Dayna Kurtz’s earball is not for everybody, but may be just right for you
Dayna Kurtz is of two worlds.
She has her Vermont farm, where last week she was harvesting the pumpkins and drying the garlic. It’s a landscape for work clothes and listening to her introvert side. “When I go to Vermont,” Kurtz says, “I look for excuses not to go to the grocery store.”
Her other world is New Orleans. There, she says, “I wear flowery, femmy dresses, and walk like a woman. And I go dancing.
“They’re kind of two different parts of my personality, you know? The people who are drawn to the country and the people who are drawn to the cities are kind of my people.”
What’s the connection?
“New Orleans and Vermont are full of misfit toys,” she says. “That’s something they have in common, are people that don’t work in the real world very well.”
So where does Rochester fit in on the Kurtz scale? She’s been here a couple of times, so we must be OK enough. She played a house concert up by Durand Eastman Park a few years ago. And she performed at this year's Rochester International Jazz Festival. Please humor me as I repeat some words that I wrote after that show at The Little Theatre:
Kurtz has a big, heartbreaker voice that suits the lovelorn atmosphere of her songs. In a relaxed and chatty second show, she took requests for brilliantly emotional pieces such as “It’s How You Hold Me” and the surrealistic “Venezuela,” whose torn love and paper heart in a rib cage imagery came to her in a dream.
But she also has a sly and sometimes wicked humor, asking, “What would Jesus say?” of white evangelical Christians who want to mold the world in their own image.
That should be enough to get you out to Kurtz’s 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18 return to The Little. I could make an easy workday of this and stop typing right here.
But there is so much more to Kurtz. Her conversation ranges from the artistic relevance of Dinah Washington to David Byrne to Katrina and the Waves and their “Walking on Sunshine,” a song you will remember if you were watching MTV in 1985.
And beneath the dichotomy of Vermont and New Orleans is a suppressed layer that, Kurtz says, makes her “deeply uncomfortable.” Suburbs, the land of indoor malls. Like the New Jersey suburb where she grew up. Territory that is “aggressively conformist,” she says. “And I was such a weirdo, it was like I had a target on my back.”
Kurtz writes most of her own songs, although she insists, “I have more of a soul of an archivist.” She is what she calls “a crate digger.” Someone who paws her way through crates of vinyl albums at a garage sale. “I’m a crate-digger, too,” she says. “But I know people who… it’s their life.”
It’s music as time travel.
“I have friends who are obsessives about certain periods of time in history,” Kurtz says, “and they’re always keeping an earball out for me.”
Earball. How do you like that jargon?
“Like, some of them are into R&B, and some of them are into jazz, and some of them are into that sort of smooth jazz pop,” Kurtz says. “I know somebody whose obsession is post-war Los Angeles. You now, like that period of time in LA when, you know, the Great Migration had a lot of Black people coming from the South and relocating in Northern cities. And the people who relocated from Texas and Louisiana to Southern California in the late ’40s were, like, Ray Charles and Floyd Dixon and Dinah Washington.”
You’re eavesdropping on a musicology conversation ...
“And they were part of the scene that, you know, was before blues and jazz and R&B were kind of delineated. And it was this kind of late-night cocktail, jazz combo that was also like a lot of blues and R&B.
“When you kind of couldn’t tell if it was R&B or jazz. It was this easygoing, sing the dance song kind of thing. Ruth Brown, Charles Brown was part of that.”
So her two “Secret Canon” albums are mostly gems raked from the catalogs of Floyd Dixon and even Isaac Hayes. And a whole lot of jazz and blues musicians you’ve likely never heard of. Crate creatures. But not limited to them.
Kurtz also has a side project, Lulu and the Broadsides. Rock and roll, proto-punk garage from the ’60s. Yet informed by the roots music of decades ago, a time Kurtz defines as “the most interesting time in American history.”
“The thing that I like so much about 1947 to 1962 musically is that, every American form of art, in my opinion, was kind of at its zenith,” she says. “Like, country music was best then. To me, you know? Jazz was at its best. Rock and roll was at its best. And there were much, much fewer lines between them. And radio stations. You listen to a radio show from that era, they’ll play Dinah Washington next to ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’ It was before everything was so completely separated by genre.”
She speaks of the blending of genres as working alongside the regional color of the era. “You can hear the difference between Texas swing and Chicago swing,” Kurtz says.
“Our musical hegemony happened because of a whole bunch of really interesting confluences, not all of them pleasant. A lot of them had to do with slavery and segregation. It was just this particular soup.”
The music that emerged was a soup of storefront labels in every town in America, she says, “recording local color.”
“There’s no repeating that. Right now, I’m sure there’s probably more interesting rock and roll coming out of Tanzania, you know, than there is in America. We’re done. Our time of golden dominance, and this very particular form of colonialism, the melting pot-ism of colonialism that became what America is, our time is kind of done, for whatever reason.”
Yet Kurtz insists she hasn’t given up on us. She talks about trying to “connect joy to music that isn’t shallow.”
And that’s when she mentions “Walking on Sunshine.”
“It imparts a mood so perfectly, there’s only one reaction you’re going to have when you hear that song,” Kurtz says. “Perfect bubblegum.”
But life? It’s not perfect. So she’ll settle for “even a sad song that brings joy.”
“And New Orleanians do that really well,” she says. “Life and death are kind of present, near the surface, to everything in New Orleans.”
Also, there’s that dichotomy again.
“And so I finally figured that out, I had this band that people were dancing to, and it made me so happy,” Kurtz says. “And then we had this shutdown, and everybody got very internal. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been writing depressing internal, singer-songwriter fare for decades. And right as I’m finally, like, bottling joy for myself … the COVID.”
Kurtz suggests that songwriters have had two reactions to the pandemic shutdown. They write songs. Or freeze artistically. She was the latter. “OK, the gods are telling me to grow garlic,” she says. “And pumpkins, for a little while, until I figure it out.”
Now she’s back to tilling the songwriting soil. Including one about her drummer, Carlo Nuccio, who died in August.
“I still have sad songs in me,” she says. “Life is life, sad things happen, drummers die, friends die. Relationships end and begin or get scary, whatever.”
Despite all this musing on past music and sadness, Kurtz can hear what’s already here, and what’s coming. She suggests David Byrne. “He’s just naturally reaching toward the future,” she says. “Of course he’s going to experiment with loops early.”
But for Kurtz, “I want nothing to do with computer-generated beats. Like, it really bothered me for a long time. And the person who wound up changing that for me was Prince.”
Change, perhaps, yet not enough. Kurtz remains liberal at heart, she says, but conservative in her musical tastes.
“People who are trying to be current or marketable, they sound like they’re trying to be marketable,” she says.
“I’m not for everybody.”
No, just for those with an appreciation for “depressive, sentimental, romantic” moods. Maybe something that, in that review from 2020, I suggested might have been the most captivating song lyric of the entire Rochester Jazz Festival:
I don’t think you’re right in the head, but I think you’re just right for me.
Yes, not for everybody. Kurtz comes from a place where, as she says, “the heartbeat isn’t metronomic.”