singing, I was just sort of dumbstruck that I liked how it sounded -- I would still love to write songs for other people -- but on this particular project, I just put my head down and kept going and really enjoyed it. When I was a little kid, my first guitar players were all guys. Then I realized -- I'm talking when I was like five or six years old -- that women also played guitar and they sang; it was sort of all I had to emulate. When I tried to sing as a kid, I was really awkward about it and really shy and really nervous.
So I've always had this central core in me, like I really can't sing. I'm not good at it. So when I came to playing instrumental music, by the time I was in my teens, that was my voice, and I was completely content with that being my voice, and I was for the longest time. When I started to use my voice at this point in my life, it's sort of like almost starting with a brand new instrument. It's terrifying and exciting, and I enjoy it, like I always sort of dreamed like I might enjoy it from the time I was a little kid. Does that make sense?
Yeah. I had an experience when I was in grade school, and I was around eleven twelve years old when my voice was starting to change, where I was trying out for some school choir or performance, and the teacher who was running the whole thing kind of ripped on me, which I think always made sort of apprehensive to sing.
Yeah, isn't that weird: You get this thing planted in your head from when you were a little kid, and then you just live with it forever. I had a friend who had the same thing, who said, "I really always wanted to play the guitar, and then I tried, and it was all I dreamed of doing, but my teacher told me I was really terrible, and I should never pick up an instrument." And these people go through their whole lives, and they never ever touch an instrument until they get old enough to where they really don't care any more, and something happens, and they try it again, and it opens up this whole lost world.
I've talked to people too who've said they've tried playing guitar, but somebody told them their hands were too small or something like that, which stops them from ever trying again.
I've been told that a million times, "Oh your hands are too small." Or people will look at me and be like, "How can you play guitar? Your hands are so small." Obviously, if it had anything to do with size or strength, I wouldn't be doing it, because it doesn't have anything to do with that, especially now, since I'm playing -- not completely exclusively but predominately I'm playing -- baritone guitars. They have very long scales, and I feel like I've found my guitar voice and my singing voice, kind of all at the same time. This is the first record I've made with primarily and predominantly featuring baritone guitars.
Why the shift to baritone guitars?
I have a really good friend in Los Angeles, whose name is Miroslav Tadić, and he made the most beautiful electric guitar for me. We've been hanging out and being guitar pals for years and years, and I came to visit him once and said, "Hey listen to this recording I just made." And I listened to this song -- it was his arrangement of a Macedonian folk song -- and he had recorded it in his living room, and he played it for me, and I just wept. I mean, I had this utterly visceral response to it. I was like, "What am I hearing? What is going on here?" It was a solo guitar piece. He said, "Oh, I'm playing it on the baritone."
He showed me this enormous guitar, and it was made by a friend of his in Croatia, a luthier there. He just took a standard size classical guitar and made everything one quarter bigger to get this long string length. And Miroslav is a really tall, lanky guy so he can hold this thing. Every time I put my arms around it I felt like I was going to cripple myself. But the sound of it...I'd been sort of low tuning the strings on my guitars for years because I don't really have a, I don't know, I don't think I have a very high voice.
So I'd been sort of seeking this guitar voice for a really long time, and I heard it on this guitar and Miroslav said, "Oh, you should play it." I tried to play it, but really it was painful, but the thought never went away. A year or two after that every time I'd come see him I'd sort of look longingly at that guitar, and he said, "Look, you've got to get Milan [Sabljic] to make you one of these guitars."
We started corresponding with Milan, and Miroslav was kind of like my go-between, and I sent Milan a video of me playing with me little Martin -- I have a 00-18 classical guitar -- and it really sort of puts in my perspective my size. I wanted Milan to make me a guitar, but he couldn't make everything a quarter bigger. I wouldn't be able to play it. So, he agreed and made me a guitar -- we'd never met -- and he shipped it to me, and it arrived, and I opened it up, and my heart sang. It was like, "That's it. That's the one."
So I've been playing that guitar with a passion ever since and writing music for it and touring with it. It really sort of opened up this world. Right around the time that Milan had sent the baritone classical, I had a Danelectro baritone guitar, and I loved playing it for a long time, but it had been stolen. It was not an expensive guitar. I could have just gone to Guitar Center and bought another one, but I was kind of sore over it being stolen. Then the baritone classical arrived, and it was just heaven.
