NYC Jazz Record, December 2018 – Artist Interview:
photo: the Brooklyn Rail
By John Pietaro
Shelley Hirsch is a downtown original. The vocalist was one of the framers, conjuring and creating with the renegades of New York’s ‘70s-‘90s arts underground. Though still centered in NYC, her career has consistently extended well beyond Houston Street through collaborations with John Zorn, Butch Morris, Elliot Sharp, Fred Frith, David Moss, Ikue Mori, Jin Hi Kim, Phill Niblock, David Weinstein and an expansive array of others. A November tour took her to Portugal and the UK, before heading home for gigs with old friends Christian Marclay and Anthony Coleman. She’s also preparing for series of literary projects that are putting a whole new spin on spoken word.
JP: Unlike so many artists who were drawn to New York City over the last century, Shelley, you’re a native.
SH: Yes, I was born in Brooklyn. My neighborhood was East New York but when I was 17, I left home and moved to the Lower East Side. Ludlow Street. This was 1969; rent was $60 per month. Moving to Manhattan was a big deal but I had traveled there during high school when I attended the High School of the Arts. I was majoring in Theatre but dropped out after a year when my teacher told me I had no talent for the stage.
JP: And you also lived on the West Coast for a while?
SH: At 18 I moved to San Francisco. I had joined an experimental theatre company not far from Haight-Ashbury. I moved into a kind of mansion with others in the company and some film students. It was in a fancy area and the neighbors started complaining about “hippies”, so we got busted and plans changed. I moved up to Napa for a while, and then in the Valley, where I’d yodel every morning into the mountainside. I was already experimenting with extended vocal techniques and the yodel became another part of that repertoire. The Napa Valley, with its great expanse, inspired it.
JP: But it was common for young people to do this in those years, to travel and experience life. And like other young Americans, this also took you to Europe.
SH: Yes, I moved to Europe to join a Dutch experimental theatre group, but that never worked out. I was living in a squatted loft and met some guys who were singing swing standards and I joined their group. They were actually journalists but sang very well together. I knew these songs from my parents’ records and I began to sing with them in a community space where we’d gather. It was a very political time to be in Europe, lots of activism and very exciting. But I returned to the East Village in 1972 or ‘73 before settling into TriBeCa. I’ve had my loft there since 1976.
JP: Downtown was beginning to brim over with a new kind of creativity by the middle ‘70s. Punk, free improv, new composition, electronics, minimalism, no wave. So much was happening and there was a mass confluence of the arts too. How did this affect your development?
SH: There were many things going on. A remarkable combination of music and art. That time was the best for crossover and so many of us came from one discipline—visual art, film, theatre--and got into music. There was a shifting into different worlds, rather fluidly. I was performing with experimental techniques, using abstract sounds, but then Kirk Nurock, Jay Clayton and I began performing among other improvising groups. A little later Jerome Cooper, Steve McCall and I started working together. We played the Kitchen. I was in awe of (vocalist and guitarist) Arto Lindsay and his work in DNA. Like him, I wanted to abandon notes and sing utterly raw. But I’m a singer, untrained, yes, but I’m a singer. I couldn’t go that route. I have always incorporated spoken word into my music and have had a strong connection to the other arts too. While modeling at the Parsons School of Design, I got to work with many visual artists. Galleries and museums always inspired me.
JP: Did you also maintain your theatre career?
SH: I had to audition for ‘Hair’ six times (laughs). And I was rejected for the lead in ‘Evita’! But theatrical aspects were in my performances, regardless. I was creating characters and portraying them in the songs: old ladies in East New York or Blanche DuBois (ie: “Blanche” by Hirsch and David Weinstein from the 1990 downtown anthology ‘Real Estate’).
