11 Nov TAKE 5 with BRITTANY ANJOU
My love of The Shaggs is no secret. Their music intoxicating and pure. My journey towards them led to Brittany Anjou. Out of the blue, I contacted her about her work with Dot Wiggin and she graciously agreed to answer these questions in detail. Brittany wrote to me from the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Center Music Academy located in the Kuwait Opera House where she is currently in residence. On a planet full of original musicians, Brittany stands out. I am deeply moved that she has taken them time to answer questions about The Shaggs and her own music. Read on to become endlessly fascinated.
ABOUT BRITTANY ANJOU
Brittany Anjou is an American composer, vocalist, and piano focused multi-instrumentalist based in New York City. Exploring everything from Ahmad Jamal to Bikini Kill in her repertoire, this creative, versatile, and virtuoso performer hails from Seattle. Starting from the age of twelve Brittany has performed in award winning jazz ensembles throughout the U.S.A. and Europe. While still in high school she appeared at Lincoln Center with jazz giant Wynton Marsalis, and played with both with Ernestine Anderson, and Clark Terry. As a young woman she continued her studies at New York University, where she studied Jazz. Anjou has directed and composed for many instrumental ensembles, including the LARCENY Chamber Orchestra, and BEWAA, a series of ensembles incorporating Ghanaian xylophone. Brittany performs actively with many artists and musicians throughout New York City. She has toured in nearly twenty countries throughout four continents. Anjou is currently working on releasing three albums: a 1960’s style jazz piano trio album of originals entitled Enamiĝo Reciprokataj (Esperanto for “Reciprocal Love”), an avant-gyil album titled Nong Voru (“Fake Love” in Dagara) with Ghanaian master xylophonist Alfred Kpebsaane, and music for a series of poems by Kuwaiti women entitled Astamaea (Arabic for “Listen”). Brittany Anjou can be seen on stage with her group, The Brittany Anjou Trio, as well as performing as a vocalist with her experimental punk band Bi TYRANT. She works as a freelance composer, session musician, educator, headliner, and support performer.
TAKE 5 WITH BRITTANY ANJOU
1. What do you think most people misunderstand about the music of The Shaggs?
Most people don’t think that creating music is one hundred times harder than re-creating music. It takes one hundred times the time, energy and sacrifice to write something new, play it, rehearse it, record it, perform it, and get people to see it. It’s also soul-baringly terrifying. It takes so much more energy and skills than simply playing a piece of sheet music. In the case of The Shaggs, this is no different. As someone who spent five years transcribing, studying, performing, re-creating their music live with them, and our family of incredibly hard-working and self-sacrificing people, I can tell you how much work went in to it. So. Much. Work. To. Trans. Scribe. And Perform. This. Music. Correctly. With Care. And Tour It. So if recreating was a chore, creating it was 100x harder. Also, they really had everything written note for note, as seen in the scores. Dot’s own vocal rhythm and language of music is apparent in person as is with her sisters Betty and Rachel when I hear them sing, play, or play with them.
I tell you with utter conviction, that transcribing The Shaggs’ songs couldn’t even hold a candle to what they did to create that music, and influence musicians. Nor can it compare with their life experience to create that music, or the sole people to do that music exactly at that time. Comparison is violence. Nothing compares to the ownership, freedom and fearlessness of expression, integrity as humans, but foremost, their wonderous otherworldly creativity of the music they created in 1969 and 1972 on record. The live footage from their shows in the 1970s tells the same story.
Transcribing is the act of putting recorded music into written sheet music form. This is painstaking work that most accomplished trained working musicians spend a lifetime developing the skills to do, and it is usually unpaid. Still, creating music, composing music, recording your own original music, takes so much more work than transcribing someone else’s hard work. The Shaggs prove how significant they are for music and musicians to this day. The honesty, innocence, essence and freedom in their recordings are what every musician aspires to create. They did it as young teens, effortlessly. And they started a new genre without knowing it.
