By Anthony Ha
Stanford Daily, October 11, 2001
The Cellar at Johnny Foley’s is filled with customers awaiting the night’s performance. On stage, band members do some last-minute tuning. Thalia Zedek, the first act, has been wandering through the candlelit Cellar for the last half-hour, chatting with workers and the audience. At 8:30, she hops up on stage to join the rest of her band, slings an electric guitar over her shoulder, adjusts it slightly, then leans into the microphone.
“Hi, my name is Thalia.” After introducing her band, she adds, “I’m going to sing a couple of songs off my new record. This is the first one.”
The eight-song set that follows lasts for about an hour, and during the entire performance the audience is almost completely silent, sitting forward in their chairs, peering through the dark room at the stage. Zedek and the band are equally focused. They rarely look up, preferring instead to concentrate on their instruments.
And the music itself? Intense. Even more than her CD “Been Here and Gone”, Zedek’s live performance pulls you into her tales of love, despair, anger and all the other dark emotions that make for great, if harrowing, music. Live, the instruments are a bit louder, the tempo a bit faster, but Zedek’s inimitable voice still dominates. The small, dimly illuminated Cellar is the perfect setting for her songs; it gives the music an intimate, personal quality that no recording can completely achieve.
Joined by the night’s other performer, Tara Jane O’Neill, Zedek closes the show with the highlight of her album, a seven-minute, gypsy-like cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” As Zedek sings, “Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone / Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon / Show me slowly what I owe and all the limits of / And dance me to the end of love,” there is a strange mix of desperation and hope in her voice, as if either disaster or salvation waits just around the corner.
Then the show is over, the applause begins, and Zedek says a final “Thank you” before stepping off the stage.
In person, Zedek does not strike you as the author of bleak, hopeless love songs. Intense, yes, in the way she gazes into space with large, dark-circled eyes, but at the same time very casual and soft-spoken.
She’s touring to promote her latest album, “Been Here and Gone.” After 20 years in the music industry with five different bands (White Women, Dangerous Birds, Uzi, Live Skull and Come), this is Zedek’s first solo effort.
“You know, you say you’re a band, it’s kind of like everyone kind of has to be there,” Zedek replies when asked about her decision to finally strike out on her own. “It just seemed easier to do it under my name. That way if I went out with just, like, just a piano player one time, people wouldn’t be like, ‘I want my money back! Where’s so-and-so?’ It just seemed like a huge pain in the ass to organize …”
Compared to, say, the guitar-thrashing of Come, “Been Here and Gone” feels stripped down and stark, almost relentlessly down-tempo. Most of the songs are written by Zedek and deal with love lost or gone wrong, with little hope of reconciliation or redemption. There’s a raw feeling to the lyrics that matches the bare, vaguely bluesy instrumentation. Neither the words nor the music are particularly original, but the combination is effective.
Even better is Zedek’s low, husky voice. It takes a while to get used to, but it has its own beauty, its own way of connecting to the listener. It wrings as much sadness and despair as possible from “1926” and it transforms the strange love song, “Dance Me to the End of Love,” into something altogether more dangerous and out-of-control.
The album’s sound, Zedek explains, came out of solo acoustic shows she played in Boston and New York. Those performances had even less accompaniment, consisting quite often of only Zedek and a piano.
“When I did the record, that was actually the largest band I’d ever done the songs with,” Zedek said. “Usually it was way more stripped down. But I thought that it worked out really well. In that way, it was kind of different from what I expected. I don’t know what I was going for, really. I think I was just trying to capture this sort of live thing, almost like a show. When we recorded, there were really like zero overdubs. I mean, I put an acoustic guitar over on a couple of tracks and that was it.”
When it comes to the inspiration for the lyrics, for its bleak view of love and relationships, Zedek’s answers are slightly more guarded.
“I’m not naming names,” she laughs. “There’s definitely a few people that sort of inspired a lot of the record. Most songs, it comes from stuff that happened or something someone said, or something like that, but then it turns into something else. The person wouldn’t even recognize it. I spent a lot of the last three, four years thinking about relationships and stuff. I guess that kind of shows on the record. Kind of like, why they work, why they don’t work, or whether it’s worth it even to try and make them work.”
Zedek’s tour, which has taken her up the coast from San Diego to Seattle, still has a ways to go, taking her across the country and probably occupying her for a while to come. Zedek admits that although she has some idea about what she wants to do once the tour wraps up, her plans are far from concrete.
“Afterwards, I think I want to do another solo record like this, under my own name,” she says. “I also play clarinet in a band with a guy who plays viola on the record, David Michael Curry. So I guess I’d like to do more collaborations with friends, and put out more albums like this one.”
As our interview draws to a close, my questions turn to Zedek’s long career in music, and to her accomplishments.
“There is earlier stuff that I wasn’t too happy with,” Zedek says. “Still, I was really happy with all the Come stuff. But I think that I’m really most proud of this record. I had an idea, I did it, and it worked.”