Photograph by Jim Newberry
Ooh, Baby, Baby: Cabaret-performer-turned-rock-harpist Baby Dee plays the Brookdale Lodge this Saturday night.
The Baroque and the Bizarre
Street performer-turned-musician Baby Dee puts the wacky back in the Santa Cruz Mountains this weekend.
By Paul Davis
Baby Dee's résumé is much cooler than yours. Not "cool" in some calculated Brooklynite, Vice magazine-quoting way, mind you. Baby Dee is very much what is called an outsider artist, a willful eccentric, a performer who has long languished in obscurity while turning out music that is difficult to categorize but unmistakably unique and vital. No, Baby Dee, a transgendered woman well into her 50s, is far from your average hipster. All the same, she has a much cooler résumé than you do.
This is why, even though she's now best known (and critically acclaimed) as a harpist who trades in ersatz cabaret, Dee has had a storied career. After a decade serving as the music director and organist for a Catholic church in the Bronx, she joined the performance art troupe the Bindlestiff Family Circus and toured Europe with the Kamikaze Freak Show. In later years, Dee became a notorious street performer and performance artist whose acts indulged in both the baroque and the bizarre (Dee garnered plenty of attention for playing harp atop a high-rise tricycle.) Though those initial acts garnered Dee a fair amount of notoriety in Europe and New York City, for much of her career Dee has remained an obscure curiosity. Only in the past decade has she focused on a recording career, one that is earning her a far wider audience.
Dee continues to perform with the harp as her primary instrument, although her roots are in piano-based compositions, and she continues to write at the keyboard. However, Dee relishes the challenges of arranging for the harp, which demands that she approach covers and original compositions in radically different ways. "The thing for me about writing for harp is that you can't just take a thing, like a piano piece, and do it on the harp," Dee notes. "You have to rewrite the whole thing. I love the harp, but I wasn't able to actually learn to play one until I was grown up. The instrument of my childhood was the piano."
Despite her wide-ranging background, Dee has always put music first. "I've pretty much always been a musician," she notes. "It's just the circumstances around that have been a little odd—the way my life unfolded. I never did anything I did to attract attention to myself. The whole street thing and the sideshow vaudeville-esque stuff were only the result of becoming kind of a curiosity. That's not something I ever wanted—the scrutiny, the being noticed. I just wanted to get by, have a few laughs, make some friends—that sort of thing."
Those roots in performance art and avant-garde circus troupes have certainly informed Dee's phantasmagorical songwriting aesthetic and her quietly surrealist live persona. Given her background and eccentric persona, some have portrayed Dee as a tour musical freak show, a mantle she uncomfortably accepts. She notes that she suspects her background in the circus has pigeonholed her public persona as perhaps "a bit too clownish. "Circusy-type things tend to be kind of strident, a little brassy," she says. "I don't like that, but I suspect I'm kind of like that. I hate it when people say I'm wacky. But maybe there's some truth there."
There's plenty to suggest that the curiosity of Dee's public figure is finally taking a back seat to an appreciation of her formidable musical talent. Dee's most recent release, Safe Inside the Day, is becoming an underground sensation. Featuring the likes of Will Oldham and Andrew W.K., the relatively polished album is far removed from her street performance days. The oblique and theatrical work comes off much like Antony and the Johnsons and Tom Waits run through a circus grinder, and stands as a stunningly unique piece of popular music in recent memory.
Dee takes the additional attention in stride, saying that is a natural progression of her increased focus on recording albums. "I only started recording about eight years ago," she says, "and performing the songs I recorded only about three years ago. So it's not like I've been plugging away for a lifetime trying unsuccessfully to 'get noticed.' That seems to be the general idea that people have, but it's not at all the case. People get noticed in a different way when they put out a record."
BABY DEE, featuring members of Calexico and Bonny 'Prince' Billy's band, performs Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8:30pm at Brookdale Lodge, 11570 Highway 9, Brookdale. Headdress, Birds Fled From Me and Matteah Bain open. Tickets are $12.50 adv/$15 door; 831.338.6433.
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