With new CD, Justin Vivian Bond plays it like it lays
"My voice, while not being a classically pure instrument, can convey certain complexities," says Justin Vivian Bond in reference to the 14 tracks on the recently released CD Silver Wells.
Bond’s modest assessment of that ability to communicate a wide range of emotions and states of mind is, to say the least, puts it lightly.
The artist who straddles gender with the same aplomb as genres-and prefers to be referred to as "v"-is currently in appearing Mondays, through July 9, at Studio 54’s new cabaret venue: 54 Below. She will also be seen on Fire Island on July 7 and in Provincetown from July 26-28.
Doing his own material
The six-week residency at Studio 54’s new performance space began at the tail end of the La MaMa production "Jukebox Jackie"-in which v portrayed, along with three others, various aspects of the late Downtown poet, playwright, cabaret and glam rock pioneer Jackie Curtis (whose declaration "I’m not a boy. I’m not a girl. I’m just me, Jackie" parallels v’s similarly progressive and inclusive approach to identity).
"When I finally got onstage at 54 after the first two weeks of ’Jackie,’ v recall, "I had just gone through many weeks of rehearsing [material that was] all written by Jackie Curtis. It was quite a lot of memorization. Being in a stage-directed production, I was very conscientious of that.
"So when I got onstage [at 54 Below] and was able to do my own material, it made me appreciate the freedom I have in doing my own stuff."
By "stuff," however, v’s not referring to original material. Apart from its final track ("Stars"), all of the selections on "Silver Wells" are carefully chosen covers of "first-person and confessional" songs, "seemingly addressed from the narrator directly to the listener."
The covers, from artists including Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell, were chosen by v because of their thematic and philosophical kinship with the 1970 Joan Didion novel "Play It as it Lays"-which, v notes, "has to do with this landscape of the mind...and a lot of the songs [on the CD], I sort of identify with southern California and the southwest.
"That’s where the book takes place. The novel is written in a first person narrative, and most of the songs are first person narratives. I think they would be songs that the [novel’s main] character would listen to."
Choosing songs that match the performing artist’s temperament as well as that of Didion’s novel, v says, allows for a vocal interpretation that of musical and literary ideas "that have personal resonance with me. I’m honoring the original [material] and the writer, because I have great reverence for the material. But I chose these songs to make my own creative statement. I identify with the songs so deeply, so the challenge is to do a good job."
Equally challenging, says v of the project, is to imbue these covers with an emotional resonance that conveys "ideas that are stimulated by the novel. It’s a very spare, very evocative book, and I feel the songs are also spare and evocative."
So too, is v’s understated approach. The majority of the CD’s 14 tracks are deliberately restrained interpretations of their up-tempo originals-and the result is, as v describes the novel, on the extreme side of sparse, especially when considering what other cabaret performances Justin Bond fans know and love.
Miles away from Kiki
Miles away from what audiences have seen in Bond’s boozy, lusty, outrageous "Kiki" persona (as part of Kiki & Herb), the cabaret of "Silver Wells" is decidedly subdued, and deceptively simplistic.
But with pianist and producer Thomas Bartlett exercising similar restraint in his musical arrangements, "Silver Wells" has understated but powerful emotional heft-using the softer side of cabaret to lay bare the novel’s themes of dislocation, nihilism and loss.
"A few of the songs, we [Bartlett and I] filled out with other musicians," says v of the CD’s arrangements. "But we really liked the simplicity of the piano and vocal sound. These songs are all so beautifully written. Their poetry and melodies are so rich on their own the poetry and the melodies are so rich, and Thomas plays with such virtuosity and sensitivity. The combination of his talent and my voice...it just worked."
As for the notion of the songs being kindred spirits to the novel, v says "With certain singers, when you hear then, you get an insight into the life they led. Those have always been my favorite singers; Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith, Nina Simone. I’m not comparing myself to them, other than [by listening to them sing] you get an idea of who they are and what they’ve done. Without knowing me, if you heard me sing, you would have a certain window into the world that I inhabit."
One of the most powerful and introspective windows on "Silver Wells" comes at the tail end-track 13, right before the final selection ("Stars," which is the only one on the CD written by v).
"Something Cool" is a funny/sad, boozy ode to the intimate bond created when a stranger buys a barfly you a drink and she, in exchange, pours out her heart.
"I’ve always liked that song," says v, "because I always wanted to play Blanche DuBois-another one of those characters I identify with. The first time I heard it ["Something Cool"], I thought it could have been a monologue for Blanche DuBois, which is a character I’ve always dreamed of playing. But Tennessee Williams’ estate forbids transgender people from playing Blanche. So I get to inhabit Blanche when I’m sinning that song."
Justin Vivian Bond sings songs from Silver Wells through July 9, 2012 at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. For info or tickets, call 866-468-7619 or visit www.54Below.com.
Bond will also be appearing in Cherry Grove, The Icon Series: Justin Vivian Bond and Lance Horne at The Ice Palace, Cherry Grove, NY, July 7, 2012; and in Provincetown at The Crown & Anchor, July 26, 27, 28, 2012.
For more information about these dates and to purchase "Silver Wells," visit justinbond.com