INTERVIEW with ALAIN SUCCA
BIG BANG MAGAZINE, France
September, 2019 (Interview in French here)
Hello Emily, we met on the release of the fabulous Angel's Abacus in 2007. Since then, we are following with a great attention your record production, and the album Exchange in 2008 has also been unanimously appreciated among us. From the beginning, you had created your own label DemiVox, to have more independence in the creative process. Despite this, for 8 years, since the album Fooled by Yesterday, which besides, with one exception, was more a patchwork of improvisations on keyboards and jazz standards than a real collection of new pieces, we had no more real news from you. What has happened during all these years?
Yes, it has been a long time since I’ve released a full album of original songs and I can tell you that I have had an exciting and fulfilling near-decade of life since then. Though I couldn’t have predicted that I would choose to explore a completely different life path in my middle age years, I did make a bold change and stepped away from my music career for a while. After I released Exchange in 2008, I admit that I lost some motivation to continue knocking at doors, trying to ask for help in finding an audience for my in-between music. It became exhausting and frustrating, and I was ready to try something else, where I could apply all the mental discipline and precision that I try to bring to my music. As you might guess, I am always in search of a good puzzle to solve!
My father is a chemist, so I’ve always been attracted to science and fascinated by physiology and neuroscience. I had an opportunity to take some courses in epidemiology and clinical research and then was lucky to find a job working as a research manager within California’s department of Public Health. We were studying the health outcomes of babies with a particular congenital disorder and you know, I found many very important and helpful articles from research studies that had been done in France! I know you are a biologist yourself Alain, so you will understand and appreciate my respect for French biomedical research. You have been pioneers, for sure! My California work project ended at about the same time that I made the decision to move closer to my family in Virginia, but my science story is not over yet, as I hope to continue working in research in the coming years, where and when to be determined.
You probably know that what is now true for me and for most independent musicians in the digital streaming age of Spotify, is that making and releasing an album is a luxury purchase for us. The costs, in both money and time spent, are spent out of love for the music and for the listeners we want to share our music with, but these costs will never be recovered. There are pages and hours of discussion about these facts available to read and hear, but for me, the simple fact is that I can’t make albums fast or frequently because I need the time to work to support myself. And I feel very lucky to have found some other work to do that I enjoy, and am happy with my choices and the compromises I’ve made to be able to somehow keep myself open to creative inspiration. I know that I will continue to find a way to write and record music from here on out, and I’m grateful every day for the listeners who choose to support me by purchasing my albums and spreading the word!
In the world in general and the world of music in particular, which fact, event, change has more marked you in the last 10 years?
Like everyone else around the world, I was horrified by our 2016 Presidential election and the ensuing political turmoil that has paralyzed and divided our country. The only positive outcome has been an energetic mobilization of the Democratic resistance here and I’m hopeful for a return to sanity and compassion in government within the next few years!
But in truth, I’ve been more profoundly transformed by personal and family changes than I have been by global events in the last decade. In 2016 my son graduated from high school and left home to go to college, which was a bittersweet moment for me as I knew I would miss him so much. But I was proud to see him blossom into an amazingly confident and well-adjusted person and he is very happy in his college life, so I am at peace with the transition. The song “Frontier” on this album was actually written about him and his high school girlfriend in their senior year of high school, as they approached the time when they’d be leaving each other to go off on their own paths. As a parent, witnessing your child fall in love for the first time is a powerful thing and I wanted to write some kind of memorial to them.
Also, I lost my mother in 2017, which was my first very close experience with death. You may know how it feels to cross that line. When a parent dies, one full circle closes and you take their memory, their legacy into the future with you and finally understand how little time we have here before we will pass our own legacy along to our children. My mother was very supportive of my music all my life and I felt her encouraging presence throughout the recording of this album, which I have dedicated to her memory.
And though it feels insignificant compared to my personal changes, in the music world I’ve been most impressed by the explosion of “beyond genre” American modern classical music in the last decade, especially coming out of New York City and the record label New Amsterdam Records. Classical-rock-jazz-electronic fusion has finally become the leading edge of contemporary classical music in the USA, even more so than in Europe, and I hope that young composers here will be given opportunities at our best orchestras and Opera houses to help expand younger audiences and keep these institutions alive. Even though I know my own music has veered so far away from my classical roots, somehow I still do feel most at home when listening to classical music and I’m excited to see the evolution taking place.
On the artistic side, did you have difficulties to develop, finalize and publish your new album or have you become even more perfectionist or at least, more demanding to reproduce the sound and concepts you had in mind and the fundamental identity that you were looking for each track?
Creating an album is always a long journey for me, and though I am somewhat of a perfectionist, through experience I’ve learned how to make compromises very early in the recording process so that I rarely have big disasters later on. I think the hardest part of finishing this album might have been the first decisions about which songs to give to the band! Even though I had not performed much since 2011, I was always writing and took myself on several solo artistic retreats in order to give myself long days of focused time away from home and my job. So by the time I arrived in Virginia in 2017, I had many songs completed, or nearly completed, and I then had to put on my Editor’s hat and make some difficult decisions about which songs to record.