2. I think a lot of people might be unaware that Dot and the band actually made charts for their band. What is occasionally lost in discussions of this breathtaking music is the notion that they did indeed “know what they were doing.”
Could you please talk about the first time that you saw “My Pal Foot Foot” notated by Dot? How does the notation serve the sound?
When I saw Dot’s folder of handwritten sheet music, I just about died of joy and curiosity. The notes feel and look like the music actually sounds. There would be backwards notes with the stems written upside down or backwards, but perfectly so. There weren’t any signs of errors or eraser marks whatsoever. Everything was done by hand, and the lyrics fit under each note perfectly. The chords are written out by each note, sometimes just notated chords for intros, sometimes there would be chord change symbols. There were the first and second guitar parts each notated by hand separately with vocals, like lead sheets. Each lead sheet has the vocal and guitar melodies, lyrics, chords, intros, outros, and D.S. al Coda signs like any Italian based western notated composition, plus chord change symbols like any jazz standard lead sheet. The bars were even, and then there was a melody that had an extra note that filled the bar – say 9 eighth notes in a bar of 4/4, it still fit to the recording.
In fact, when we recorded Dot’s tune, “Your Best Friend”, an original she had written, I believe in the 70s, that was never recorded, all we had to go on was her handwritten lead sheet. To prepare, I spent time studying how she notated My Pal Foot Foot, and Philosophy of the World, My Companion, and other songs from the first album, to understand her notation handwriting, and the sonic worlds of the record. When we rehearsed as a band before meeting with Dot, we tried to do it justice. I tried to carry out the most accurate vocals based on her style. There was one bar of music where Dot wrote nine eighth notes in a bar of 4/4, and the band was debating on whether to interpret it as a bar of 4/4/ or a bar of 9/8. Half the band eventually decided on 4/4, so I squeezed that one little extra eighth note and lyrics to fit into the bar of time, even though I had a feeling it wasn’t meant to be that way. I remember feeling like I lost a small battle in the rehearsal room over it.
When we met with Dot, we rehearsed that song with her, and because she is so polite, she just let us try and try. Eventually, I asked her if everything was right at sounded okay. And do you know what she said? That the exact part where we compromised the melody and lyrics wasn’t right – that one melody syllable on that over-drafted ninth eighth note was too short! It needed to be more drawn out. I was flabbergasted. At that time, I remember the feeling it was terrifying having so much responsibility of the melody and vocals, handling the communication in rehearsal, and the degree of making people work more for something small, unknown, and seemingly insignificant. Also, I felt like I had to do it perfectly while meeting her and running the song for the first time behind a recording console, for the integrity of her songwriting and helping prepare that album for the world to hear.
Here is the Dot Wiggin Band rehearsing “Your Best Friend” from Dot’s never before recorded score, for the first time:
3. How has your work with The Shaggs influenced your other projects?
The most important thing that happened for me was meeting a supportive music community in outsider music and prog rock, being able to free myself from years of jazz stress and expectations as a musician that were expected in school. Suddenly I felt free to write lyrics, to sing, to explore any style of music. It was completely liberating to meet The Shaggs and get to play music. The luckiest thing that could have happened to me. They do that for every trained musician who comes across their music – liberation from expectation. That’s why I love sharing their music. It never gets old to me (unfortunately for some of my loved ones).
In terms of time and style, playing that music and thinking about music in that way certainly changes your brain and body, takes you out of your element; getting used to it is an exercise in stretching and making space in your universe. It reconnects you with being a child. We got used to playing Shaggs style as a band, and it was a fun inside joke. We were extremely protective of them also because we love them to bits.
