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Opening up Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

Jasmine Dreame Wagner is a singular and ephemeral singer/songwriter recording under the moniker of Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. Her debut CD, Vineland, is a collection of fragile songs that begin and meander through creaky fits and starts, marrying pastoral and ambient soundscapes with gentle acoustic guitar strumming and Wagner’s delicate, late-night vocals.

Based in Southbury, CT, Wagner, an Adjunct Professor in creative writing and poetry at Western Connecticut University, has just released her third full-length recording on vinyl, Blue Highways (For Arbors/For Satellites), a collection of sparse, lo-fi recordings that recall Ani Difranco’s nascent recordings but with a touch of the baroque.

There’s plenty of pop and hiss in these recordings to make this a credible entry into the bedroom pop pantheon of artists like Lou Barlow, Kurt Vile or Stephen Jones of Babybird. Wagner’s songs sound at once fragile, but forcefully resilient — she’s no shrinking violet. “The Road,” a laconic and weary beat-driven fuzz guitar anthem showcases Wagner’s multi-tracked vocals. The title track, “Blue Highways” is the strongest and most strident track off the new recording despite its brevity. While her recording of “St. James Infirmary” bears no resemblance to 18th century English folk song, Wagner re-imagines it from the perspective of the ghost.

At first blush, Wagner’s Blue Highways doesn’t deviate from the sound of her earlier recordings, but there’s a certain confidence and swagger to her songwriting abilities and arrangements.

In a recent e-mail exchange with Wagner, the singer-songwriter talks about her process for creating music, her love for old-school analog recording, and her restless desire for movement through travel.

Examiner: Do you embrace a “lo-fi” recording aesthetic, or is that merely a simplistic catch-all label that musicians have to suffer because music critics are appallingly lazy and love to throw art into piles?

JDW: Blue Highways is a “folk” and “lo-fi” record. Alex Reed Wilson (her collaborator on many Cabinet of Curiosities records) and I recorded Blue Highways on our Tascam four and eight-track cassette machines. We recorded the songs that way because the song structures are simple, the set-up was immediate, and the recording didn’t cost us anything. Would we have recorded these songs in a studio if a label were paying the $10,000 (or more)? Sure . . . absolutely! In fact, I’m recording a studio album this spring with a different set of contributors, and it’s going to be different from anything else I’ve ever released.

As for “lo-fi” itself — as a sonic descriptor, it’s evocative of fuzzier, homemade sounds of cassette tape analog recording: simple instrumental arrangements, the warm distortion of the peaking signal, and the gentle midrange hiss of the cassette. There’s a kind of authenticity implied in “lo-fi” recording that seems to be important to musicians (with respect to marketing) these days, a nod to the past where records weren’t glossy, packaged “products” with programmed beats and auto-tuned vocals.

You can hear the room in “lo-fi” recordings – listen for the atmosphere, you can train yourself to hear it. These kinds of details allow a listener a closer look into the artist’s process. If you record in a dead-sound studio room, sure, you can isolate the sound and ultimately have a more pure signal, louder volume, etc., but there there is a charm to listening and hearing how an artist’s environment is present.

The places I’ve lived play a large role in the songs that I write, so it’s only natural that I would like to hear some of those places in my tracks. There are limits to how many tracks you can have and how many effects you can loop in “lo-fi” recording — so you don’t get bogged down with all of the plug-ins and added extras of ProTools. It’s not that I don’t appreciate digital recording programs. There’s a place for them. I’m currently demoing in ProTools right now – I just got a nice computer earlier this year and am finally able to do such things.

Also, I’m not just talking about mainstream pop music when I talk about “auto-tuned packaged products” – most of folk music, the high-end-produced folk music that’s popular these days, has been auto-tuned. You’ll hear it if you really listen.

Our current obsession with “lo-fi” is an indicator of our culture’s attitude towards or lust for authenticity. With so much “product” flooding the market, some artists and marketers will do anything they can to assert that their “product” is the most authentic.