There were songs that I liked musically, but I didn’t feel like they fit the spirit of the of the developing album, so I put them aside…maybe for later, who knows. When I finally had selected the songs and made demos of them for the musicians, then the production process got a bit easier for a while as I could pass some of the work along to others! Yes, I did do quite a bit of driving around for this album, between my home in Roanoke and Charlottesville and Nashville. But most of the piano, vocal and guitar recording was done here in my house, so in many ways, this was the most relaxed I have ever been during a recording process. I was able to perform at my own pace, and only on the days that I felt truly in the mood to capture the songs when I was at my musical best.
I would say that the most challenging aspect of producing this album was integrating the electric guitars with the piano and the synth sounds, but that has always been a careful and slow process for me. Keyboards and guitars can be brilliantly complementary, or they can cancel each other out in a thick mess because they live in the same frequency ranges!
When you started the album Out of the Moment, did you have an idea, a precise direction? Did you know what you wanted to do with it? If so, did you get it finally? If no, can you explain why?
I did know early on that I wanted to make an album that was somewhat more compositionally accessible and less dark than Exchange, but I wasn’t yet sure what the balance of electronic to organic percussion would be. Once I had selected the final group of songs for production though, I knew that that they needed a big, live rhythm section in order to come to life as I was hearing them in my head. And I was eager to explore the electric guitar again, which I really hadn’t done since Four Walls Bending. I did also make an early decision that I would not use a horn section as I wanted to make sure to distinguish this album from Exchange and Moon in Grenadine, which tip much closer to jazz sonically, in my opinion.
Overall, I am happy with the pacing of the album, as I tried carefully to contrast the moments of rest and introspection with the grandiosity of the bigger songs. And high drama is I guess something I can’t yet give up. Yes, even as I’m approaching the age when I should be reclining serenely in my “reductionist, minimal period” I’m still singing to the balcony and trying to launch rockets with sound. I have accepted long ago that the urgent, operatic flavor of much of my music is deeply embedded in my musicality. Maybe I really am writing theater music, even if the stage sets are all in my head.
What does this album represent for you? In 2007, you told us that everything you did had a deep meaning, an internal logic for you? What are they?
More than anything, this album represents a very personal triumph I guess: that I was able to come back in good form after a long break from public music-making and renew my creative focus to complete an album that I’m proud of. As you probably know, I’ve never worked with big teams of collaborators on my music. When producing my albums, I guess have always been the doctor, the nurse, the pharmacist and the lab so it is an exhausting and intense experience. It is indeed, for me at least, something like performing a complex medical operation on the music! Yes, the music begins in moments of inspiration through my fingers, in my voice, but the journey from the song to the recording that lives between two loudspeakers is a long and circuitous path.
And lyrically, I started to realize that I had written about my own transition through this middle period of my life, using exterior images and metaphors of nature and landscapes of both California and Virginia to tell my interior story. 10 years of these fragmented moments of pain, loss, happiness coalesced into these songs, which are really more like mosaics rather than linear narratives I suppose. In some ways I imagine these songs are like paper airplanes thrown down from the top of my sequestered perch up here on the ridge with my view of the sky and the trees. Someone may find the airplanes and open up the paper to read the tiny messages from my life…but you know, just the creation and flight of this tiny plane is my art. It is a hard thing to admit, because it does sound ungenerous and maybe a bit severe, but I have never tried to communicate directly with others through my music. I am grateful for those who find and open the little airplanes, but my task is complete even if they end up in the river.
Except for your old friend, Michael Ross, who plays on a track, we do not know the other musicians playing on this album? Can you present them to us? Do you live in Roanoke, Virginia on the east coast? Are they musicians of this state?
Yes, I have been so lucky to have quickly made some wonderful new musical connections here in my new home state of Virginia! And my longtime friend and guitarist Michael Ross now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, just a few hundred miles from me here in Roanoke, so I have transplanted myself into very fertile musical ground here in the Southeastern USA. Yes, I do live in Roanoke, which was a choice I made mostly to be closer to my family after my Mother passed. I love this small city and it has so much to offer, including an art museum, a symphony and opera, many places to hear music and beautiful gentle mountains all around. I feel at home here and my music has been welcomed warmly so far.
Guitarist Brian Mesko was recommended to me by several other musicians here in town and he is one of the most sensitive and intelligent musicians I have ever worked with. He is 100% Southern, born and raised in Arkansas, then studied and performed in the Nashville scene for several years before making his way up here to Virginia. His ear is razor sharp and he has incredible fluidity and stylistic flexibility. He contributes so much to the music scene here and is admired by all who know him.
Andrew Waldeck and Nathan Brown, who played electric bass and drums on 7 of my songs, are a very sought-after rhythm section from the Charlottesville area of Virginia. I discovered them very much by chance after following some internet discussion about the Virginia music scene. I saw one video performance and I knew immediately that they had the versatility to shape the dynamics of my songs. They are also both beautiful singers themselves, so they understand how to get underneath a melody and drive it forward with graceful support.
