The Metamorphosis of Hunger
I first saw Brenda Kahn perform in early 1999, by accident, at the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village. She was one of several acts in an all-female lineup that included indie rock whisperer Heather Eatman. It was Eatman I was there to see-- she caught my curiosity some months earlier at the Knitting Factory. And even Eatman was a mere fortuity; my wife and I were at the Factory to see our friend Emilyís husband, Matt Keating. Yet somehow, in New York, all roads lead to Brenda Kahn.
Brenda Kahn & Womanrock.com
by René Vasicek (October 2000)
Brenda blew me away. I was hooked on Brenda within the first few riffs of "Spoon", a comic and tragically-hip song about a girlís addiction to a boy who also has an addiction-- heroine. That night, she captivated her audience with stark and surreal imagery-- an alchemy of memory and the imagination. Songs like "Mojave Winters" conjured the surrealism of Salvador Dali as she sang about a homeless manís enduring dream of growing lemon trees in a desert to avoid the bitter New York winter. Brenda feeds the hunger of urban intellectuals as they sit in darkness, enveloped in cigarette smoke, sipping the English ales of solitude, loneliness and despair. I knew then, that she was the chosen one.
Brenda agreed to meet with me to discuss WOMANROCK.com and the release of her new record Hunger. I ask her to suggest a place somewhere in bohemia-- we meet at Limbo, a coffee shop on 3rd Street and Avenue A in the East Village.
I emerge from the underground on a sleepy Sunday morning. I walk beneath black fire escapes and past a painting of Bruce Lee on a flaking brick wall. I find the coffee shop, walk in, and look around for Brenda. I spot a girl I think is Brenda, but I begin to doubt myself. Is it her? No. I scan the room again, and conclude I am early. She walks in a few minutes later and unleashes her trademark mane of hair from a multi-colored wool knit hat. I walk up to her and tell her I am the writer. She smiles and says, "Yeah, I was wondering how I was going to recognize you."
The coffee shop is crowded, our prospects for getting a table look grim--this is the cultural journalistís worst nightmare. We ask one girl if we can share her table, but she says only if we donít talk-- she is studying for an exam. A table against the wall finally opens up; we grab a couple of chairs and I pull out a pen and a yellow legal pad.
Brenda sits relaxed, mellow, without worry, her back is to the wall as she flips through the tattered pages of a Village Voice that someone left lying on the table. Occasionally, Brenda looks up-- azure-blue eyes gaze through the bronze highlights of tightly-curled cinnamon hair. Dressed in army-green dungarees, she is petite and at first strikes me as the unlikely source of acidic lyrics that sometimes burn like lye in the eye. I ask her if I can get her anything from the coffee bar, and she says, "Chamomile tea with a little honey." Chamomile tea? Is this the same woman whose seven-inch single "I Donít Sleep, I Drink Coffee Instead" inspired Chaos Records, a now-defunct imprint of Columbia Records, to sign her to the majors back in 1992? Of course she is, and is not, the Brenda Kahn of seven years ago-- a lot has happened since then.
When I get back with the tea, Brenda tells me how her second record Epiphany in Brooklyn (Chaos/ Columbia) sold some 40,000 copies-- not bad for a woman in a genre that critics have variously described as punk rock, post-punk, urban folk and anti-folk. And Brenda Kahn is the first to admit that working with a major label gave her extraordinary experience and exposure-- she toured all over the world and opened shows for some of the very musicians who inspired her including The Kinks, David Byrne, Bob Dylan, and her close friend, the late Jeff Buckley, to whom she dedicates her new record entitled Hunger.
With the Sony machine, she got to hang out with the likes of David Pirnier, the lead singer of Soul Asylum. While attending the Sony Convention in Minneapolis, they talked about collaborating and even cut a short demo together entitled Sixty-Second Critic. The song was inspired by a hotel survey they found while partying in their rooms; the paper form requested that guests evaluate the quality of service. The race for the presidency was underway, Ross Perot and George Bush squabbled over the air waves-- Pirnier and Kahn crafted a political song with jabbing sarcastic lyrics of political apathy like "Ainít gonnaí pull that lever." Brenda lost touch with Pirnier around the time he started dating Winona Ryder.
Sony was good to Brenda, but in January of 1995, something went mysteriously wrong-- Chaos was disintegrated and Brenda Kahn was dropped two weeks before the scheduled release of her third record (her second with Columbia) Destination Anywhere. Brendaís contract with Chaos called for a "two-firm deal" -- meaning that Chaos/ Columbia was obligated to make two of Brenda Kahnís records. Straight out of Franz Kafkaís The Trial, Brenda K. was informed that Columbia had in fact satisfied its legal obligation-- the contract stipulated that they had agreed to produce two records, not necessarily release two records.
