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Jarboe's Many Voices

On last year's collaboration with the experimental metal band Neurosis, Jarboe, the iconic female half of post-punk's Swans, careens from banshee wails to gentle caresses, from fragility to unleashed, unadulterated fury. As in her earlier work — with Swans, with World of Skin, on solo albums including 1998's Anhedoniac, and in collaborations with more than 50 other artists — there is nothing held back, nothing calculated. When the album's 11:25-minute closing cut, "Seizure," finishes with Jarboe whispering "I'm ready" over and over again, it is a mesmerizing ritual closer to spiritual purification than any form of entertainment.

"That song was kind of a tribute to Neurosis and to rock itself," Jarboe explained in a recent phone interview. "It's almost like a pagan approach, where you're having a ceremony, and these musicians are singing to the spirits to come down. That's the way I feel about the stage and the way that I feel about music. Where you're like: here I am now. Come take me. That's what you're saying to the audience, and that's what you're saying to the experience of music itself."

As we spoke, Jarboe was walking, making her usual nine-mile circuit of the hiking trails in her current hometown of Atlanta. Normally she runs the whole distance. Tonight, in deference to our phone interview, she had slowed to a power stride, and she was, as far as I could tell, not even breathing hard. "I found a correlation, when I went on tour with the Italian band Larson — much to my shock, because I wasn't expecting it. But running has a side effect of massive lung power, increased lung capacity," she said. "I found that after I started running, I could hold notes ridiculously. It was at the point where I could have kept on going, but we had to go ahead and do the song."

Jarboe said that live concerts demand all the stamina and lungpower she can muster. "It's very athletic, my vocal delivery," she said. For example, "Within," the first track off Neurosis and Jarboe, requires her voice to rise above the band's dual tribal drums, break into a sustained pant, then sing to one of the record's most gentle, quiet piano melodies. And then it starts again. She remembered, "When I did those vocals live in the studio, the engineer was amazed that I hadn't hyperventilated."

The combination of Jarboe's often ethereal, ghostly voice with Neurosis' darktoned guitars and lumberingly powerful percussion is one where opposites truly complement one another. Jarboe said she recognized her kinship with Neurosis years ago when she first heard their music on a college radio station.

"There was something about it that resonated ... it reminded me of some of the tapestries that we were doing on some of the songs on Children of God or even Holy Money ... with those choir-like female vocals that they do live. There was just a sense of kind of a ceremonial approach to rock, kind of an epic quality to it," she said.

After several years of intermittent contact and mutual appreciation, she and Neurosis finally found time to work together in 2003. The music Jarboe has written with the band is as emotionally challenging as it is physically demanding, drawing its subject matter from the deepest kind of personal experience. "His Last Words" deals with the mental unraveling and death of Jarboe's father.

"My father was this incredible scholar and he died of a brain tumor," she said. "He died of cancer in the brain, so his memory went and all that ... so that song has kind of been in me for a long time, lyrically, and again, it seemed that it was calling out for those words.

Another song, "Receive," was written about her mother, who passed away last November, and includes a Hail Mary, her mother's favorite prayer.

Jarboe first emerged on the musical scene in the mid-1980s, joining Michael Gira in Swans and becoming, for 14 years, his partner in personal life as well. In 1991, she released her first solo album, Thirteen Masks, an eclectic mix of wildly different musical styles that set the tone for later releases. "There would be something really intimate, like the first track, 'Listen,' which has all these chimes and breathy vocals, slammed right against Jim Thirlwell's kind of hip-hop-meets-heavy-metal remix of a song called 'Red,'" Jarboe said. "People were really freaked out by it."

She followed in 1993 with Beautiful People Ltd., a lo-fi collaboration with Larry Southern, and in 1998 with her milestone Anhedoniac, which brutally chronicled the fallout from her split with Gira. "Anhedonia is a term for the inability to experience pleasure — you're sort of an anti-hedonist — and I really became one over both of those years," she said, remembering that she lost nearly 12 pounds and the will to do nearly anything. A chance conversation with visual artist Alice Nesbit led her to seek an outlet in work, resulting in what many people believe is still her finest album.

Jarboe says she still can't listen to Anhedoniac without crying, and indeed, its power comes from the unfiltered emotions it conveys. "I tried to record it to make an honest statement, and I think it had its effect on some other people. But certainly it's not for the squeamish or the mild-mannered. It's for people that have really been in this psychological state."

Her first three solo albums are being reissued by Atavistic. Thirteen Masks is already available, Beautiful People Ltd. will be re-released on October 19, with Mystery of Faith out next year. Jarboe is putting the final touches on Men, an album of collaborations with such artists as Iva Davies (of Icehouse and composer of the film score for Master and Commander), Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), Alan Sparhawk (Low) and Chris Connelly (Ministry, Revolting Cocks), among others. She has another solo album in the works and will be performing at New York's P.S. 122 this fall, and with Genesis P-Orridge at a transgender festival in Phoenix, Arizona in October. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, September 13, 2004]

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