Dee is an unknown superstar, casting songs like blessings… She is one of the most remarkable and unclassifiable artists I have ever encountered. Muse, manic, maniac, possessed by such beauty and pain, so intensely real and yet so mythical. Songster, trickster, breaker of hearts, with songs so cruel and kind that it leaves me spinning.
–David Tibet of Current 93
A gusty spring evening in Manhattan in the late 90s. It’s sort of dead in the East Village, not a lot of people out. I’m sitting at some sidewalk cafe nursing a hangover when I hear the distant wheeze of an accordion and this implacable, warbling voice. At first I figure it’s music on the cafe stereo so I don’t look up, but I’m thinking… who on earth does that vocalist remind me of? Mel Torme? Biff Rose? My great auntie? Such an oddly comforting sound. Gradually it dawns on me that the music is actually coming from up the street and getting louder. I finally look up from my cappuccino to see this wild-haired, cat-faced lady gliding up to the curb, perched 12 feet in the air on a custom-built tricycle with an enormous gilded harp lashed to the back.
She parks her trike next to a Harley Davidson, carefully dismounts with her accordion and croons a sad, sweetly funny song about a sailor… or a girl… a small crowd gathers, beaming her beatific smile back at her. At the end of her ditty she graciously curtsies, accepting coins and small bills from all of us, then gets back on her tricycle and pedals away, cackling insanely. She is an irresistible creature. The cheers and applause continue long after her waving form has disappeared around the corner.
Fast forward a couple of years. A band called Antony and the Johnsons is taking the city by storm, and I recognize the harpist by her contagious cackle. Her name is Baby Dee, and apparently she’s made it her life’s calling to charm the pantaloons off everyone she meets, including Will Oldham, Michael Gira, Marc Almond and David Tibet, the last of whom started releasing Dee’s solo albums on his record label Durtro a few years ago.
I still have trouble describing Baby Dee’s voice and music accurately. She draws inevitable comparisons to Antony, Kiki & Herb, Tom Waits, even Joanna Newsom, but none of those really fit.
What I can say with certainty is that the inherent level of sincerity and honesty in everything she does seems nigh impossible to achieve nowadays, let alone sustain. But she has! Whether she’s barreling into a nightclub belting out dirty limericks atop her new “mini-trike” or bowing her head over the piano keys to whisper some vulnerable truth, Baby Dee is unmistakably real. She is herself.
Her new album Safe Inside the Day comes out next month on Drag City.