So going into the studio and recording that was really a trip. Joe had a baritone electric just like the one that I had had, and so I played that on the record, too. And since then, I've been able to acquire another baritone electric, which I'm playing now and loving and totally over the fact that somebody stole mine. Imagine somebody steals a guitar like that, and they're sort of dismayed to open up the case and find out it's a freak. So I've been playing that sort of baritone range, and it is kind of a stretch for my left arm to kind of go that far away sometimes.
When you recorded the album, fifteen microphones were used for the surround sound. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
This was Joe's end of the bargain because Joe proposed a partnership. He said he wanted to produce the record, and, of course, we'd never worked together before. But Immersive Studios has this really great reputation, and it's a beautiful space. I had been in there recording just little bits of things before, but because of its surround capabilities and especially because of the SONOMA system that Gus Skinas conceived of and made that I had access to, all of these things fell together at the same time.
Joe said, "I want to make a really live surround recording. I'll warn you, most people don't want to do this." I said, "Why wouldn't somebody want to do this here with you in your studio? Why?" He said, "It's not the way people make records. They make records in bits and pieces, and they kind of Frankenstein them together with all these different tracks, so that you can get each track perfect and craft it and put it all together."
When you record in surround with fifteen microphones around you, you can't really do that. You can't change notes. You can't alter things. That system at its best is when it's live, and that's what I did on this record. All of the guitar and voice tracks I played and sang live, which usually in most recording studios doesn't generally sound very good. You record scratch tracks and record your voice and guitar separately and then put them together, so that the balance can be right and the overall tonality can be as strong and good as it can be.
When you record guitar and voice live, you have to deal with whatever is sitting there. All of the pieces on this record are recorded start to finish. Then we added bits of other sounds and overdubs and vocal parts and interesting old analog tape machines and old equipment that were around and in the studio. We did sort of add things on top of it, but all of the tracks are start to finish lived recorded. It's kind of why it breathes the way it does.
What would say is the optimal listening environment for the album? I know you mentioned not listening to it in the car.
The car is not the optimal environment, but I'm guilty -- as I'm sure many many people are: We just put stuff on in our car, but part of it is because the dynamic range is so broad on this record. So much quiet and so much really big sounds, and so many of them are kind of low sounds that if you listen to in your car the sound of your car on the road will cover up a ton of what you hear.
The album is released on Super Audio CD, which means that it's a hybrid CD, and if you have a surround system in your house and listen to it through speakers that way it's totally great. If you don't have a surround system it plays in stereo, but because it's this hybrid extraordinary recording if you just put headphones on it's great. But if you listen to it on a stereo pair it'll sound great. You won't miss anything. The closer it gets to in your head the more you'll get that surround feel of it.
It's interesting because in this commercial and recording environment right now everything is reducible to MP3, and we as a culture we grow further and further from being able to distinguish what actually sounds good, like the music is good. The music is extraordinary. There's never been a more fascinating, challenging time to be a musician. There's so much extraordinary music that's being played and being recorded. It's a brilliant time to be a musician, however the deliver format is robbing us a little bit of that actual authentic listening experience.
This was the other thing about this arrangement and this partnership between myself and Joe and Immersive, which includes Mike Yach, the engineer, because he was absolutely essential to the entire process from the beginning to the end: We decided we would not bow to the commercial trend and the sort of marketability of the MP3 format and make an audiophile recording and aim it out differently.
Some of the other thinking around this too is that the audiophile market is very small and very discreet, and they don't have a lot to listen to. It's whatever sort of offered to them that's been either re-made for surround or the very few artists who have recorded in surround. They just don't have very much to listen to and they don't have really much of anything that sounds like a guitar record. There isn't very much stuff like that that's available to them.
So we also thought that would be an interesting way to go. With the SACD format we're able to reach sort of all audiences. If you don't have a surround system you're not going to miss it when you put this record on this your stereo system. We're also releasing a limited edition of vinyl recordings. The vinyl recording will come with a high resolution DVD so you can still load it into your computer.