The opportunity to record with San Francisco drummer Scott Amendola and the miraculous Viktor Krauss on acoustic bass was a very fortunate surprise. I knew Viktor’s work only from the gorgeous albums he has made with Bill Frisell, but I have known Scott for many years and he actually came with me to play at the Malta Jazz Festival in 2006. I heard that Scott was coming to Tennessee to play a concert in spring of 2018 so I asked if he’d meet me in the studio in Nashville for a day and he said yes and suggested that I call Viktor, and as I think you may say in France…et voila!
I think that the melodies of the album are still beautiful and strong, in total harmony with the poetry of your lyrics? How do you find them? Where are they come from? What is your secret? In what state of mind do you put yourself for that?
Thank you Alain! But I have the same questions that you have. If I could describe a formula for this and reproduce my melodic methods on demand, then I am just baking you a Gâteau Opéra and the magic of this harmonious fusion that you hear would be gone! Yes, it is still mysterious to me after so many years how a precise melody and its phrase of words can arise at the same time, as if already bonded together in some corner of my mind. Many of what I will call the “chorus” refrains of my songs do often emerge fully formed at the piano: chords, melody and lyrics. It is rare that I create an instrumental part at the piano and then superimpose a melody with careful deliberation. I rarely consider the notes I am singing with my analytical mind, unless there is something that strikes me as “wrong” and then I do edit and craft it to get it “right”, but whatever “right” is changes by the moment too, so it’s a moving target.
Maybe another way to describe my songwriting process is that there’s an improvisatory ocean from which my songs are drawn like small cups of water. Certain moods and particular emotional states of openness create moments for me when I feel ripe with ideas and I’m compelled to go and sit in front of the keyboard and just swim and play. I really do feel like my environment here in Virginia, with a view of the mountains, many large and soaring birds over the field, the wind in the trees, evokes a clear state of mind. And yes, I do find that relaxation helps me to bring up, receive, transmit my musical ideas, even if those ideas are fiery and full of energy. What I think is most important is to allow myself patient time to explore in long periods of improvisation, with no focus, no expectations, no agenda to produce a finished work. And my songs, when they do start to emerge out of my freeform improvising, despite their sometimes unpredictable moments, they are not always as free-flowing and whimsical as the water they come from. But I do aspire to always straddle the line between familiarity and novelty, been repetition and rhapsody and I hope I achieved that balance on Out of the Moment.
What or who gave you the desire, the wish and the will to become an artist and a musician?
I’m sure it is intimately related to my basic temperament as I’ve always been a very curious person. Though I’m no daredevil, I’m a pretty fearless explorer, always seeking a beautiful vista around the next bend or another abstract idea to help explain my interior and my exterior worlds. I guess it’s often said that all babies and children start out as restlessly creative seekers, driven to master and control the cold chaos they are born into out of their warm, quiet shelter! My parents, early on, provided me with piano lessons and dance/movement classes so I give them credit for cultivating my curiosity until it was permanently fixed in me. Then my creative spirit blossomed from there, but I have no specific memories of an “aha” moment in time when I knew I was meant to be a musician.
And maybe my creativity is fundamentally a way for me to continue finding answers? That I became a musician and not a painter may have been more accidental. I suppose if I had been given canvases and brushes rather than piano lessons, I might be a painter. Even today, I find that my seeker’s curious impulses can get me out of tough situations. We call it being “resourceful” in English, this ability to take the available tools at hand and work one’s way out of a problem with inspiration and ingenuity. And more than anything, that’s the part of my creative musical practice that is the most satisfying and thrilling: knowing that I can find these moments of creative inspiration that will bring answers to my questions, that I’ll somehow find the metaphors in word or in sound to evoke the emotion I am feeling as I write the music. Sometimes the question can be as vague as “I want this piece of music to sound like it is lifting me into the sky” and sometimes it can be as precise as “The door has to slam shut at Measure 5, bar one.”
Although many compare your musical style to Kate Bush or Joni Mitchell’s one, listening better to your work, impossible to categorize, it becomes obvious that your personality, your music, your poetry do not look like anyone else. Only your music is like you. She is in your image, that is to say, different, with a different aura and sensitivity, even more beautiful, more personal, stronger and deeper. Do you feel it too? Do you feel yourself different from others in general and in the musical world in particular?
Well, of course it’s completely impossible for me to ever experience my own music through someone else’s ears, so I will never objectively know if my music is a blend of ABC or XYZ or if I’m writing my own cryptic language. My color blue could be your color red, Alain! But do I “feel” different from others? Yes, maybe mostly because I’m often unmoved by some of the ideas, music and art that many people in my culture appear to find interesting and beautiful. Though I’m fascinated by Monsieur Bourdieu’s thoughts about the relationship between aesthetic taste and social class, I’ve always been more curious about the less measurable factors that contribute to my personal taste. I believe there is some curve of spiritual sensitivity along which we all move, never staying at rest too long. So I have been, and will continue to be, deeply affected by different types of art at different times in my life. And I’ll always come in and out of this “feeling” of being different from others as I trace that spiritual curve.