Meeting Laura Cromwell in the DWB was huge! Playing all-woman trio with her and Dot in Boston at the Lilypad, and then starting Bi TYRANT after a tour to Montreal in 2014 with Dot and guitarist Rich Bennett. Laura Cromwell had the perfect feel on drums for that music, out of all the drummers at the 2012 Better Than The Beatles: A Tribute to the Shaggs at the Bell House in Brooklyn. She had a lot to do with the perfection of the feel of the whole band. Dot calls her “Helen Junior”. Laura describes Helen’s playing like ‘little goats leaping on drums’, and I just love those words. Working with Laura for years we became super close and had a lot of fun.
Those years playing together came through on the Bi TYRANT album, released in 2016. I wrote a breakdown in the style of the Shaggs on The Vagina Song to commemorate an inside joke in the van on tour with Dot when we opened for NMH. Laura is the perfect drummer to go from Helen Wiggin to indie pop to thrash metal in 60 seconds. Rich had absorbed all the Shaggs guitar timing on the road so it became a fun honest peak in our live show. We eventually instructed people at shows to sing along and make peace sign vaginas in the air, and it got crazier from there.
4. Your trio just released the RECIPROKA EP. I think this sneak preview is so provocative and I look forward to the full release of Enamiĝo Reciprokataj. Can you talk about the Stravinsky influence, specifically how are you creating new avenues for improvisation from “Petrouchka?”
Funny enough, Petrouchka is a ballet about a puppet who’s love is unrequited from a beautiful ballerina. The title of my debut jazz trio album “Enamiĝo Reciprokataj” means “requited love” in Esperanto, the universal artificial language. I wanted the album to reflect femininity, love, music and Esperanto – the three universal languages.
Seeing Yuja Wang’s performance of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka solo piano reduction score (which Arthur Rubenstein refused to record because it was too difficult) inspired me to write music again for piano trio after the years of drought. I loved the power of her prowess on piano, and her interpretation of these sonic worlds. I visualized the music as an improviser, for jazz piano trio with drums and bass, with a jazz player’s freedom. It was an aha moment, the vision I had of a piano trio when I was a child. I arranged the Russian Dance from Petrouchka for trio, and recorded it with bassist Greg Chudzik and drummer Nick Anderson. I later learned I couldn’t release it due to copyright limitations of the Stravinsky estate – they don’t allow third party arrangements of the originals.
That’s how Enamiĝo Reciprokataj became my debut jazz piano trio album of all original compositions. The full length will be out on Seattle-based jazz label, Origin Records, on February 15th 2019. I am a jazz pianist in my core identity, so it is a big deep dream to realize, that goes back for 20 years – so in a way it was the dream of a piano trio I had as a girl in the 1990s. The title means “reciprocal love” or “mutual breakdown” in Esperanto. It is a metaphor for the push – pull in relationships and improvisation. The music honors my favorite piano trios – Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Red Garland, and Oscar Peterson. I recorded it in one day, November 30th, 2015, at Tedesco Studios in New Jersey with bassist Greg Chudzik and drummer Nick Anderson. Twenty full takes were done on November 30 th 2015, of which eleven were mixed for release. Tedesco was had the perfect piano and 1960s feeling room to capture the sound and spirit I wanted.
A few months later I wrote and recorded “Flowery Distress,” with drummer Ben Perowsky and Ari Folman-Cohen on bass at Brooklyn Recording with Andy Taub, which became the final track. The opening and middle section of Flowery Distress is inspired by odd meter grooves, that came in the spirit of dealing with trauma by walking and counting steps imagining jazz over odd meters – something I do a lot of. The ending is somewhat inspired from the finale of Petrouchka, but also by a score by bassist Mark Helias, using experimental improvising symbols, the first I’d ever seen use unconventional music symbols in school. On my score for Flowery Distress, I put snowflakes and guns to indicate where the drums needed to bang out a rim shot after a cascade of anxious glissandos. It’s fixed composition, but hard to get an improvising band tight on from paper with gusto. Every time I have a new player I have to explain the snowflakes and guns and hope that each execution of improvisation does the snowflakes and guns justice. There is also a Mingus riff echoed in the bass and piano too. Lots going on. It’s hard to get what is in your head onto paper, but for this album, hard to get it from the paper to your band without a hitch. You can suffer from writer-director syndrome as composer-improvisor. I’m fine with it.
