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"My Mother Was a Sharp-Shooter," and Other Revelations From The One And Only Jarboe

The iconic musician and former Swans member talks experimentation, representation, and family.

Courtesy of Jarboe / photo by Chris White for The Sweet Meat Love And Holy Cult

I wasn’t expecting Jarboe to laugh so much. The label “gothic” may do little justice to the sonic diversity of her music, but it goes some way to capturing the often grave seriousness of her work and the weighty subjects it addresses. Her performances tend to be reviewed with epithets such as “fierce”, “tortured” and “beautiful”, but rarely “jolly”. So when listening to her over the phone, it’s delightful to find her answers, already adorned by an amiably long-vowelled Southern accent, regularly self-interrupted by hearty chuckling. Since Swans’ original dissolution in the late 90s, Jarboe has forged her own defiantly idiosyncratic path with a host of solo records and collaborations ranging from minimalist piano works to apocalyptic metal. Her latest album is another joint effort, this time with experimental cellist Alison Chesley, a.k.a. Helen Money. The cello resonates in the same way that a singing voice can, which is why, explains Chesley, the instrument “hits you right in the heart.” The album’s six powerful tracks certainly do that.


Jarboe spoke to me shortly after the duo’s European tour dates. Spoke, at least, when she wasn’t laughing. What’s your favorite track on the album?
"For My Father." ‘Father’ is a metaphor for standing up against oppression and for human rights. All this stuff was circulating in my mind, particularly last fall with all the graphic content and news I was watching about everything that was happening globally, and specifically with the Islamic State and all that stuff. … It was important to perform that song live and it got a great reception. I think people understood the psychology of it. It's not a call to arms, just to take responsibility; to write letters, join Amnesty International, do what you can yourself and the world has to join together and not lay down to terrorists or human rights violations. It's just reminding people that they do have power to do something about what they see around them. You don't just have to read the news and put down the paper and walk away. I combine that with "Cries," which was a song I released first and was then re-done for Swans' Love of Life album. "Cries" is a similar kind of song about fear, disillusionment and the idea that you go through your life and you do something about it or you're just a dead-eyed soul. Your life has come and gone and all you did was grow old. So the whole set seemed to kind of echo this idea of freedom and personal responsibility.


Is freedom achievable?

I think it is through an attitude change. The theme of "Hello Mr. Blue" is one that I've been trying to repeat over and over: that we are not our emotions. You can't be angry or sad or any of these things. They're not you. They're just this chemical combination of things that result in an emotional response. They're gonna pass through you just like everything does. They're temporary. People talk to me after concerts or send me messages about all their problems. It seems people turn to me for this.


And I don't know what to say, except for, “join the club. I understand… But you're not that. That's temporary.” So stop self-identifying to it, because as bad as what you're feeling right now, whether it's a broken heart or you got fired from your job or somebody was mean to you in some way, those emotions are going to pass. Don’t let them bend you out of shape. You're going to realize that you've invested all this energy into emotions which are not real. So "Mr. Blue" is reminding that I'm not going to be attached to this. I'm going to be free. Because I'm free from emotion. You have to do that otherwise you're bouncing around like a clown on a trampoline.

Are some fans a little too intense?

Err, yes. I did an experiment on the 2012 European tour where the song ended with a beautiful, melodic waltz and I wanted to go out and have a one-on-one with everybody, hugging every single member of the audience, and it was interesting to see what that would do. On this 2015 tour, I stayed up on that stage because it was really about the dialogue with Alison; we had to be really locked into each other's performance. But when I was going out into the audience in 2012, yeah, there were some pretty intense moments. I got the idea that I wasn't going to do it again. In particular, I remember this one man who seemed like he was just full of trembling rage or something and I had this weird notion that maybe it wasn't the safest thing to do. You don't know what you're facing. How many drinks they've had or what they've consumed. You don't know what might happen.


Is it true your real father worked for the FBI?

Yes, he did, that's how my parents met. They were both working for the Bureau and they began dating. My mother was a sharp-shooter and they were very much into the whole law enforcement world.