Columbia Records refused to give Brenda Kahn the rights to Destination Anywhere-- she was also prohibited from recording any of its songs for a period of five years. Instead, Columbia licensed Destination Anywhere to Shanachie Records, which eventually released the record in 1996. While that album was on furlough, Brenda was not to be deterred-- she released a second vinyl seven-inch, "Hey Romeo", which charted in Rolling Stone.
As I sit across from Brenda, I remind her that she is rapidly approaching the ten-year anniversary of the release of her first album, Goldfish Donít Talk Back, which was released on a Brooklyn independent label (Comm3) in 1990. She laughs, and says, "Yeah, itís weird that I have this career-- whatever that is." At thirty-two, Brenda Kahn can already look back on a music career that has produced five albums and spans the entire post-Cold War period. Had Brenda ever thought about quitting the music biz? Sure, she nods her head in the affirmative, saying that indeed there are those moments. But whenever she tries to imagine what she will do instead, she comes up with a complete blank.
Brenda lives on the Lower East Side, but is originally from New Jersey. The town she grew up in is a stoneís throw from where Patti Smith was raised, an artist that Brenda credits as a trailblazer in womenís rock. Brenda did some time in Brooklyn too, so itís been a long time since anyone called her a Jersey Girl. She could, however, be called a Jerzy Girl-- her dark, at times sexually subversive lyrics, are reminiscent of the literary vignettes in Jerzy Kosinkiís Steps.
Brenda, like many musicians, has recognized that the web is the future of the music industry. She snagged the domain name WOMANROCK.COM back in 1996-- but it wasnít until she got together with friend, fan and web designer Geoff Purchase of Toronto, Canada that the site took on its present form. "Geoff was going to school and learning HTML," Brenda explains, "and he needed a project." That project became WOMANROCK.COM which initially served as Brenda Kahnís personal homepage. Brenda moved her homepage to another location within WOMANROCK.com, allowing for the birth of the WOMANROCK.com online magazine which publishes columns, features and interviews that focus on women in music, art, film and the written word.
As the magazineís editor, Brenda encourages submissions which educate women on the basic business skills necessary for an artistís survival. WOMANROCK.com also functions as a promotional organization which can bring attention to an artistís work by organizing arts-based multimedia events. WOMANROCK.com presents an on-going series called Planet Girl-- I saw one show at CBGBís Downstairs Lounge which featured musical performances by Brenda Kahn, Debby Schwartz, The Fuzzy Comets, Rachel McCartney and Too Cynical to Cry. During the concert, hair cutters, henna tattoo artists, fortune tellers, manicurists and massage therapists provided their creative services for free. The concert series rotates between New York, Pittsburgh (where the idea was born), and Philadelphia. But it looks like the series will soon have to change its name-- apparently a teen web zine claims trademark on Planet Girl, and now WOMANROCK.com is asking its fans to come up with a new name for the event.
If at first, WOMANROCK.com focuses more on music than other arts, that is because music is what Brenda knows. Eventually, Brenda would like to see WOMANROCK.COM become an indie label that puts out compilation records of women musicians. "Women are coming into their own," she says. "This generation-- not my generation, but the generation after me," Brenda explains, "is the first generation to really have positive women role models." She acknowledges that when she was growing up there was Blondie, Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith-- "but they were rock stars!" Brenda exclaims.
In the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Madeleine Albright, Xena the Warrior Princess, Janet Reno, Felicity, Ally McBeal, and Joey Potter of Dawsonís Creek-- Brenda Kahn wants WOMANROCK.com to move beyond women in rock. She wants to create a website that rejects the solitary experience of sitting home, alone, and surfing the net. She wants "to create communities that are events-based" and envisions a big media-arts event every couple months where people actually physically gather and get to know one another.
Double-click on Brenda Kahn within WOMANROCK.com and you will find yourself at Brendaís personal website. It is here that cybernauts can sample songs from all of Brendaís records through the technology of Real Audio. Real Audio, like MP3, is a digital audio compression format which enables users to play music on their computers.
(It is the MP3 format which has music executives ripping their hair out trying to figure out how they will prevent music piracy over the Internet. What distinguishes the MP3 format from Real Audio is that MP3 files can be downloaded from the Internet and stored in a personal computer. These files can also be downloaded and played on portable MP3 players similar to the Sony Walkman and Sony Discman. The use of an MP3 is legal so long as the copyright holder has granted permission. But there is little to stop people from encoding MP3ís from CDís without authorization and trading them over the Internet. Artistsí reactions to the technology has generally been to embrace MP3 and grant permission to sites like MP3.com to post their music on the web. The eclectic pop-duo They Might Be Giants released their last album Long Tall Weekend exclusively on MP3.)
