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Monday, December 19, 2005

The Kimya Dawson Interview That Never Happened

(Note: This is an interview I wrote at the beginning of 2005 for a monthly magazine. Due to a change in editorship, this story unfortunately fell through the cracks. Still and all, I spent the first half of the year working very hard on the piece, and I felt it would be a shame to keep it hidden in my hard drive until the end of time...so here is the "lost Kimya Dawson interview", so to speak. If you're a fan, I hope you enjoy the story. If you don't know who she is, I highly recommend checking out her web site. Enjoy.

KIMYA DAWSON
[SINGER/SONGWRITER]


“I WANT TO KNOW THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BE PUTTING OUT MY MUSIC. I MEAN REALLY KNOW THEM. I DON’T WANT IT TO BE ALL BUSINESS.”

A good song:
Is about truth.
Doesn’t kiss and tell.
Would make a dead friend smile.
Makes you a better person.

Kimya Dawson's music brings to mind a girl furtively singing into a tape recorder in the middle of the night, with blankets pulled over her head and a flashlight tucked under her pillow. Her music is both funny and mournful, often within the same song. She bares her soul and waxes irreverent in a drowsy tango that channels the fun and intimacy of a twilight slumber party confessional.

Kimya was born and raised in Bedford Hills, where her parents run a day-care center in their home. She was recording as a back-up singer for Ben Kweller and Third Eye Blind when she met Adam Green at a record store in Mount Kisco ten years ago. The two formed the Moldy Peaches, who recorded two albums and opened tours for Tenacious D and The Strokes.

The band became one of the more popular acts in the Anti Folk scene, which grew in the '80s as a series of festivals for to musicians finding themselves turned down in folk clubs for being too loud or too indecorous. Kimya says Anti Folk is simply a bunch of people who like to get together and play music: "The players write songs because the songs are in their souls, and so it is a less competitive scene that is closer to the true spirit of 'folk'."

She and Adam Green each released solo albums in 2002, and since then, she has recorded three more albums on her own. Two stealthily-released records - My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess and Knock Knock Who - were recorded at home and made available only at her shows and on the Web site of the small indie label Important Records. Her latest release, last year's Hidden Vagenda, is a larger affair, in which she took her songs out of her bedroom and into the studio.

Given her upbringing, it's no surprise that Kimya Dawson loves kids. Children's drawings are regularly included in her album art. On her Web journal, she's quick to announce new births in her friends' families. She recently recorded a duet with the sister of Hallie Geier, an 11-year-old who was struck by an SUV and killed last year, and whose family has since formed a foundation for community-based organizations in Hallie's name.

Fans can find Dawson's paintings, books of cartoons and hand-painted bags for sale at her shows and on her Web site. Among her most popular items is a T-shirt featuring her drawing of a kitten sniffing a flower, accompanied by the words "Kimya Dawson Loves Me".

This interview was conducted via e-mail and telephone in early 2005, while Kimya was in the midst of several shows on the East coast. The road coaxes her from beneath the covers, though she still wears bunny costumes when she performs.


I. “IT DOESN’T MATTER IF ANYONE LAUGHS, BECAUSE THEY ARE SONGS.”


THE GLEE CLUB: The first time I heard of Moldy Peaches was in a music magazine, which painted you as this wacky band that dressed up in animal costumes. While there's definitely a silly side to the band, there's also a very serious, thoughtful side. Is it cringe worthy when the band is described like a novelty act or is it just nice to be seen?

KIMYA DAWSON: I think that description was very accurate. I don't think all of our songs are wacky, though. Other than that, it's pretty right on. We didn't want anything, really ‑ we just wanted to be able to write songs and play songs, and have people who wanted to hear our songs hear them. We were never going to be fake to get press or anything like that. None of that stuff is anything to be ashamed of. We were having a great time. We definitely love our costumes.

GC: I read a review of one of your albums in which it said the only other person they could think of who could marry sadness and humor as successfully as you was Richard Pryor. Do you think of yourself as a humorist/musician?