To answer your question about my art as a reflected image of me, yes, I do agree completely and I do consider myself a pure expressionist in many ways, even though I hope my music has more coherence that my sometimes scatterbrained personality! And as an expressionist, formal structure in my music serves as a kind of scaffold to support and contain my rush of pure feeling. There’s not a lot of distance between my life and my art, which is both brave and foolish, but at this point I have little desire to protect myself from my own music or the versions of myself, dark or light, that my music may reveal to me. To use terms from electronic music, maybe my creative mind is the sound wave oscillator, and the musical image of me is that sound source filtered, distorted, amplified, modulated into something more than, but starting with, me.
In France, not many of us seem to know you. Do you have a wider European audience? Do you intend to return to Europe to play in public, if the opportunity happens?
Yes, I would love the opportunity to perform in Europe again! But you are right, my audience in France and elsewhere in Europe is small and that makes it difficult for me to arrange a tour on my own. I hope to find an opportunity to be presented by a festival or a concert series and I will work on making some new connections this year. In France you have a deep love for jazz and perhaps there will be an opportunity for me in a jazz club in Paris? Even though my music is hard for most to define exactly as “jazz”, I do think European audiences have sophisticated ears and an openness to new, adventurous music that uses elements of jazz and classical. Thank you so much Alain for your help in spreading the word about Out of the Moment to your French readers and beyond!
PROUST Questions for Emily
If you were a plant or a flower, which one would you be?
The aloe vera plant! A sturdy and self-sufficient blooming succulent. A beautiful blend of flower and cactus.
What is your favorite planet? And your favorite astrological sign?
Saturn, with its rings and discipline. And Cancer because many important friends in my life are Cancer and complement my more austere Capricorn nature.
The tree or animal in which you would like to be reincarnated (if reincarnation exists)?
Eagle. To soar freely and to have hyper acute vision.
What is the main feature of your personality?
Curiosity and analytical discipline.
What is your favorite virtue?
The natural talent you’d like to be gifted with?
Painting and drawing.
What do you hate the most?
Intolerance. People who do not try to even understand the minds of those who are different from them.
For what fault do you have the most tolerance, indulgence?
Impatience. I admire a sense of personal urgency, excitement and vigor more that I condemn the lack of ability to restrain oneself.
What do you like most about your friends?
They have not given up on life and finding happiness though many have experienced great sadness.
If you had not been you, who would you have liked to be?
Who would you like to meet?
A regret ? A hope ? A shooting star wish?
Not having learned to play guitar early in life
to become a better gardener
to write an electronic opera
Your favorite song of all time?
Maurice Ravel – all the songs in Shéhérazade
The most beautiful day of your life?
The day my son was born
If your house is on fire (which I do not want, of course), with nobody inside, fortunately, what object would you try to save flames?
A baby picture of my son
What is your favorite motto?
You’ve got one life to live, live it well
What is the question you would not like me to ask you?
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
What is the question you would like me to ask you?
What is your favorite beach in the world?
Waimanalo Beach, Hawaii
CLOUDS AND CLOCKS, 2011
By BEPPE COLLI
BIG BANG MAGAZINE 2008 (in French)
By Olivier Cruchaudet
By Ron Fuchs
PROGGNOSIS, SEPT 2008
By MARC ROY
ROUGH EDGE, AUG 2008
By CHRISTOPHER KELTER
MIDWEST RECORD, AUG 2008
"Most definitely an art chick all the way to the core, Bezar has been at this long enough that you get the feeling she’s not going to outgrow it like Laurie Anderson or Kate Bush. Existing somewhere in that vortex where Zappa meets King Crimson and goes out for coffee with Bjork, this is sincere on the edge music. Certainly not to be appreciated by fans of gossip blogs, this is where art rock resides in 2008."
GAPPLEGATE, AUG 2008
by GREGO EDWARDS
Emily Bezar most certainly is a vocalist of a different stripe. Imagine Bjork combined with Julie Andrews, Melissa Manchester and Maria Callas. No, not quite Maria Callas, but an operatic diva of some sort. And no, she is much more than the sum of these stylistic combinations, but a rough approximation is in order. Combine that with a well tempered Progressive Rock musicality and you have her fifth album, “Exchange” (DemiVox), which is just out. There is nothing ordinary about it. She clearly has talent. There is a quirkiness to her voice and her music that will engage you or not, depending on what you will open up to or what sort of music you embrace. If you let your preconceptions go about what should go with what, you’ll find much to appreciate.
Clouds And Clocks.Net, 11/2004
Review by Beppe Colli
By Michael Ross
"Emily Bezar has never been interested in making average pop records; one of the hallmarks of her greatness has always been a sense of ambition--something lacking in much of the "comfort-food-for-the-post-9/11-crowd" music that pervades the airwaves."
