This is an interview my friend Florenz Cruz did with Jennifer Charles of New York band Elysian Fields. The group performed live on Irwin's show in 2004 and in 2009, Charles was a special guest on the same program. Those two can both be listened to here.
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With Oren Bloedow’s riffs ranging from dangerously aggressive to sensuously soft and Jennifer Charles’ distinctly tranquil, almost hushed, inarguably beautiful vocal stylings, Elysian Fields has been one of New York’s musical mainstays for over a decade.
In the midst of finishing up their latest album, Last Night On Earth, they will be performing with Lucinda Black Bear at Le Poisson Rouge this Friday, February 18, and at Amiens Jazz Festival in France on April 2. Jennifer Charles kindly agreed to answer a slew of personal questions that puts the band’s music into a more multidimensional perspective, allowing a brief look into the inspiration incorporated into her past, present, and future work.
What languages can you speak fluently?
My immediate answer is none. Semantics. Fluency, hmm. I am most fluent perhaps speaking telepathically, but I make my way through English and Spanish for the most part. I had some years of Latin study, so that assists in my comprehension of the Romance languages. I've had spells of speaking French, and Turkish, understanding Italian and Portuguese, singing in Arabic, Sanskrit, Ladino or Greek or Hebrew.
It's all just sound, just music in the end. Sometimes fluency comes on with fluid enhancement...
You have a huge fanbase in France. How do the audiences there differ from the ones in, say, New York?
Really not that different. More cigarettes perhaps.
How long have you lived in New York and what kind of changes have you seen in it in terms of the shops, restaurants, residents, fashion, music, and overall culture? Has there been a noticeable change in the faces and sounds of the city or is it more or less the same as it's always been?
I've been in New York since 1987. So, yes, I've witnessed some change. But life is change, and it's useless to complain and harp on the old days. Back in the day I used to get food poisoning frequently, and that's dropped off considerably.
Foetus, John Zorn, and many more--you're a rather prolific collaborative artist. Who is a musician you haven't worked with before with whom you'd love to record a new song?
Lots of people. Jarvis Cocker. Nick Cave. Tony Bennet. Danger Mouse. Pierre Bastien. Morricone. Bruce Springsteen. Missy Elliott. Tom Waits. Randy Newman. Prince...
Which isn't to say that there aren't many others now alive whom aren't making work I admire, certainly there are, but these are just some folks with whom I think we could do something interesting together.
What distinguishes your and Oren's other band from Elysian Fields (besides the languages)? Why did you start La Mar Enfortuna in the first place?
La Mar Enfortuna focuses on the music of the Sephardic diaspora. We were interested in exploring those musical roots and histories, and wanted to bring new life and spirit to some ancient works.
Often Sephardic music made today has a rather liturgical quality, an 'early music' stiffness of sound to it; we wanted to bring the spirit of the land and the people back into it, to give the music a more human and soulful quality. It's really just being us, infusing that ancient stuff with our own style and spirit.
What is your favorite Elysian Fields song and why?
As Keith Richards says, that's like being asked to pick a favorite child. I'm no Lear and my songs are neither Regans nor Cordelias to me. But if ever I have a song that makes money, you can ask me what song bought me a house on the shore, and I'll tell you.
The title of your last album, The Afterlife, at first evokes a sense of death, but the songs themselves seem to have a sort of lightness and even levity to them. In fact, I thought it was musically the least dark of all your albums. Can we expect the music on the new album to be even lighter?
In fact, yes. The new album is called Last Night On Earth. And one day I hope to create something that delivers itself like ether.
Your distinct voice, ubiquitously referred to as "sultry," is usually initially what attracts people to Elysian Fields. Have you drawn upon the vocal elements of chanteuses of the past, and if so, are there any women in particular you'd like to reference?
Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Anita O'Day, and Oum Kalthoum have always been important to me. I also adore Dimi Mint Abba, and she is still very much alive. The voice can be the most expressive instrument, because one's essence is revealed. A singer that can express one's essence is one usually important to me.
In terms of writing lyrics, do you rely heavily on memories or does the present play a bigger part? Were there certain events or people in your life from whom you find yourself drawing continual inspiration?
Yes, yes, and yes, but much more than that also.
Elysian Fields' records set the ideal mood for reading a good book by a fireplace--among other things. Any interesting books, stories, or news you've read lately that have really made you sit and think?
For me, if I'm reading a really good book, I usually can't have music on. I like silence. Sometimes I can read with some classical music, but I find myself putting my book down often, if I do. But reading by the fireplace, yes, a great joy. Fires in general, yes. Fire plus music, delicious. Fire plus sitting and staring at flame with a great wine, heaven. News doesn't excite me. In fact, it upsets me. When Oren and I lived together, he wouldn't let me watch the news. I feel a weird responsibility to get a swig of it now and again, but when I do, I find it draining and upsetting usually. Once we detach ourselves from things they become 'news,’ when we remove ourselves, we remove our empathy and build up an immunity to the horrors of the world.
Shutting them out of course doesn't make them go away, but feeding on them like gawkers at car wrecks doesn't help either. It is just a reminder to keep creating with a force of love and beauty and humanity at its core. I am just finishing the book Lives Like Loaded Guns, a new book about the legacy of Emily Dickinson and her work. I like reading about people that were inspired, people that are inspiring to me, people whose greatest weapons are their imaginations and their bursting hearts. I like smart fiction, things that reflect real lives or fantastic lives. I like books on thought and history, the mind and spirit, philosophies, cultural anthropologies...
I always imagined you to be the type of woman who reads Anais Nin in a Parisian summer home and does and experiences worldly things modern victims of excess and overstimulation can't appreciate. Is this an accurate imagined depiction of you or do you enjoy sitcoms and fast food like everybody else?
When I was a young teen I discovered Anais Nin's diaries in my mother's library. I've read them all. So it's funny you would say that. As a journal keeper myself since a young age, she left a great impression on me, and I felt a secret sisterly bond with her and the way she lived her life. I hadn't thought of her for a while, but recently I did again, thinking of all the lives one lives, being the holder of many secrets...
As for the other stuff, no fast food, no television.
Who would you say is singularly your biggest artistic, musical, and/or philosophical influence?
There is no one answer. But Oren is certainly a big influence. There are many others, some alive, some dead, artistic, musical, philosophical, spiritual, invisible and otherwise.