KD: I did stand-up comedy before I became a musician. It's a way I deal with stuff, but I didn't like feeling as if the audience had to feel obligated to laugh at my humor, or like I had to make people laugh. I like that some things some people will get and some things other people will get, and some things no one will get but me. It doesn't matter if anyone laughs, because they are songs.

GC: A lot of your lyrics are about your family, and just from listening to your music, it's really obvious how important your family is to you. How have they reacted to the fact that you're writing songs about them and people are hearing those songs?

KD: It's all true. I think they like that I tell the truth, and that what I do is being me and being honest. My family is very real. My brother writes songs too, and his are about his truth. It's terrific. My mom listens to my CDs at least once a day, and my dad came to my show the other night. My brother has opened for me a bunch of times. They have all sang on my albums, so it's good. They see how writing my songs makes me a better person. I think when someone writes about you, it makes you be a better person, too.

GC: Where do you draw the line between what's private and what's public? Is that ever a problem for you, or do you have that aspect of your writing pretty much in check?

KD: I try not to bad mouth people who aren't politicians. I don't talk about who I make out with. Other than that, I will talk about just about anything.

GC: Are you ever surprised by the way people react to your songwriting?

KD: At first, I was surprised by how many people could relate to what I was singing about. Now I know that there are a lot of people thinking and feeling the same things. It's relieving to know I'm not alone.

GC: From reading your Web site and your online journal, and just from looking at your albums and cover art, it's clear that kids are a big part of what makes you do what you do.

KD: It's weird, because a part of me thinks that I'm doing it for the kids, and another part of me feels like I'm still a kid. It's not like I became a grown-up and saw the artwork that kids were doing and thought, “Oh, I wanna be like them.” I feel like I've always done art the same way. It's not like becoming mature and becoming a kid again. I've always been around a lot of kids my whole life, so I think it helps to not let go of that aspect of your being.


II. “IT’S A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE EVERY DAY TRYING TO CHANGE THE MUSIC IN MY CAR.”


GC: Do you ever get kind of a weird vibe from people when you talk about enjoying something, like rooting for someone on American Idol, when you're thought of as this indie folk artist from a close-knit community of artists? A lot of people seem to think it's either/or. Either you're 100% part of the mainstream, or you have to rail against it completely.

KD: I don't think they're the same universe. I think that what I do and what that is are two different things. All of that is pure entertainment. I respect that for what it is. Well, not the business of it. I don't respect the business of entertainment, but I respect entertainment. I don't like the way radio is controlled, but I like pop music. I like going to dance parties and I like watching people sing at karaoke. I want to be entertained. I want to hear stuff that's fun. I want to watch stuff that's fun. I feel like if someone wrote something that's from their own heart and they're going on a TV show and being judged, I'd hate it. But they're singing other people's songs. It's just silly shit, you know?

GC: You had Daniel Johnston on your last album. How did that happen?

KD: I played a bunch of shows with Daniel and I toured with him a little, and we get along really, really well. We like each other's stuff. Basically, I just called our mutual friend who works with Daniel a lot, and asked if Daniel could sing on this song. We called him and just recorded him over the phone.

GC: There are a lot of people who call Daniel Johnston an outsider artist, but then there are others who say no, it's folk music.

KD: Yeah, I think it's just folk songs. I think if people didn't know anything about his emotional state ‑ if people never met him or saw pictures of him and just heard the songs ‑ they're just folk songs. They're really well constructed, emotional, pure folk songs. I think it's just because people know about him that they call it outsider music.

GC: Do you think “outsider music” is a dangerous label?

KD: It's one of those things where people take different things different ways. So on one hand, there are people who are turned off by a term like “outsider music”, but on the other hand there are people who are like, “Ooh, wow ‑ outsider music!” I think labels in general put you in a weird position. Who will even give what you do a chance?

GC: What have you been listening to recently?