Read Full Review
PROGRESSION MAGAZINE, SUMMER 2005
By Diana Green
Emily Bezar's fourth album," Angels' Abacus," owes a tremendous debt to Kate Bush, Jane Siberry, and Joni Mitchell, though the latter is more ideological than musical. Like Mitchell, Bezar is a very self-sufficient creator and player, covering duties from voice, piano, string arrangements and drum programming to producing the entire album (with assistance from Tim Pettit on a mere three of 16 tracks.) Bezar's stylistic debt to Siberry and Bush is too easy. Like all these women, Emily Bezar is an original, and deserves to be regarded as such.
Bezar's compositional voice owes as much to Keith Jarrett and Peter Gabriel as to Carla Bley. As incongruous as that seems, Bezar's compositions are confident, adventurous, and heartfelt. Beginning with the line "Beneath the linen and the lidocaine," "In My Sky" is an emotional tour de force anchored by Jon Evans' subtle bass lines and Dan Foltz' understated drumming. This is mature, intelligent, beautiful music, deserving of a place in the music library of anyone with a mind and a soul.
THE HAIRLESS HEART HERALD, MAY 2005
By Jem Jedrzejewski
EXPOSE MAGAZINE, MARCH 2005
By Jon Davis
Back in Exposé #20 I gushed about Emily Bezar's first three albums, and honestly the only negative I can come up with for her new release is the fact that it took so long to arrive. The changes from 1999's "Four Walls Bending" are incremental rather than fundamental, but why mess with such a good thing? The two basic ingredients of the music are her powerful voice and piano, and all the embellishments serve as seasonings to those. She has the good sense not to ignore her years of voice training, the good taste to make that impressive technique subservient to her musical vision, and the courage to use her crisp enunciation and warm vibrato regardless of contemporary trends. There is a bit less of her classical-meets-jazz piano here, due to the frequent denseness of the arrangements; there are still moments reserved for piano and voice alone, or nearly alone, as intriguing electronic sounds creep into the interstices of every track. On a few tracks, the electronics condense into rhythmic loops, but this is no knuckling-under to modern fashion - the music is above all uncompromising, relentlessly following an educated, capricious muse to such lengths that Bezar is a genre unto herself. In lesser hands, all this would come off as pretentious, but every note is filled with such honesty that you can't question her motives. She is not showing off, she is manifesting the music in her head, and it's a thing of beauty.
By Ton Veldhuis (In Dutch)
By Ron Fuchs
The War Against Silence 12/1999
By glenn mcdonald
By Stephanie Sollow
Dutch Progressive Rock Pages 2001
By Nigel Camilleri
Downbeat Magazine, October 2000
By Jon Andrews
FOUR STARS * * * *
Classically trained on keyboards and voice, Bezar creates textured, haunting art-rock. Her extended vocal range and dramatic delivery should instantly appeal to devotees of Kate Bush and Jane Siberry. Bezar's third self-released disc beautifully synthesizes elements of new music, jazz and pop. She favors intricate, cyclical figures on synthesizers, but her piano solos project a distinctly jazzy perspective. Morris Acevedo's wailing guitar serves as a complementary voice. Thoughtfully composed songs, such as "Velvet Eye" and "Lead," hook the listener with urgent vocals, oblique lyrics and passages of exhilarating release.
EXPOSE MAGAZINE, OCTOBER 2000
Review Of Emily's First 3 Albums
By Jon Davis
I read a review of Moon in Grenadine some time ago which described it as what you might get if Sarah McLachlan's band indulged itself in a King Crimson fetish, so of course I had to have it. While that description has some truth to it (for some of the songs at least), there's a lot more to Emily Bezar than that. The Sarah McLachlan part comes from the intimacy of her vocal style, though Emily obviously has classical training and can project in a way Sarah never could. The King Crimson part comes from the jagged-but-fluid guitar riffs featured on a number of the songs (“40 Mansions” and “Gingerbread”). Other elements include a pronounced jazzy side and a harmonic variety akin to modern classical music. Several of the tunes feature sax and trumpet and a swing rhythm reminiscent of the cool era (“Dream Gasoline”). Other songs reduce the mix down to piano and voice, and while Emily's playing is more restrained than Tori Amos (and her lyrics more decipherable), the comparison is quite apt. I was hooked, and looked forward to discovering her first album.
Emily Bezar's first album is a decidedly intimate affair. She performs mainly on the piano, supplementing the sound with various samples and “sound design” for a lush audio landscape. A string quartet joins her from time to time, but it is her distinctive voice and piano playing that set the stage. She has a strong background in musical academia, and the study shows in her technique, from her precise vibrato singing and enunciation to her accomplished piano playing to her sophisticated compositions. The most apparent references are 20th Century composers like Bartok and Hovhaness; female artists like Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and Jane Siberry; and ambient pioneers like Brian Eno. There's even a jazzy lilt to her piano parts at times, though this aspect of her music would not be exploited fuller until the second album.