How would you say this record is different than your previous albums?
Back to the very beginning, when Joe invited me to do this and doing anything I wanted to do... Mike Johnson had planted this seed in my brain a long time ago about multi-tracking and playing lots of guitar parts by myself. I'd never really done that before. I'd been just such a dedicated solo player and I really got to explore that terrain this time. Mike Yach plays guitar at the end of a song. I think five notes. All the other guitar playing on the record is me playing a whole variety of gorgeous guitars that I had access to. Excusing the pun, I got to play with myself, which I hadn't really done on recordings before. I had the time of my life. It was really fun.
There's the obvious singing part, using my actual throat voice. I've always felt that my voice came through my hands, but this time to actually use the voice that came out of my mouth was just a surprisingly rewarding experience. To also reflect my own musical sensibilities, which for example...Colin Bricker and I were invited to play at a Bob Dylan tribute some years ago for a benefit. I thought, "Wow, this is going to be great. All these acoustic musicians singing Bob Dylan songs, and then Cowhouse is going to show up, and then we're going to play prepared guitar and laptop to a Dylan song."
I remember talking to the organizer and said, "I'm sure everybody's doing 'Blowin' in the Wind,'" and he said, "Actually, nobody is doing it." So I committed to doing a Cowhouse version of 'Blowin' in the Wind' before I realized that was the dumbest thing I could have ever done. I had no idea what I'd committed myself to because that song is so iconic.
Then I started to play it again and I realized I had never liked the music of that song. The song is so heavy about what he was talking about at age 21, and it so deeply heavy and the music is so trite and major chord. It's just wrong. It's all wrong. I thought, "What happens if the music kind of gets right with the words?" That's how I ended up making the arrangement that I did. I would play it once in a while, and I realized it was important to me because it was one of the very first songs I ever learned -- aside from the songs I learned to sing when I was five, which were my dad's sailor songs that he learned in the Navy.
The first songs I could remember and sing all by myself were songs about murder and drugs and prostitutes and stuff. Those were from my dad. When I learned how to play guitar and sing, one of the very first songs I learned was "Blowin' in the Wind." I realized when I learned the words to that song -- I was probably six or seven -- it put these ideas in my brain as a small child that I actually kind of lived with for my life. It made a certain amount of sense to me as a young person, and I believed in them, and I believed that they were important.
So, to sing this song this now all these years later, I still think this is important. You can argue about whether he stole the words from somebody else or whatever. It's an important song of an entire generation of troubadours, who were singing about social justice issues because the people in charge -- the governments, the military, all these people --- they were fucking ruining it for us. They were turning from stuff that mattered. I sang this song as a kid and thought, "This is what matters." It kind of oddly enough stayed with me through my whole life.
I've never really sung my politics. I've never really sung, "This is how I feel as a human being." And in sort of an opposite way "My Blackest Crow," which is on this record, comes from a song called "The Blackest Crow," which is an Appalachian tune that I learned from the band Uncle Earl, and I played it with them way back when. I loved the melody, but I couldn't stand the words. It's a love song. It's this angsty sort of dedicated, devoted for all eternity kind of love song, which is something I didn't believe in.
I was talking to Paul Fowler about and said, "I kind of want to record this song, but I can't stand the words." He said, "Re-write the words." Literally, I came in the studio the next day and was firming up exactly the how I wanted the words to be. I wrote them the night before and came in and sang them the next day.
The whole time through this whole process, I knew that if Joe and Mike didn't like something that I bought in, they would say so. They were so supportive. An important thing about this record, too, is that I've never actually had a producer. This was the other part of Joe's bargain with me. He said, "Try anything you want to do. Make it however you want to be. In exchange for that we also get to make it however we want it to be, too."
I've recorded with Colin for years. My last two records have been with Colin. They're beautiful and wonderful, and he makes phenomenal suggestions, and I totally trust his musical sensibility, but never had anybody actually produce, who would say, "Try singing these lines, or can you play the guitar with this guitar on this piece or whatever."
Joe and Mike's added production value was that they brought their musical sensibilities to the recording, and I never really had anyone do that. It had always been my own show. All they asked of me was just my willingness to let them do that, which wasn't hard to do at all. That had me do things that I never thought I could do, and that was really good.