Brendaís website also features video files which allows fans to play her music videos using RealPlayer. Fans can add themselves to Brenda Kahnís mailing list by firing an e-mail to her. Order forms can be printed out for Brendaís new record Hunger-- as well as earlier recordings, a compilation video, and a short experimental film featuring Brendaís music.
Brendaís homepage is a modern-day multimedia memoir. One can follow the emotional journey and evolution of Brenda Kahn as an artist by sampling her songs, reading her biography, playing her videos, enlarging her digital photos, and skimming through her press clips. Appealing to several senses at once, the electronic information depicts the various angles and perspectives that create the character and identity of Brenda Kahn.
If Brendaís earlier songs were loud and angry shotgun blasts, then her latest album Hunger uses silence and quiet with equal effect. She is an acoustic La Femme Nikita, a sniper on the roof with a silencer on the muzzle of her laser-sighted rifle. When she takes aim, she does not miss.
Three of the songs on Hunger explore the boundary between spoken word and song. The first such song, entitled "Mexico One," opens the record and features Brendaís spoken word accompanied solely by the standing bass of Ernest Adzentoivich, whose bow is ubiquitous throughout the record:Dreams, the infallible reality of our unconscious. The Mexican cigars, in utero you drank wine. And now, only cervezas. The Cuban tobacco sickly sweet against the ice blue water like melted margaritas, grenadine and mouthwash. Floating topless, the sunburn scar on your thigh. She reaches like the Climatis scaling the adobe walls, its yellow flowers like floral constellation, he stretches across the table and brushes my hand reaching for a beer.On the second track, "Messiah," Brenda breaks out the acoustic guitar and strums along as she sings the chorus:Now that heís goneShe slips into Light like a silk negligee-- occupying the space of the song, wearing the delicate breath of each word. "Hunger," the title track follows, and opens with the long strains of Adzentoivichís bow and exhibits Brenda Kahnís ability to craft songs that gradually expand until they swallow the entire universe.
Heís the chosen one
I keep my best shoes on
For when the Messiah comes
Brenda Kahn is transcendent when she writes about disillusioned women. She has an uncanny ability to unearth and expose emotion as something crude, raw and naked, but ultimately and always true. In "Queen of Distance," Brenda sings,And she stumbles through the wreckageIn "Christopher Says," Brenda confronts the impossible situation women face when they try to fill the void left behind by a previous lover:
like a harlequin of bliss
Writes her name in every taxi
Longing for the things sheís missed
And steered by fortunes of her past lives
She sees road signs in the mist.
Sheís the queen of distance.Christopher says,The production on the record is phenomenal, particularly in light of the fact that the record was recorded live in two days and mixed on the third day at 60 Cycle in Coney Island. In addition to the standing bass of Ernest Adzentoivich, additional guitars were played by Tim Bright who recorded the album, and Kevin March on drums for "Christopher Says."
There was a girl I loved
An angel in my heart
She was a perfect dove
And I would have thrown
myself to sea.
If only she loved me.
I wonít be needing you
The sun is shining grey
And I think youíve done
Now get up and get dressed.
Brenda Kahnís music recently collided with film. Her experimental guitar and feedback can be heard in Seven Days Til Sunday, a short film directed by Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley. The film took first place at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin in March of 1999. In January of that same year, it was featured at the Sundance Film Festival and won best experimental short film at the Underground Music Festival in New York City in 1998. Brenda was asked to select the music for the soundtrack to the feature-film Follow Me Outside, which is to be directed by John Sullivan.
While on the subject of film, I ask Brenda what recent films have made an impression on her-- she smiles, glances left, then right, to see if anyone is listening-- The Matrix, she whispers, "I loved it!" Brenda Kahn is passionate about the film genres of Kung Fu and science fiction-- both of which are fused together in The Matrix starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. Brenda suddenly becomes much more animated as she dissects the various styles of Kung Fu practiced by Bruce Li, Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, and Jackie Chan. She performs some Kung Fu for me at the table-- she takes an open hand and pulls it back slowly until the fingers of her hand touch to form a single point of concentration. I am a little frightened and wonder what is going to happen next. Brenda returns from her Kung Fu trance-- I breathe a sigh of relief. Brenda says The Matrix was brilliant in that it draws inspiration from all the Kung Fu styles.
Brendaís friend, Ariel, comes in toward the end of the interview. She says that there is a massive demonstration underway down the street. The protesters, led by an organization called Reclaim the Streets, are railing against the cityís plan to sell over one hundred community gardens throughout the five boroughs. "Itís a good place to be if you want to get arrested," Ariel declares. Brenda ponders the information and smiled an American dissidentís smile and says subversively, "That could be good for me."
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