All of the elements presented in the first two albums are melded more coherently in her third release. Disparate styles previously relegated to separate tracks come together into a single unique entity. The band plays on all the tracks except the quiet “His Everything”; their musical personalities shape the sound to a greater degree than before, when they functioned more as sidemen. Andrew Higgins plays active, anchoring bass, and Steve Rossi's drumming is solid when it needs to be, jazzy and free at other times. Guitarist Morris Acevedo occasionally reminds me of Steve Howe, probably more for his tone than his actual playing. For her part, Emily augments piano with a wide variety of synthesizers, giving the album the feel of an updated version of Kate Bush circa Never For Ever . Her singing is better than ever, both strong and expressive. Once again, the lyrics are poetic without being overly precious (“sigh, my love / for the moon over the hill / is red and gone/ shame on us for believing / in yesterday's song”).
PROGRESSION MAGAZINE, Winter/Spring 2000
By John Collinge
Remember that old '50s sci-fi yarn, Mars Needs Women? Well, progressive music needs more women (as we all know ) - women like Emily Bezar. Comparisons ultimately will be made between Bezar and the likes of Kate Bush, but this gifted vocalist/lyricist from the San Francisco Bay Area is up to the task. Bezar's lilting voice hails from the upper registers in a reflective, slow- to mid-tempo fashion that rivets attention on her starkly impressionistic tone poems. Odd phrasings and an apparent fondness for the avant-garde throw engaging quirkiness into this theatrical brew, with instrumental assistance by Bezar on keyboards and piano plus three fellows on guitar, bass and drums. Neo-classical/jazz leanings color Four Walls Bending,along with the apparent progressive touches. Yet, the instrumental work is mere accompaniment to Bezar's vocal musings and never takes precedence. It's quite fun to read the lyrics while listening to the album, as Bezar's unusual style causes your eye to skip across her words like a skittering waterbug. "Kingdom Come" is a good case in point. An elegant, eloquent album ideal for late nights and rainy Sundays.
The Wire, March 2000
By Tom Ridge
This leftfield singer-songwriter from the San Francisco Bay Area combines intricate musical arrangements with swooping, virtuoso vocal performances. The effect is a bit like encountering Kate Bush jamming with King Crimson. That is, her restlessly kinetic songs are burdened with flashy solos. When Bezar ditches the florid musicianship, as on the ballad "Maybe So" and the more sedate "Filigree of Noon", her talent shines more clearly.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, November 3-9, 1999
By Sylvia W. Chan
Comparisons between Emily Bezar and Kate Bush have been made -- both have wieldy, netherworldly sopranos that soar and plummet against whirling, constantly shifting avant-pop charts. Bezar, however, has finely tuned, neoclassical jazz sensibilities akin to those of Keith Jarrett. Her tunes are filled with hollow fifths and aching, arching sevenths, as well as lush, delicious chords that wash up from time to time to illuminate her ethereal yet substantive vocals. The effects of this are especially lovely on the title track and on the poignant "His Everything," which tenderly portrays a mother gazing with wonder upon her child. On this release Bezar assumes keyboard and programming duties, while musicians Morris Acevedo (guitar), Andrew Higgins (bass), and Steve Rossi (drums) navigate her intricate compositions with fluidity and grace.
East Bay Express, October 15, 1999
By Sam Hurwitt
...Bezar's [tunes] inhabit the lush and ethereal territory patrolled by Kate Bush and Tori Amos' hounds and huntsmen. That's a superficial comparison -- the prominent piano and the breathy warbling are enough to suggest it but Bezar's new disc Four Walls Bending is full of crisp babbling-brook piano and synth-laden atmospheric psychedelia chilled by her wintery soprano. Still, you don't have to strain your ears to hear the strong jazz and prog rock monsters lurking beneath her shimmery pool of delicate melodies.
By Ruud Stoker (In Dutch)
The War Against Silence 12/1996
By glenn mcdonald
East Bay Express, November 1996
By Larry Kelp
Once in the art-cult band the Potato Eaters, Berkeley singer Bezar produced, wrote, and arranged more than an hour-long pop-jazz-classical song cycle with cryptic lyrics on love and marriage for her second solo album. The music ranges from the hard-rocking "40 Mansions" through the sensuously soft samba, "Mosquito in the Shade." She uses a band at times, even horns (Grassy Knoll trumpeter Chris Grady and Splatter Trio saxophonist Dave Barrett). But the best moments come when it's just Bezar's piano and marvelously expressive soprano-alto voice (think Kate Bush, Dawn Upshaw, and what Tori Amos aspires to): just when she gets almost too quietly intimate, Bezar grasps a feeling in the words and soars with it to exhilarating heights. She doesn't believe in hooks; catchy melodic lines are never repeated. But Bezar offers a rarer reward: an album that puts the listener into a luxurious world of pure sonic beauty.