I put “product” in quotes, mostly because thinking about music in terms of being a “product” is gross and creepy to me, and I think it sounds like blogger-speak at a panel discussion at SXSW. The music industry is a business, it’s superficial and focused on the bottom line, like all businesses, and the art comes last. It’s sad that so many artists force a “lo-fi” aesthetic to fit the trend because some guy who majored in music marketing at Berklee tells them it’s a good idea.

Examiner: Talk a little about your discography. What came first and where do they come from?

JDW: Vineland is a full-length CD-R that I released in a limited edition of 250 (five editions of 50) several years ago. The covers were hand-sewn and I eventually put it out of print because I no longer have the time to keep up with burning CD-Rs and sewing flowers and beads and paper. I’m just too busy. Also, it’s important to leave certain moments in the past, and that CD-R represents some of my darkest moments – family and personal health problems, destructive relationships, an apartment infested with bugs, and dull, flat white skies over Brooklyn. I was working at a photo agency and struggling to make my rent and keep my sanity, recovering from a neck injury that had me in physical therapy for six months, a neck brace for three. I had lived in New York for ten years and I needed to find my healthy child-self again, so I was working on these songs and applying to grad school and residencies.

Luckily, I was able to leave Brooklyn for an artist residency in Vermont, and then travel west to graduate school to begin the process of healing. Vineland consisted of tracks from several other CD-R projects made during that time all compiled together in one long listen. These were my first experiments in making music in my bedroom, on my four-track. The tracks are more experimental and more interested in setting a mood — telling a story through sound rather than in the craft of songwriting.

Searchlight Needles was my first “official release.” The covers are hand-printed, but the CD is a real, pressed compact disc. This record was recorded partially in Brooklyn, and partially over the course of a cold winter in Montana — my first year at graduate school. It took a long time, as I had trouble adjusting to the isolation of the landscape and to the competitive nature of the graduate program. I cut the thumb of my left hand very deeply, prior to a fellowship/residency in Nairobi, Kenya for six weeks. While I was there, I was down in the Rift Valley and our camp was evacuated due to flash-flooding. People died in that storm. Our first vehicle got caught in the mud and everyone on the mini-bus had to get out, to dig and push. We were up to our knees in raw sewage, and the cut on my hand became very infected, down to the bone. By the time I got back into the U.S., I almost lost my finger. I was very lucky that I was able to fight the infection, but then I was in hand-therapy for several months in order to help me learn to use it again after the cut healed. It was very traumatic. Recording Searchlight Needles helped me learn to play the guitar again, because the trauma of the injury had left me mentally unable to connect my brain to the flesh of my thumb pad. Once it healed, there was technically nothing causing pain, and I didn’t feel pain exactly, but same area of my brain would freak out if the skin touched anything — a doorknob, my steering wheel, my laptop.

When I met Alex (Reed Wilson) in Montana, we began to play music together. We dated for a long while and moved between several different cities together. I also played drums in his band, Son Cats, which is a loud rock band. Alex liked several of my songs a good deal and expressed that he thought he heard something different in them — something less dark. “For Sparrow” and “Cities” for example, are on Searchlight Needles, but the versions are very different.

When I started playing and touring with Alex on slide guitar, those songs showed their brighter sides — like light coming through clouds. I wanted to make sure we recorded them together because it was a kind of document of our relationship at the time. We’re no longer dating, but I’m glad that we made the record, because I learned many significant things through our collaboration and the time we spent together in the mountains. A real love of the dirt, of the pine trees, of the natural world and the history of blues and folk music really come through (the recording).

Examiner: There’s a suggestion in most of your songs that small things are the essential things we need to get back to — a sort of poetry of universality that can be found in a whisper, or a flower or a memory. This perhaps explains your day job at Western Connecticut State University. Care to talk about the connection between poetry and songwriting as you see it?