Were they fans of Swans?
Well, my father passed away before I joined Swans. He became ill so he never saw that happen. My mother met Michael Gira, and knew him pretty well. They were really good friends. She was very interested in what I was doing. She wasn't musical herself, my father was the musician in the family. My mother never really understood music, I don’t think. She understood a snappy tune. But she didn't understand what we were doing. I remember playing Swans’ "A Long Slow Screw" video in her house one day and she came into the room and said to me, “what do you call that?! What's he doing? What is that?” I said, “you mean Michael? You mean what is he doing with his voice?” And she goes, “yes, what is that? That's not singing!” [laughs] I didn't know what to say. Her favorite song was Mr. Bojangles. Swans had a reputation for being the loudest band ever. How’s your hearing now?
My hearing is actually rather shockingly good. I hear things your average person doesn't. Very early on I started wearing ear-plugs. I was so worried about the young people in Swans' audiences that I would make a show of going onstage, standing behind my keyboard and then, very dramatically, reaching for my ear-plugs and putting them in. I did this specifically to send a message to the audience that I was hoping they were gonna put them in too. I was trying to make it cool. The last time I saw the current incarnation, or whatever you wanna call it, of Swans in 2011, I talked to them after and every single member of the line-up wears ear-plugs… except Michael! I confronted him about this because I felt at that point I could give him help on a number of things, because I know him so well, or knew him so well. I came right out and said, “what the hell's wrong with you? Why aren't you wearing anything? You're gonna go deaf. This is your livelihood.” He said something like, “it's only when I drop down in front of the amp that I'll feel the pain. I'm either above or below that threshold.” Well, okay! No comment! Stage volume is brutally loud, I know this for a fact, and I hope that everyone who goes to loud shows or plays loud music wears earplugs. I care about my hearing tremendously and would never jeopardize it.


What are you most proud of in your career?

It's hard to pinpoint because there have been so many different chapters. Firstly, getting in Swans to begin with, going up there and having the nerve to get into it, a complete stranger not living in the neighborhood, just going up there from Georgia and getting in it, that was a pretty amazing accomplishment. Like

The Wire

magazine review

said about me

, it's arguable whether Swans would sound anything like they do today without the influence of Jarboe. I really believe this to be true, only because the audio is there, history speaks for itself. If you listen to them before me and then you hear me penetrate, the whole thing suddenly shifts from what it was originally to melody and complex arrangements. I hope that history will recognise that at some point.

Another highlight for me would be touring Eastern Europe before anyone else did in 1987, in Soviet controlled areas where our concerts were illegal and somehow we managed to get in there with our gear across all these borders and do these illegal concerts and were shepherded around by these people who had been professors and doctors but were now street-cleaners. I'm proud to have been invited to a number of museums to perform, as a solo artist. Being recognised for this. And meeting such wonderful people, like my friend Scott Martin who was working with Cameron Crowe, and being able to go out to Hollywood to be in


Vanilla Sky

and hang out with all these legends, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, and then going and meeting, you know, Mick Jagger. Fabulous! That's just the tip of the iceberg, I could keep going.

I've been reading Kim Gordon's autobiography. It struck me that you've both had similar experiences, in a way. It's almost like Kim's career is always overshadowed by Thurston. Is that similar to how, as that Wire review suggested, yours is overshadowed by Michael?

Erm. Yeah…

Because I think what Kim is doing now is better than what Thurston's doing, in the same way that your solo/collaborative work is more impressive than recent Swans music, which for me has become a little two-dimensional or formulaic…

I haven't seen a Swans show since the one I saw in 2011, and I did hear

The Seer

since I was in some way involved with that, but the rest of it I haven't really paid attention to. I've been too busy with my own stuff. I heard, from several different people who live in different parts of the world, that they saw it as too improvisational. They enjoyed it one time but after that they felt it lacked a certain amount of structure or something. That's not my place to judge. Be that as it may, I do agree with the Wire review and I see what you're saying about Kim but I don't wanna sound… for me to even say this is gonna come across as biased, but, being as objective as I possibly can, I do agree with it. I don't know why it is. You just keep on doing it, your path. I've always tried to be about doing the unexpected. I want to be able to perform with whoever. I want to be able to embrace different genres. I want to be someone who is always active, always exploring, always experimenting, always trying something. I don't want to be held down by anything.

But this bit about wider recognition and not being mentioned, which that review said, amen to that! That has been frustrating for me throughout the years. I've often wondered why that is, if it's a certain sexism in the industry. Is it the music writers? Is it the editors of music magazines? Is it the record labels? I mean, who is it? You can't beat yourself up or worry about that too much. You just have to get on with it and, at the end of the day, anyone who cares is going to notice and is going to care.

Well, as you say, history speaks for itself, and long may you continue to experiment.

Thank you. I don't really have a choice at this point. It's how I'm wired!

JR Moores is swanning about on Twitter - @spinal_bap