Keyboard Magazine, February 1997
By Jim Aikin
When Bezar is all alone with her piano and lost in a soaring, heartfelt vocal line, you could mistake her for Tori Amos. The lyrics are as poetic, but they're more oblique than confessional, and her voice has more vibrato. Once in a while the band shifts into a higher gear: Bezar swings into a McCoy-influenced jazz piano solo in "Dream Gasoline," and by the out chorus a fuzz guitar has joined the fray. The angular riffs in "Gingerbread" threaten to tip over into dissonance, and Bezar adds to the tension by multitracking several independent vocal lines. But even the power tracks often pull back in the middle and turn into ballads. Art rock is alive and well in Berkeley.
Stereophile Magazine, February 1997:
Records To Die For 1997
By Richard Lehnert
"Not for everyone," I cautioned in my review of Bezar's daunting debut CD (May '94). But Moon in Grenadine'stextures are a bit less dense than Grandmother's Tea Leaves' brilliantly deployed keyboards, string quartets, and avant-garde electronics, and Bezar has a band now - really a jazz quartet. Her voice veers from childlike intimacy to womanful operatic cry, and her piano chops are awesome (she's conservatory-trained in both). Songs never go where you think they will ("Rain in Calgary"), and her lyrics make up in hothouse imagery what they lack in straightforwardness. Think Amos or Bush backed by Zappa ("Gingerbread") and you'll be right, if not nearly right enough. Bezar's intelligence is overwhelming - there's enough richness, rigor, allusion, and surprise here to keep you thinking till next year. A bit of digital harshness, but otherwise Moon in Grenadine sounds far better than Tea Leaves - which missed being Recording of the Month by just that much.
GRANDMOTHER'S TEA LEAVES, 1993
Stereophile Magazine, May 1994
By Richard Lehnert
Those of you up to musical challenges a few giant steps past Tori Amos and Kate Bush, try this. Emily Bezar's Oberlin studies, building on her piano background, were in vocal and electronic music, after which she sang jazz in Europe. She's since given recitals of Webern lieder, performs regularly in Stanford U.'s computer-music concert series, wrote and performed a musical-theater piece, and did a stint with San Francisco rock band The Potato Eaters. She also wrote, sang, produced, engineered and plays virtually all the instruments (ie, many keyboards)- except for the arrangement she wrote for the Arlekin String Quartet-on her rather daunting debut album, Grandmother's Tea Leaves.
So it says on her bio, and you'd be forgiven for thinking, "Sounds pretentious-just another conservatory dilettante dressed all in black with arty hair, playing boring neominimalist music on her Chromachord synthesizer and thing she's the Biggest Alternative Thing since Laurie Anderson."
Emily Bezar just might be the Biggest Alternative Thing since Laurie Anderson, especially as she's one thing Anderson never claimed to be- a musician-and another that her flack sheet doesn't mention: a hell of a poet. Bezar's music is deeply rooted in contemporary classical music and state-of-the-art electronic realizations, and she's brave enough to use her classically disciplined soprano as it was trained to be used. And although I find her vibrato a bit too songbird-taut, and her diction impossible, not one of the 215 bones in this woman's body is unmusical.
I've been listening to Grandmother's Tea Leaves for weeks now, and I've never heard anything like it. Imagine the free-ranging tonalities and rhythmic density of some of Keith Jarrett's least lyrical solo-piano improvisations (say, from Sun Bear Concerts, Staircase, or Vienna Concert) married to the sophistication of Tod Dockstader's uncompromising electronic compositions and the lyricism of Ryuichi Sakamoto, these in turn merely providing the settings for wholly contemporary verse of the rigor, richness, and allusiveness of a Marilyn Hacker or the pre-Ariel Sylvia Plath. Here's just one example of her verbal richness, from one of the more accessible compositions, "Just Like Orestes": "Just like Orestes, with his naked knife suspended/Just like Cassandra, with her tongue too thick to bleed/I unveil you, standing so young beside it-/I will be there waiting for you at the guillotine."
But what keeps me coming back again and again is the music: a surprise in every bar, strange piano figures turning down hitherto hidden harmonic hallways that open in turn onto patently impossible vistas drawn in the forced perspectives of polytonality- an M.C. Escher in sound. This is music of relentless seriousness and archly Olympian wit, in which no pretense is made to anything but artifice. (Bezar's accomplishments force me to retreat into the oxymoronic.)
I'll let Bezar describe her art in words from the title song, in which she seems to anticipate her critics: "I've been accused of excess,/ been haunted and morose, but the canvas/in my corner just won't bear a smaller dose/ Some say we are suffering/ from a lyrical disease,/ but when we turn our backs around,/ they're sobbing on their knees." And, from "I Tear Down": "When life becomes art, the imitation's clear/ oh darling, your interior is getting far too near/ so all alone, once again, I pass you to your years,/ tear you down."
