Dana Kletter’s first solo album, The Fool’s Fool
The Fool’s Fool is Dana Kletter’s first album in 14 years. She had a history of working with some of the most eminent (and notorious) names in popular music before she retreated from that life, but says the idea of a solo record was always intimidating: “I didn’t want to lose the camaraderie of a great band, the wisdom of an experienced producer. But I learned so much from everyone I’ve worked with, maybe I carried them into the studio with me.”
“I made this new record with the help of, like, everyone in the world,” Kletter says. “I started it in Boston, demoing songs with Tom Dube [Juliana Hatfield, Catie Curtis], just singing and playing in his living room. In the old Hi-n-Dry studio that had been Mark Sandman’s loft, I recorded basic tracks live, with Morphine drummer Billy Conway, Aimee Mann bassist Kimon Kirk, and me on piano and vocals. I loved the sound of that piano, and that room, dark as chocolate. Susan Voelz [Alejandro Escovedo and Poi Dog Pondering] added strings. Noise and free jazz trumpeter Greg Kelley channeled some Kind of Blue melancholy cool. Down in North Carolina on Christmas vacation, Caitlin Cary [Whiskeytown] and Lynn Blakey [Tres Chicas] and I formed an impromptu girl-group for the backing vocals. Then I took all these sounds and words and notes to the great guitarist and producer Kevin Salem [Rachel Yamagata, Giant Sand, Freedy Johnston], who helped me make sense of it all at his studio up in Woodstock.”
Raised in New York, trained as a classical pianist until she got the boot from music school, Kletter started making her own music in the 1980s in the arty Triangle (NC)-based trio Blackgirls. Their first release in 1987 attracted positive attention from two of popular music’s most important figures — John Peel and Joe Boyd — reason enough for most musicians to just die happy. Boyd produced and released two Blackgirls records (Procedure, Happy) on his label, Hannibal, and NC’s Mammoth Records took care of the American side of things. SPIN said Kletter sounded like Nico or Marianne Faithfull. Others compared her to Kate Bush and Throwing Muses, who operated in similarly dark and intense territory.
In the 1990s, Kletter formed and fronted an alterna-group called Dish, a band that had its own grungy buzz moment, recording with Mitch Easter and signing to Interscope records before becoming, um, unfulfilled, like so many bands in that excitable era. From her years of living in DC when harDCore reigned, she had roots in the punk and new wave scenes, but wasn’t an obvious candidate for “Miss Grunge,” though she received a gold record for singing backing vocals on Hole’s Live Through This LP. She has recounted tales of singing while standing in a pile of bloody, snotty tissues discarded by Ms Love (eww.)
In 1998 Dana teamed up with her identical twin Karen to record Dear Enemy for Joe Boyd’s Hannibal label again, about which Jon Pareles wrote: “The songs reveal a sensibility like nothing else in pop: private, dreamlike and heartfelt, as enigmatic and touching as Joseph Cornell’s boxes.” The sisters had magical chemistry and interesting stories to draw upon (the girls are the offspring of a Jewish gangster dad and a Holocaust survivor mom). Boyd’s organic style of production suited the Kletter sisters’ music ideally.
So why has it taken Ms. Kletter 25 years to make a solo album? For one thing, she funded the project herself, on a teaching salary, finally pulling together enough cash to complete the record after a summer spent working at a place she refers to as “Satan’s School for Girls.” Kletter also says it took her a while to clarify her vision: “I wanted to come closer to saying what I mean, which is harder than anyone thinks it is.” And she’s been busy. Most of her time has been devoted to writing, teaching and editing, first at the University of Michigan (where she won Hopwood Awards for Short Fiction and Novel), then at Stanford where she was a Stegner Fellow and is now a Jones Lecturer.
She has also been playing on other people’s records, collaborating with a number of artists including Michael Hurley, Damon & Naomi, LD & the New Criticism and The Hold Steady. This is an artist who has battle scars from the music biz like you wouldn’t believe (not to mention the other kind), so we’re lucky she still has the resilience to get back out there.
Kletter is versatile, you might even say un-pigeonholeable. She has this voice: I am not the first to call it dreamy, haunting, intimate, emotional, gothic. But she said she it took her a while to find it again: “I felt I had given my voice away, like not even to a good home, like I’d bundled it up and left it in a paper sack on the steps of an orphanage run by rabid weasels. Re-recording these songs, and writing new ones, was a way of reclaiming my voice, my words, my experience.”
A couple of songs on The Fool’s Fool date back to the Dish era. “The label wanted me to write a hit, whatever that means. I didn't know if those songs were ‘hits’ and I’m not sure I know how to write a hit, but there they were, these little orphans, and I wanted to redeem them, save them, not from obscurity (I'm smarter than that) but from the untenable situation into which they were born.”
Lyrically the songs on The Fool’s Fool are all over the map: highbrow vs. lowbrow. Lightness and darkness. Birds and angels. “It took me a long time to get back to writing — or rather dreaming — songs,” says Kletter. ”Unconscious composition. Like five years. And then I wrote ‘Noah’s Dove’ and ‘Flightless Bird.’
“I have long carried around this odd grief, some of it in the form of songs, some of it just a nebulous mass of sad/sorrow that I didn’t really want to look at too closely, that writing could not dissipate, because it was born in that kind of pre-linguistic place that songs seem (at least for me) to come from. An unrequited something.’
Kletter is a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Laura Nyro and Sandy Denny. It feels like she is trying to revisit and exorcise her ghosts and demons on The Fool’s Fool. The warmth and comfort of the community of musicians performing combined with melancholy and deeply personal material makes the album stand out in a vast internet full of mediocre musicians. It’s a poignant and thoughtful recording of orchestrated folk-rock. Give this long overdue album time, attention and fresh ears. It will haunt you and possibly break your heart.
Dana Kletter & Billy Conway & Kevin Salem
Resurrected, Re-envisioned, Mixed and Mastered by Kevin Salem
Recorded and Mixed…
Hi-n-Dry Studios, Cambridge, MA
Desolation Row, Raleigh, NC
Kevin Salem’s Barn, Woodstock, NY
All songs by Dana Kletter except “How Could Anyone” written by Dana Kletter and Bo Taylor
Vocals and Piano – Dana Kletter
Drums and Percussion – Billy Conway
Upright and Electric Bass – Kimon Kirk
Guitars, Organ – Kevin Salem
Violins (performance and arrangements)– Susan Voelz
Trumpet – Greg Kelley
Backing Vocals – Caitlin Cary, Lynn Blakey, Kevin Salem, Dana Kletter, Karen Kletter
Wurlitzer – Sara Bell
The Fool’s Fool (painting) by Janet Coleman
Many thanks to my friends who played and sang and...
Kevin Salem, Janet Coleman, Tom Dube, Greg Elkins, EJ Hauser, Chrissa Theodore, David Menconi, LD Beghtol, Kate Hyman, Bo Taylor, Sara Bell, Jerry Kee, Doug MacMillan, Fred Brockman
Super-special thanks to the darling Neal Fisher