How did you originally get into prepared guitar?
I was trying to impress a boy. It was actually sort of challenge that Mark Harris laid on me one evening so long ago. I was kind of working on an art project at home, and I kind of had my guitars out. I had all these things around me. It was a perfect moment of time and place where you're looking at a bunch of things in front of you that don't appear to have any relation to each other, and all of the sudden, I just had this thought, "What if I put this thing on this string? What would it sound like? What would happen if I did this or that?"
I unstrung one of the strings of my guitar, and I had these little brass African beads, and I strung a whole bunch of them onto the string of the guitar and strung the string back up again. It sounded really awful. So I unstrung it again, and I took half of the beads off, and I strung back up again. I thought, "There's something going on here, but I can't tell what it is." I took all of the beads off except for one, strung it back up again and there was this really weird interesting sound.
Then I just sat there and tried all these combinations of different things, and again, whatever came to mind, which is what was so intriguing about what Joe offered to me a year and a half ago -- "I want you to try whatever comes to mind." I know that's sort of the most fertile place for me to be, is to try whatever comes to mind without talking myself out of it first.
That's what we end up doing when we're grown-ups. We get all these ideas and we spend all this time telling ourselves, "That's a stupid idea, or our friends are going to thing we're dumb," and why our professional world is going to say, "Oh, you can't do the real thing, so you're just doing that.'" All the voices in our head tell us, "Don't do it. This is stupid."
And what happened that one particular night was before I knew it, all these hours had flown by, and Mark comes back home, and I played this one sound for him, and he just laughed and laughed. Up until that point I had been playing really serious classical music, and it's really hard stuff, pages filled with black dots. In the classical guitar world there's a huge imperative, that if you set your foot into that realm, you better be really good. When you play that stuff for an audience, if you miss one note, you hear everybody go, "Oh, this is really terrible; she missed that one note."
So, Mark comes home, and he laughed, and I realized that that had been the thing that had been completely missing from my musical life for a long time was that feeling of, "Oh my god, what is that?" Since then, I've played so many places around the world, and I'd make a sound or a noise from my guitar, no digital effects, and people would listen to it and they would laugh. I realized that is the greatest feeling. And I felt like I loved the guitar again, like when I was a little kid. I couldn't wait to pick it up, and I could hardly stand to put it down.
I just started conceiving of sounds and combinations of objects on strings that interrupted the harmonic vibrations and frequencies of the strings to make these sounds that are not typically associated with the guitar. The thing that has fascinated me the most about this arena is to alter some strings but not all of them. What I do is work with a combination of non-altered and altered strings, so it really sounds like a guitar. It's all the things I love about the guitar; it's melody, it's timbre, it's all those things that I still love with this other strange palette, and it's endless interesting.
Colin -- who I've worked with for years and years and is, along with Mark, one of my really closest musical influences -- and I were rehearsing the other day, and he said, "This one song you're working on, it kind of needs like a sound of something." I said, "Yeah, it does, but the baritone electric won't do that because it's steel strings." He said, "Uh." And that "uh" just sat in my head for two days, and last night I was up in my little work space, and all the sudden this thing happened, and it was like, "Okay, Colin," and I started exploring and experimenting, and I found a way to make that thing happen.
It was like it was from the very beginning again. It was like, "Oh, wow." I never made that sound before and here it was going to land in this piece. It's going to be really funny and they're going to laugh or they're going to think my guitar is broken. There it was again, that great extraordinary feeling of making something out of nothing and sort of pleasing myself.
When you first started doing prepared guitar, did you know there were other people out there like Fred Frith who were doing similar things?
I had heard Fred play at Penny Lane some years before. A friend took me to see him. I was just kind of dumbstruck. I would be hard pressed to say at that moment I didn't have any concept of avant-garde music, and I didn't understand what I was seeing or what I hearing. Mostly Fred played with his guitar laid flat on a table. He played with chains and bowls of rice and a hammer. He conjured these sounds from his guitar, and it was like the guitar was the medium for this other kind of sorcery. It didn't sound to me like how I felt about guitar music. It was sound. It was really interesting. It was really compelling.