Emily Bezar has forged her life into creations of total artifice wholly devoid of the pretentious-although she'll be accused of being just that. In such aesthetic distance her heart's interior is intimately revealed as a series of mirrored chambers of glass and ice, night and fog, all in music of a tart purity rare in pop- something which Grandmother's Tea Leaves every so often, and ever so remotely, resembles. I'd name it Recording of the Month; however, not only is the sound dry and artificial (except for the vocals), but to say that this record is Not For Everyone is the understatement of the year. Still, it hasn't left my CD player since it arrived. There's enough importance here to keep the serious, open-eared listener busy for years; more to the point, it's encrypted with enough grace to keep that listener happy for the duration. But if you believe that when rock gets serious, it gets dead, then stay away.
Keyboard Magazine, July 1994
By Robert Doerschuk
For fans who mourn Kate Bush's surrender to commercialism, Emily Bezar offers musical relief. Her debut album draws from varied song traditions, from art-pop to Webern. No brainless hooks puncture Bezar's songs; instead, she runs intricate themes through variations designed for something more serious than casual listening. "La Place Dauphine" exemplifies her approach: Cabaret references, enhanced by the breath-like rubato of Bezar's self-accompaniment on piano, support an extended melody that suggests Kurt Weill but occasionally flirts with dodecaphony. Electronic touches underscore myriad details, illuminating but never diverting attention from the pianistic heart of the song. On electronic pieces, several of which were recorded at Stanford University's CCRMA music lab, or works such as the eleven-minute "Just Like Orestes," Bezar blends diverse electro-acoustical elements to orchestrate complex passagework. This is difficult, dense stuff: From polytonal piano and voice episodes through murky synthesized textures riddled with industrial noises, Bezar brooks no compromise in her art. There are artists of talent, and artists of integrity: Those, like Bezar, who possess both qualities are a rare and valuable commodity.
The Wire: Adventures In Modern Music, March 1995
By Chris Blackford
American Emily Bezar is a singer/composer of many talents. Conservatory educated in singing and electronic music, her vocal performances have encompassed Mozart, Debussy, Weill, Gershwin, Webern, even jazz. She's also a formidable electroacoustic composer, a former member of a rock group, The Potato Eaters, and an improvisor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Grandmother's Tea Leaves, her debut CD, hints at some of these personalities and genres, though essentially escapes easy classification, with eight self-penned songs, a short opening instrumental and a fine concluding vocal/electroacoustic composition which enters avant garde territory. Her decorous melodies-intriguing electronic flourishes over a piano accompaniment-are as discreetly perfumed as Earl Grey tea, entirely free from mawkish sentimentality. Vocally there are echoes of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, but Bezar's clarity of tone and thrilling leaps across the range are executed with the sort of precision that only a classically trained soprano could achieve. This is a remarkably mature debut where classical and pop influences merge beautifully.
Rubberneck 17, Summer 1995
By Giuseppe Colli
Liking songs has gotten a bit risky these days: we mostly get stock chord progressions, inane lyrics, singalong choruses, bicycle pump vocalists. Then, of course, there'se rap. Nostalgia, anyone?
Fortunately, we also have Emily Bezar's debut CD: a fine, rare example of a fascinating, captivating, mature musical vision; ten songs/instrumentals she has written, produced and partially engineered. It's easy, at first, to overstate her influences; that voice, that piano reminded this listener of the naked honesty of Joni Mitchell's Blue; but the intricate fabric of her melodies, the electronic splashes of colour, the fluid multi-layered contrapuntal quality of her arrangements show Emily Bezar to be her own woman, and an artist of today.
It's mostly a solo affair (the main exception being the fine string quartet of the title-track) but boredom is banished. Her compositional/poetic skills offer depth and variety; the 11-minute long "Just Like Orestes" never falters under the weight of its ambitions. The short tracks are gems. Bizarre? Not at all. Original? Definitely. Wouldn't it be nice to have fine songs on the radio for a change?
San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 1993
By Larry Kelp
Operatic soprano and composer Bezar's intriguing debut solo album (after her role in the art-rock Potato Eaters) disregards known musical categories as she merges contemporary "classical" music with pop, into something that approaches 90's art song. Her compositions unfold at their own pace with no definite rhythm patterns and rarely any repeating form either, as if the beauty of sound for its own sake is enough. Her voice, over thick keyboard orchestrations, is reminiscent of Kate Bush's in both sound and emotional impact. It may not be catchy, but it's gorgeous.
BAM Magazine, December 1993
By Steve Stolder
Potato Eaters vocalist Emily Bezar unveils a truly unique solo side with this collection of 10 original art songs. Bezar garnishes her sagacious soprano and darkly romantic lyrics ("Oh like the lover gently dented in your room/I'm shivering like an addict resurfacing too soon") with her own piano and electronic "sound design," plus austere accompaniment from guitarist Michael Ross and the Arlekin String Quartet. In addition to offbeat rock, Bezar has sung Debussy and Mozart, and this CD definitely comes from a European tradition, which, at the very least, makes it distinctive. Bezar's talent and meticulousness make Grandmother's Tea Leaves much more than just unusual.
with BEPPE COLLI
BIG BANG MAGAZINE 2007 (in French)
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