The Living Jarboe

Mon May 26


Jarboe is in the habit of assuming personas. Through the astonishing tone of her soprano, she transforms into a little girl; add a quavering vibrato, and she becomes a scorned woman; give it a low, barking growl, and she's a poignant demon. There is no other living performer who can compel with the same blend of mystery and depth, perhaps with the exception of Jarboe's friend, Diamanda Galas. But Diamanda is otherworldly, a larger-than-life banshee; The Living Jarboe is profoundly human, the vocal manifestation of the depth of women's pain and struggle. Or, as my dearest friend put it after seeing her perform at the Beyond the Pale festival last year: "Jarboe sounds like PJ Harvey after 15 years in the pen."

I am totally reverent of Jarboe. She is an icon from a long line of punk women who've inspired me (and countless others) to be my most uncompromising self; seeing her live last year was one of the most transforming musical experiences I've had. The daughter of FBI agents, Jarboe came up in the '80s, New York post-punk/ no wave scene with her band Swans; in the late '90s, Swans disbanded and she focused more on her solo career. Her most recent release, Jarboe: Dissected, is a collection of remixes by industrial and experimental artists; forthcoming releases include a collaboration with Neurosis (in which she sings over the legendary metal hardcore band's tribal dirges), and Men, a collection of duets with such diverse artists as Bauhaus' David J, Chris Connelly, Low's Alan Sparhawk, Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, Zwan) and Iva Davies of the '80s Australian pop band Icehouse.

This is Jarboe's first Portland performance since 1997. So what's she singing? "I'll cover a KISS song," she laughs. "It makes sense! It's called 'Reason to Live,' and I turned it into kind of a dirge. But it's really a good song, because it's a commentary about being co-dependent. It's saying, 'everyone has a reason to live, but you can't live for someone else's love; you have to live for yourself.' I really like the message; it fits thematically with the commentary of the other material I'm doing about the kind of mind games and baggage women traditionally have in relationships with men, where they wind up being in kind of a martyr syndrome."

Jarboe's developed a certain strength of her own in recent years, finding balance between being a self-employed artist and an entrepreneur (she releases her own records, and runs the official Swans and Jarboe websites). This has been translated to her actual voice; her gain in vocal control is audible between her 1998 record, Anhedoniac, and 2000's Disburden Disciple. She'll further explore the concepts of female strength, self-sufficiency and independence on Men.

"I really wanted to make a bold statement about the whole interaction and dynamic, because it's pretty complicated these days; you know, roles have changed. My friends Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch have these images of being really powerful and strong, and we were sitting around, laughing about how we're consistently told how strong we are--but to me, vulnerability is strength. I try to bring back the vulnerability where I try to break down the barrier between the performer and the audience. I think of myself as a communicator, who's trying to translate something real. The irony with us is that people are attracted to us because we're strong, quote unquote, but when they find out that we are human beings, everything changes."