San Francisco Chronicle Feature on Noe Venable
By Derk Richardson
August 17th, 2007
In 2004, when she packed up her guitar and notebooks and moved to New York, Venable, then 27, had already released five albums, written more than 500 songs and toured the country opening for Ani DiFranco. And although she was ensconced in a nurturing and supportive Bay Area neo-folk scene, Venable felt compelled to break away and re-examine her priorities. Her 2003 CD, "The World Is Bound by Secret Knots," was in part an exploration of the forces that hold life - and personal identities - together. Among other questions, it asked, "What kind of creature shall I be?"
"I wrote 'Secrets Knots' when I was coming to the end of some of things I'd held onto in life - the ways I had defined and perhaps limited myself," Venable says during a recent phone conversation from Cambridge, Mass., where she just finished a course in theological Spanish and is about to embark on two years of graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School. "In the past few years, I've felt like I was starting over in a lot of ways, trying to sort out the things that were really important to me from the things that I thought should be important. That was a very hard and painful process. To do that, I had to move 3,000 miles away."
Now, after nearly four years (and five changes of residence), Venable is releasing an album, "The Summer Storm Journals," and coming back to San Francisco for a CD-release show at Cafe Du Nord.
The "summer storm," she says, "is this place you come to where your beliefs and your ideas about who you are and what you're about and what life is about and what you're doing here - you can't hold onto them anymore. You have to change, and how you face that change says a lot. And I have to say, I did not want to change."
"The Summer Storm Journals," while not strictly autobiographical, maps Venable's journey into what Dante called "the dusky wood." Its genre-defying music, co-produced by bassist Todd Sickafoose, is shaped by acoustic and electric guitar, piano, keyboards, violin, cello, marimba, trumpet, bass and drums, which support Venable's pure, sometimes whispery soprano and provide a jazz-tinged folk-pop setting for her nature-inspired poetry. The songs are full of "lion dreams," "howling darkness" and "the sea of possibility"; the protagonists are variously going "into the wild," "waiting in the cyclone's eye" and "floating down love's river."
Venable recorded the album on home-studio gear over the past four years, capturing contributions by longtime friends (violinist Alan Lin, guitarist Adam Levy) and new acquaintances (marimba player Payton MacDonald).
While there's a lot of dismantling going on in lyrics such as "You can take my body all apart and my apple heart/ It will grow again" and "Say a prayer for beauty/ They keep coming to take her apart," the songs also exude a sense that something new has been put together.
"There was a long period of time when I felt like I apprenticed myself as a songwriter to these people who I really admired, like Tom Waits and Thom Yorke from Radiohead," Venable says. "I think I was trying on these different voices, trying to find what voice fit me and who I was musically. When I write now, I'm not conscious of being influenced by anyone else's voice."
Venable says she has gained a new understanding of the role her music plays in her life. While living in Brooklyn, she finished her bachelor's degree at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where religion Professor Barbara Sproul nudged her onto her current academic path. Having grown up in "a houseful of atheists," Venable never imagined herself studying religion. But the discipline dovetails with her art in ways that have provided clarity on everything from how to distribute her new recording to how to balance her need to create and her sense of social responsibility.
Citing the example of Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry, a former major-label artist who now goes by the name Issa and releases her music independently ("she's someone who I recognize as having both an artistic and a spiritual path"), Venable explains why issuing "The Summer Storm Journals" on her own label is her best option.
"I couldn't picture another label knowing what to do with it," she says. "I would love for it to be available to anyone who might want it or need it, but it's not something that I feel like I want to force out into the larger world. My ideal paradigm would be to have this little house in the woods with this little box in the front, and I'd put my records in it, and people could come and leave some money in another box next to it and take a record. Fortunately, the Web allows for something not unlike that. ... If it's a record that means something to somebody, they might know someone else to whom it might mean something. They might pass it on."
Touring with DiFranco also opened Venable's eyes to new possibilities. Because DiFranco performs in large, all-ages venues, Venable found herself singing to teenagers and young adults who aren't allowed into a lot of the clubs she plays.
"It made me realize that I feel very drawn to work with younger people in some way," she says. "It would somehow complete something for me in my life.
"I have come to realize that music for me is part of a larger exploration that I'm still trying to understand," she continues, citing another role model in 13th century Sufi sage Jalaluddin Rumi. "He was a poet, a mystic and an academic, and he somehow found a way to live a life that incorporated all three - intellect, spirit and art."
To that end for herself, Venable will spend the next two years earning a degree that will certify her to teach comparative religion and literature in high school and middle school.
"My covert plan is to try to work many different kinds of art into that setting," she says. "I've never been able to fit into any particular organized order, but starting to study comparative religion changed my life. It's helped me to understand new things about art and creativity and to contextualize all the things that I was experiencing over the past few years. And the experience of writing the record - and feeling as though I was being stripped down to my much more essential and honest self - has brought me to a place where I feel more hopeful and more empowered in facing the future than I ever did before."
Article by Derk Richardson, senior editor at Oakland Magazine and columnist for SFGate.com.