KD: I'm an obsessive-compulsive music listener. I just did a bunch of shows with Jason Anderson, and he gave me his CDs. His shows were totally mind-blowing, so I've been going crazy listening to him. Also, I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of kids in Bloomington, Indiana who run a little label called Planet X. They have a bunch of bands like Ghost Mice, and a kid who I'm going on tour with this spring. Just a bunch of cool little folky, punk-type bands. It's funny, I just put iTunes on my computer for the first time, so I've been putting a lot of my CDs into the computer, and I'm hoping that at some point before I go on tour I can get an iPod. Part of me is against it, but another part of me tours 75% of the year, so it's really hard to have my music collection with me. I always have to pick and choose, and I drive myself to shows so I have CDs all over the car and it's a near-death experience every day trying to change the music in my car.

GC: I see everyone with the white earphones, and part of me says, “I don't want to be ubiquitous!” And another part of me says, “But I want 10,000 songs on me at all times!”

KD: I've got hundreds of records, and I'd love if I had the kind of life where I could sit around and listen only to vinyl. I do have a portable battery-operated record player in my car, and I have a box of records. When I stop places, I can listen to records. It’s like, I didn't want to be on Friendster, and I didn't want to get a cellphone, but it's all stuff that's made my life a little bit easier to manage, living the way I do.


III. “NOT EVERYTHING’S IN TOWER RECORDS.”


GC: Being on the road 75% of the year, do you tend to write more when you travel?

KD: It's hard for me to write when I'm not at home, but I can do it a little bit. Also, I spent so much time working on my last record that I took a break from writing for a while, which I think is normal. Then I started thinking, “Oh my God, I'm never going to be able to write songs again!” But now, all of a sudden, I'm writing songs again and they're just pouring out of me. I haven't had the patience to make another album, so I just keep putting them on my Web site.

GC: That's another thing - I thought that you only had two albums, but it turns out there are four out there.

KD: Yeah.

GC: Two of them have been really hard for me to find.

KD: Those are on a really tiny label that just got better distribution. They're still not easy to find, but what's really neat about it is that if people really want them, they can either get them at my shows or they can get them at the label Web site. It's really cool because there are so many weird things on the label, that I like for people to actually go and see what this little community is that I'm a part of. The label (Important Records) is out of middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Here's this guy who likes what I do enough to put my records out, so you can check out the other stuff that he likes. His wife just had a baby yesterday. You can go see the picture of the baby. And a year ago, they found a box full of kittens and they decided to keep them. They have pictures from when they were just dirty little kittens in a box until now, where they're all big, full-grown cats. I like that kind of personal involvement. It's nice. Not everything's in Tower Records. You have to work a little bit to find the stuff.

GC: So you don't really sweat the distribution, as long as you have that kind of relationship. And it's true - when I went to their site to look for your albums, I started looking at all kinds of albums by artists I'd never heard of.

KD: They have some Daniel Johnston side projects, and some weird noise bands from strange places - all kinds of neat stuff. Sometimes people complain that they can't order things over the Internet, and I tell them they can just put a ten dollar bill in an envelope and send it. [Laughs] That's what I like about Planet X records - it's a mail order label, and he doesn't take orders over the Internet. You have to write him a letter and tell him what you want. He opens every letter and reads it and puts together the package for you. I know that with some labels, because of the demand, they can't be that personal all the time. But I think it's really special when it can be.

GC: When I was looking for those two albums of yours at the Important Records site, I was a little flabbergasted. When I selected the CDs, I got an e-mail from them and we started corresponding about your music. At first, I wondered if it was just a really smart automated response, or if these people were really that involved with their customers.

KD: John at Important Records makes my T-shirts. He has a big silk-screening set-up in his basement, and he hand-screens all the shirts for the people on his label. I sell a lot of shirts, so for the last batch I went up to his house and I silk-screened them myself. I was supposed to go yesterday and make some more, but, you know - they just had a baby, so they got the day off. [Laughs] When I was on tour with Daniel Johnston, we all went to a dairy farm and hung out, and wandered around in different towns in New England. It's really nice to be friends with the people who put out your stuff. It's like that with K Records, too. I want to know the people who will be putting out my music. I mean really know them. I don't want it to be all business.