JDW: Well, to me, they are of the same language. Some things I write tend to have end-rhymes, or a rhythm that works with a melodic hook. Some things I write are more abstract, they veer from narrative and look for meaning and connection in other ways — philosophical and structural.

My writing process, for either music or poems, is the same either way — I just sit down in front of a page, or in front of my keyboard or guitar, and let what happens happen. The new record I am working on involved an exploration of structure and poetic lyric. These are stronger song structures from previous releases — I want to master the song form the way one can master an understanding of the sonnet form, for example — with lyrics that are important on a personal and universal level. Songs about cities and landfills and the land of plenty sort of thing . . . .

I’m going into the studio in March with a different group of friends, and this record will be louder and more aggressive with a whole different set of textures. I am also working on my first full-length collection of poems, and I think I’m only starting to really break through. I took the entire summer off from writing poems and prose (and music, too, actually) in order to tour for two and a half months and begin to show the world a new voice that I’m capable of. Touring this summer was incredible, and I feel like it can only keep getting better.

Examiner: The title track from Blue Highways is rather melancholic and fragile sounding, but the lyrical imagery and moments in your vocal delivery suggest otherwise. What’s Blue Highways about?

JDW: I mentioned a little bit about some of the places I’ve traveled in recent years. Mostly, my traveling has been touring — when I was in graduate school, I realized that I had to tour as it was something I needed to do. I needed the connection with the outside world, especially living in Montana. There’s a music scene in Missoula, but it’s a small town compared to anywhere else I had ever been. At times, it felt cozy, you can have a very high quality of life there, but at other times I was too suffocated. I’d lived in New York for a decade and missed some of the freedom in anonymity, or the common kindness that occurs in the city.

I actually find New Yorkers to be more kind than the stereotypical small town people, which is not an accurate stereotype. Maybe it’s true, for people who grew up there. They’re generally friendly and supportive of each other, but I wasn’t a native. But as for touring, I love to see the world. There still so many places I want to go. I’ve had people buy my records from various countries in Europe and ask that I tour out there, which is a next step — I say “a” next step, because I’m not sure how soon it will happen. I’m mostly focusing on making this next record.

Blue Highways and “The Road” are about this kind of traveling. They’re also about changing landscapes and how we preserve landscape in memory . . . or memory as a landscape. At my mother’s house, late at night, I can hear the distant rush of the highway. Her house is exactly one mile from the exit ramp, up a hill, around a few corners, and down a long driveway into the trees. I can hear the difference between a tractor trailer hitting its brakes and a pack of cars taking the same slope on the interstate. My mother lives in the woods, so when I was younger and the vegetation was dense, I didn’t hear any of those sounds. The silence was so immediate that I could hear the electricity in the walls . . . or my heartbeat. But now, the trees have been cut down to prep the land for shopping centers and office parks. Some developments have come and remain empty, and ugly, there’s the aesthetic of ugly in suburban commercial architecture. Some would say, aesthetic of economy, because the supplies are cheap and the building brings in tax revenue for the town, but the mansions of the new subdivisions are too big for anyone to purchase since the bubble burst, and no businesses are renting offices in the giant, monolithic shells. There is so much emptiness in the suburbs.

“The Road” and Blue Highways are about that, too. About driving on these highways that have been widened for increasing traffic, or not widened, and riddled with potholes, and we’re staring out at each passing car wondering how we’ve gotten to live so close to each other. We drive so fast and so close to each other in these tiny lanes, we stay in constant contact through social media, phones, we’re strung like a string of pearls when we’re out there on the road — but also, at the same time, we’re so alienated, so separate. We’ve been socialized into living homogenously, while our advertisements insist that we’re unique. What can we do about it?

This story was scheduled to run on October 29th, the day a powerful, early Nor’easter moved through much of the East Coast, knocking out power that would affect millions of residents for nearly a week after. Cabinet of Natural Curiosities plays a benefit for the small press imprint, Black Ocean, on November 19th at Church in Boston, MA.

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