The album opens and closes with electronic sampling of our studio outtakes played backwards, like the opening of the first track, “Starlight.” I had had this idea for years in my head, to play the out groove on Stralight as an intro/outro vamp, which I love doing live. We sampled that, made it backwards, and processed it for the intro. Like we were coming from the 1960s in some episode of back to the jazz future.
I wrote five songs on the album from 2003-2007 in Seattle, Prague and NYC, and the rest (Starlight and the Reciprokataj Suite, except “Girls Who Play Violin”) from 2013-2016 in NYC. My trio had been active in New York and Prague in 2004 and 2005 with NYC bassist Josh Myers, and Czech bassist Tomáš Liška. My NYU jazz classmate, my drummer Sam Levin and I went to Prague at the same time, so we played a lot together. Tomáš, Sam and I played the first tunes and standards at U Malehô Glena (Little Glenn’s Club) in Prague, rehearsing from our space in Holešovice. It was an exploratory time for me, very magical. At that time I spent learning Czech and Esperanto from Czech rebel poets in Wenceslaw Square. Under communist Russia, meetings for Esperanto were considered a form of intellectualism and therefore espionage, so the Esperantists I knew in the club spent decades meeting in secret until after the Czech Republic gained independence and was more acceptable. Because the language is like a psychic dream it felt right to influence and title the music in.
After I returned to New York and graduated, I started actively playing this music again in New York in 2013 with a trio. That’s when I starting thinking about recording it once and for all. I’m a perfectionist, so it kills me to think how long it took, starting in 2003 until the release in 2019. The album features bassists Greg Chudzik and Ari Folman-Cohen, as well as drummers Ben Perowsky and Nick Anderson, with whom I worked live with from 2013-2016. After the 2016 election, I felt a strong necessity to make hiring women a priority, and so I started playing with top jazz women; drummers Shirazette Tinnin and April Centrone, and bassists Lauren Seay and Mali Obomsawin.
Here is Brittany Anjou live at Zinc Bar, “Flowery Distress” at the 2018 NYC Winter Jazz Festival:
5. Your performing life is so dynamic and open. I note that you studied jazz and philosophy at NYU. Do you have any advice to current and future music students? How have your jazz studies influenced your professional life?
Jazz has enabled me to learn and play any music in the world, and consequently, bond with people in any place on earth. I am grateful for this and have found so much peace and understanding in my journey experiencing life as a musician. I feel extremely lucky for the skills it has taught me. For students I urge everyone to remember that while the work feels invisible and impossible to make a living, remember there are millions of people like yourself who know exactly what you are going through in your journey. Look up to your elders, heros and sheros. Be there for others. It is a selfless game. Follow your voice and trust that it will pay off. Everything you put into music comes back around to you and everyone around you. Give it your energy and people will appreciate that – as a sideman, a leader, a venue operator, a transcriptionist, supporting friend’s projects and performances. Know when to give your time and skills to your community, and when to devote time to develop your own projects. Music is a currency on its own that is priceless and invaluable. Remember those who value and understand that and avoid those who don’t. When you free yourself from convention you free others and you can take on a role of healing from the struggle, and how to help others. That’s my aim. Be Yourself. Through whatever struggles you are going through, in or outside of a community. Only you can be You. No one wants to hear someone try to be somebody else. Take risks. Rio Saikaichi, the Artistic Director of the Jazz Gallery, just wrote a great blog encouraging artists to make new work, saying she wants people to offer to book works in progress.
6. (I’m sneaking one more that I like to ask everyone) What is your favourite place to eat in your hometown?
Ooh! Hands down – The Sunlight Café – best vegan spot in Seattle!
Thank you so much Brittany for your inspiring music and for taking the time to speak with me. This is all so fascinating.