IV. “THIS ONE’S FOR MY CHEESY HIPPIE ROCKER FRIEND WHO DIED.”


GC: So when you put your music together, what's your process like?

KD: A lot of the time, the music and the words come together. I was just thinking about that, because today I'm working on something new, and knowing that I have a show tonight, I've been tape recording every couple of lines, which I don't always do. I don't usually write my words down, because it's harder for me to memorize them. I usually just repeat it in my head over and over. But today, I've been more aware of the fact that I'm writing a song. Usually I don't think about it. I don't ever think about the structure when I'm making the song. It all just kind of comes out.

GC: You said a while back that you'd like to try recording a really produced-sounding album and name it Buy My Real CDs From Me Directly. Do you think that'll ever happen? I'd love to hear you go all glossy-disco-poppy for one album, then throw everyone for a loop by going right back to your 4-track bedroom recordings.

KD: I tried! Hidden Vagenda is a big production studio album with members of Third Eye Blind and Vanessa Carlton and Brain Mantia and Joe Gore on it. It still sounds like me ‑ I couldn't let it go too far, and no one wanted it to. Everyone just added to the me-ness of it, instead of trying to make it like them.

GC: You re-recorded your song "Anthrax" on your latest album, which you'd already put on a previous record. What made you want to re-do that song?

KD: I wrote that song right after September 11th. We had a Moldy Peaches tour scheduled, and we were going on tour with The Strokes and had to leave that month. Everyone was wondering if we were going to do the tour or if it was going to be canceled. Everyone was freaked out and didn't know what was happening. Then, we agreed that the best thing for everyone, for the country at large, would be to just play music. People would just feel better if they could come out and see the show, instead of sitting at home and feeling like all good stuff is called off because of this horrible thing that happened. Then Adam got tendonitis in his wrist and couldn't play anymore, so we hired our friend Aaron Wilkinson to come on tour with us and play for Adam. Within the first week of the tour, like it says in the song, our van was broken into and our stuff was stolen. So we just sat up in the hotel all night and talked about what it meant. We just cried about our stuff for a while, and we talked about being grateful and appreciating everything that we have. A week after that, I went to Seattle and learned that my friend Gabe had died of a drug overdose - he's the “angel named Gabriel” in the song. There's just a lot that happened on that tour that's in the song. Sitting on the bank of the Mississippi River with Julian from The Strokes, talking about what we're doing, and what does what we do mean in the big scheme of things, and what does it mean to be judged by people who don't know you ‑ because they were just starting to get huge. It's just a lot about dealing with yourself on the planet. So I put that on my third album. Then, about a year and a half ago, Aaron died of a drug overdose. A lot of the time on that tour, we just listened to a lot of cheesy power ballads, driving through Wyoming listening to crazy solos ‑ so I thought it would be nice to get a lot of his closest friends together and do a really rippin' version of that song. Part of me knows that there are people will ask why I did that, because it was good the way it was. But it isn't for you or for me. This one's for my cheesy hippie rocker friend who died. This one's for Gabe and Aaron, and I don't want it to sound sad and pathetic.

GC: I want to let you get back to writing your song. Is there anything that you don't get asked in interviews that you wish you did get asked?

KD: Something has been on my mind a lot lately. I hang out with a lot of circles of musicians who are on different levels of playing music. And I have done a lot of really big tours, and now I'm doing mostly house party tours. I think that sometimes people think that I must really miss playing in big clubs. I’d like to make it clear that I don't like to do things any other way than the way I'm doing them. I really love going to different towns and meeting kids and making friends. I'm really happy where I am, and it's a really ideal situation for me. Nobody should feel sorry for me, because I chose to do it this way. I don't know if that sounds stupid.

GC: It doesn't sound stupid at all. So where are you right now?

KD: I'll be in the middle of a big tour this spring, but if anyone wants to see me, check my Web site. A lot of shows I play aren't really the kinds of shows you'll see in the paper. I get e-mails from people all the time asking, “When are you coming to LA?” I've been to LA six times in the past year, but you don't know because I've been playing outside of a coffee shop.

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