So I'd seen Fred, and I was aware of his legendary sort of stature. I knew that there were other people out there doing it, Ralph Towner being one of them. When I started playing out, someone said, "Have you ever tried using a roach clip on your strings, or a paper clip?" So, immediately the first two things I never used were a roach clip or paper clip. I actually do use a modified alligator clip on certain things. I stayed away from listening to anyone else, referentially, not really on purpose I just didn't have the brain space for it. I was kind of interested in what other people were doing, but not to follow what anybody's done.
Since I've been fortunate enough to play with Fred and hang out with him, we've shared a few things back and forth. There are one or two implements that he's shared with me that I use now to different ends. I'm totally open to sharing, and of course I've made videos where people can see exactly what I'm doing and what I'm doing it with. I don't feel like I own any of this stuff. If somebody wants to take it and do something with it and make it good, have at it.
What are some of things you use for prepared guitar these days?
I've always been really intrigued by using split rings, which are like the rings you have your keys on. I use different sizes of them placed on different parts of the strings. Many of the ones I use are very small, like 5/8 of an inch. They're kind of complicated to handle on stage. The things they do to the strings are sort of endlessly fascinating. I always have an assortment of split rings with me. I use individual horsehairs.
Like from violin bows?
Yeah, I'm always scouting around for the not synthetic bow hair, but the real bow hair. This thing I did last night involved split rings and really small safety pins and other small metal objects. I've always been interesting in small metal objects. I used to go to this one hardware store and prowl through their little bins and I have tons of stuff that didn't work. I have tons of things that I thought would be really cool, but they weren't cool at all. But for all the things that I've tried that weren't cool there have been things that have emerged that I wanted to use, that were useful and sounded interesting. I'm always on the prowl. I pick stuff off the street all the time, like those street cleaner wires. Those are pretty interesting.
What happened for me was partly I put on the guitar and make sounds from, but I think ultimately, it's about what I can hear. It's more about listening for stuff. If you're not listening for it, you're never going to hear it. Even in my teaching life, I felt so much of the time that I wasn't really teaching people about playing or composing, I was more often than not teaching them about listening, really listening, and coming to some understanding about what they were actually hearing, not with the mechanical ear, but with that whole sensibility that's linked into the sound wave that comes into your body and what that's all about. People hear buzzes and rattles all the time but they just dismiss them, or there's a ton of stuff we close out all the time, just constant noises from the hums of our computers and cell phones and lights and all these things. Mostly, we just close our mind to them or we don't actually hear them.
I would imagine playing prepared guitar was a liberating experience compared to the rigors of classical guitar.
It was liberating. It was also a little bit terrifying partly because it was one thing to say, "I play classical guitar." People generally have a sense of what that's all about, but to say I played prepared guitar people are like, "What? John Cage." That's sort of the closest popular or known reference. I was like, "No, my music doesn't sound like Cage's at all ever." One of the things that sets my work apart, especially in the early years, is that I compose pieces.
I've had the opportunity to work with some of the most renown improvisers, who have taught me so much when I'm not improvising. When I'm playing my own composed music, I create this set-up on my instrument, and it's such to the varied abilities of, "Did I put this thing in the right place to make this tone sound the way I expect it to in this piece? Is the thing on the string going to decide that it's done and pop off the string in the middle the composition? And this one tone that I really rely on compositionally going to sound like the D string instead of sounding like this multi-phonic range of bell tones?"
There's always that sort of "I'm doing a very analog thing here." So that is open to all kinds of possibilities both exhilarating and not what I would have expected. In early days, before what I figured out what my materials were, I would put things on my strings that would not infrequently explode off of my guitar. People sitting nearby would be scrambling around the floor to find things. It was kind of dangerous to sit in the front row. It's not dangerous now.
As a composer, to rely on these small metal objects to do what you want to do, or to rely on a hair. I've experienced a couple of times where I'll set up a guitar with horsehair, and I'll pick up my guitar to open a performance with a piece and the stage lights have like totally goo-ed the rosin on the hair. I put it between my thumb and first finger to make the sound I want and it's like glue. Or I get some of that accidentally on my left hand, and then I have rosin on my left hand for the rest of the concert.
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