Tywanna Jo Baskette's Southern-Gothic Rock
Those who appreciate the eccentric yet endearing "outsider" recordings of such artists as Vic Chesnutt, Daniel Johnston and Victoria Williams will welcome the arrival of Tywanna Jo Baskette's debut, Fancy Blue. The album whose songs feature a strong Southern-gothic mix of tragedy and comedy, all sung in a unique and deceptively childlike voice will be released August 12 on producer Dennis Herring's Sweet Tea label.
Nashville-based Baskette is a provocative new artist born in the buckle of the Bible Belt, a place where churches compete in number with strip clubs for the public's attention. A large billboard greets visitors at the airport with "Welcome to Nashville. Home of the World's Largest Adult Book Store." This pious-vs.-pornographic juxtaposition seems oddly appropriate when considering Baskette, for she too embodies a strange duality she is both stunning and spooky.
A former model who has appeared in over 50 music videos shot in the South, Baskette has been working on the periphery of the music business for a decade. In 1998, her then music-video director boyfriend began following her around their apartment with a tape recorder. He was trying to capture the impromptu tunes Baskette frequently whispered to herself. She calls these episodes of spontaneous singing "pass alongs," or "lost thoughts" "songs" are the ones she can remember long enough to write down or record on her hand-held microcassette recorder.
Her history includes a startling number of tragic deaths, which she immortalizes and mourns in her music. Both her adoptive mother and father died of lung cancer, her best friend fell off a cliff, and her ballet teacher of 11 years hanged herself in front of the mirrors at the teacher's dance studio. Two first cousins are serving life sentences without parole for the murder of Grand Ole Opry performer David "Stringbean" Akeman (Bill Monroe's first banjo player) and his wife Estella. One gets the sense when speaking with Baskette that these traumatic incidents are just a part of her troubled life.
With the encouragement "unbearably annoying prodding," she says of her boyfriend, Baskette circulated a song demo around the Nashville music scene, eventually reaching producer Dennis Herring (Counting Crows, Cracker, Buddy Guy). "From the first listen, Ty's music has worked some kind of magic spell on me," Herring was quoted as saying in a recent press release about Baskette's album.
Herring signed Baskette to his new label, Sweet Tea Records, and partnered her with Mississippi musician and producer Clay Jones. When Jones first listened to her demo, he felt as if he had been handed the opportunity of a lifetime. "This is never going to happen to me again," Jones told Nashville's City Paper in 2001. "I'm never going to get a tape in the mail this good if I live for a long time. I'm never going to get the tape of a songwriter who is truly original. This girl is just way over the top, it completely freaked me out."
Together with engineer Ted Gainey and Herring, Jones helped Baskette craft a collection of 19 songs, each autobiographical and each harshly literal, sung from the mouth of what sounds like a shy and deeply troubled schoolgirl. A few of the tracks are essentially spoken-word pieces. Herring describes her style as "SO sad, and SO beautiful-innocently honest."
Though she sounds like a little girl, Baskette is actually 39 years old and not particularly innocent in the naïve or unsophisticated sense of the word. Her approach is matter-of-fact honest, sometimes brutally so. She writes about her life experience in a simple and straightforward style, closer to poetry than narrative. "I sing about what I know, and most of that is sad," she said recently, on the phone from Nashville, trying to explain her "quiet" sound.
When asked to explain one of Fancy Blue's songs, "Little Crazy Daisy," she said simply, "It's just really about a little daisy." "Everything Is Awful," she explained, is about the fact that "everything was awful at that moment" when she wrote the song. Like many artists she does her best to avoid explaining her songs, preferring to let them speak for her. "I think if people pay attention to the lyrics, that's all they really need to know," she told Nashville Scene in 2000.
She spends most of her time alone in her apartment, absorbed in the classics, her favorites written by authors of her native South. Her musical tastes run the same, with a special place in her heart for Dean Martin, who her mother loved listening to. Vic Chesnutt, Ron Sexsmith, Serge Gainsbourg, and M. Ward are a few of her contemporary favorites, and while she is aware of what's up with popular culture and music, she is not much of a fan. She prefers movies from the '50s and '60s, and country music from the same era. "Most of the artists I like and admire are dead," she said.
Baskette has not performed in public for almost two years, and is in no hurry to do so. "I'm terrified!" she said, confessing that she must wear clunky, heavy shoes on stage to keep her knees from rattling. That said, she does plan to tour once her album is released. "I guess I look forward to it," she said, sounding more resigned than enthusiastic.
Despite the depressive nature of her subject matter, melancholy Baskette has managed to diffuse her darkness with both the gentle grace and silly humor of a child. Her songs share with us her memories, at least the ones she has "caught." She sings about her confusion about the world, the details of her life, her (dead or lost) pets, her ubiquitous pain, and occasional joy. Like a precocious child, she whispers out loud things that are uncomfortable to hear. She said she writes about these sad subjects "because I have to get it out," and in doing so perhaps has found a way to cope with the specter of Death that has surrounded her; softly laying these memories to rest in a beautiful, musical place.
For more information, check out her label's Web site. Nicole Cohen [Thursday, July 31, 2003]