Baby Dee: The Song of Self Acceptance

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.

13 Responses to “Baby Dee: The Song of Self Acceptance”

  1. La Môme Néant Says:

    Thank you, Coilhouse. This is a happy discover to me!

  2. tymcode Says:

    I once knew Antony before he moved to New York. He influenced me a lot when I was a baby goth hanging out at a café in Campbell, CA called the Upstart Crow (that place should be on my what made me weird list — RIP). He was always good for inspiring little pearls like “I don’t think of myself as heterosexual, or homosexual, or bisexual, or pansexual — just sexual.”

    So I was very enthusiastic when I discovered his CD’s by reading review in Spin or somewhere, and bought every one I could find.

    I can’t stand them.

    I’ve never been able to tolerate any of them, especially the debut, long enough to listen for Baby Dee. But I’ll probably keep buying his CD’s for some reason.

    –Mike Jennings

  3. gooby Says:

    I’d heard of her, and heard her in the Curent 93 stuff, but never seen her or knew she had solo stuff? That pic at the top is jealous making! I like that she went from being the director of a Catholic choir to being an accordion heaving he/she at Coney Island, inspires me to make the jump!

  4. Mer Says:

    Mike, I know plenty of folks who find Antony’s music hard to ingest. Although I love it for its thoughtful singularity, I can see how it would be off-putting.
    Baby Dee’s another sort of singular… she’s just this timeless, genuine anomaly. A chaotic-good elfin bard for the real world!
    Goo, do you have pics of your own bilateral hemaphrodite costume? I wanna see.

  5. Milly von Hilly Says:

    I learned something today! Thanks, Mer.

  6. Nadya Says:

    Wow! I’ve heard of her before, but in legend! Friends telling friends about this mythical person they’ve seen – in the park, on the street, etc. I must quiz my NY friends about this more.

  7. Ben Morris Says:

    The video interview link is especially great, and the best part is definitely her maniacal laughter, the gleeful mischievousness of it.

  8. gooby Says:

    oooh! I forgot- I DO got that pic!

  9. Nadya Says:

    gooby: That’s hot.

  10. Bunny Says:

    Baby Deeee!! Liked her in Current 93… LOVED her in person. Truly beautiful, hilarious, heartbreaking, and just generally neat.
    Gooby, you look like a Batman villan in that pic… thats a good thing.

  11. gooby Says:

    Bunny, yeah, its like two face fell into a vat of estrogenic acid

  12. sxip shirey Says:

    I am a huge fan and friend of Dee. It’s like being friends with Nina Simone. I am very moved by music but don’t usually physically cry to it, when I listen to to it. When I first listened to Dee’s album “Loves Small Song”, I just sat their and wept. It was so beautiful and so moving. Now that I’m writing, this I realize I was listening to it in her apartment. I rented her crazy tiny West Village basement apartment when I first moved to NYC, after getting off the road with The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. The album is one of the truly great albums of song. It needs to have someone re-release it. seriously. It’s two discs, one of them is just bird songs from Dee’s mother’s back yard. The same track plays underneath the CD with songs which gives you a sense that there are birds always singing in your world. The album is brilliant, actually brilliant.

  13. Mer Says:

    Awww, Sxip. I remember when you lived at Dee’s place! Actually, I’m pretty sure I hung out there with Brian Matthews long before you and I met… I think he was subletting your rental?

    She is such an amazing talent, and “Love’s Small Song” fills my heart with light and joy. Coilhouse really needs to do a print magazine feature on her at some point. She actually came up at length in a recent interview I did with Nils Frykdahl. :)