JP: In the no wave genre, particularly, it was standard to trade off with other creatives, moving in and out of the disciplines. Free jazz artists were hanging out in the punk clubs, poets were making films…
SH: Lee Ranaldo studied film and came from that world. Lary Seven too. By day, we’d be working in our lofts and at night go out. We often saw James Chance and the Contortions perform, but he was also playing dance clubs with people like Hamiet Bluiett (Chance’s funk band James White & the Blacks included Joseph Bowie and others who’d form Defunkt). I’d been performing with the Public Servants, a rock band, very funky with experimental sounds. Phillip Johnston played soprano and alto saxophones and Dave Sewelson was on bari. Bill Horvitz, whom we recently lost, was the guitarist. Dave Hofstra on bass, Steve Moses was the drummer (later, Richard Dworkin). Others frequently sat in like Wayne Horvitz or John Zorn. We were together from ’79 through ’81, opening for the Slits at Irving Plaza but also playing underground spaces.
JP: Did the Public Servants record or was it just a performing band?
SH: In 1980, we recorded a single, “Jungle Hotel”, which is out of print, but I’m told it’s available on YouTube (it is: )
JP: Can you speak about your first solo LP ‘Singing’?
SH: Samm Bennet (electronic drums, percussion) and David Simons (drums, percussion, prepared guitar, jaw harp, zither) are on this. We recorded it in 1987. A couple of labels have expressed an interest in re-releasing this. But my work is now going into the Downtown Archive of the NYU Fales Library: my recordings, writings, everything.
JP: You have a performance coming up with Anthony Coleman, another original of that downtown scene.
SH: Yes, at Arete Gallery on December 11. We haven’t played together in a long time, so I’m really looking forward to this. We have a long history. Anthony was in Glenn Branca’s group back then and I had a brief period performing with Branca’s band, Theoretical Girls. At one of those gigs, we shared the bill with Gong. Anthony and I were also in Zorn projects together and I had the good fortune to have him in my large-scale works. When this gig arose, I immediately knew I wanted him there. Anthony loved the idea.
JP: And this month you’re also performing with another old friend, Christian Marclay?
SH: We’ve been friends since 1984. Our new work is his conception: Christian doesn’t want to play turntables anymore, so for this UK gig he’s playing his photo images of onomatopoetics, projecting them onstage; he now makes his living as a visual artist, you know. I’m improvising voice and movement and in turn his projections are affected, so this is very interactive. It’s thrilling to find new ways to use language and the voice, with movement generating the levels of consciousness: this then turns into an idea and a word.
JP: That’s quite fascinating. And I understand you’re also part of Issue Project Room’s end-of-season event?
SH: That’s December 15: improvisations with Marcia Bassett (electronics). I relish the opportunity to engage in these different sources. And some time in December will be the release of a new CD I’m looking forward to, “Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans featuring Shelley Hirsch”.
JP: But you’ve been busy in creative writing as well. Can you speak on that?
SH: My literary writing is coming to the forefront now—I was too shy to seek publication before. It’s all authentic as I try not to edit in the traditional sense. Words appear and suddenly take on a significance. Like prosopopoeia: a rhetorical communicative device.
JP: So, sitting down to write literature is not new to you?
SH: I’m currently working on a piece with large sheets of paper covered in my prose, attached to the wall. I read from these and use movement in performing it. To generate thoughts and stories, I listen to the minimal, drone music of Eliane Radigue -- she’s about 80 now; I wanted to collaborate with her, but she refused (laughs)! For stream of consciousness purposes, I’ll also do some live writing. I have a residency in Queens Lab where I’m completing the piece. But I’ve always used creative writing to craft characters for songs. That’s what my 1992 album ‘Oh, Little Town of East New York’ was all about. The characters were inspired by real people in the years I grew up there. I’m blessed to hear from as far away as Siberia, Italy, South America, with listeners telling me how important that record was for them. It reminded them of their own upbringing, the rooms they lived in. It’s autobiographical though I co-composed the music with David Weinstein.
JP: Brooklyn is hard to get out of the soul.
SH: Well, I actually moved to Greenpoint fifteen years ago. I’m very aware of the people who were living there before me. Coming from a blue-collar background, I’m very cognizant of this. People in gentrified neighborhoods often can’t afford to buy at the local stores. Suddenly, all the rules are different. But we need to honor people’s lives, culture, feelings, experiences—they’re here, stored in all of us. The human body is the greatest recorder of all.