"Every song is like a poem, and like poems, my songs build from images and impulses, and emerge mostly from my unconscious, from the impressions the world makes on my psyche."
New York based multimedia artist Jasmine Dreame Wagner's debut EP, Switchblade Moon is out now. Wagner's jazz- and new classical-inflected meditations on climate change, recessions and dystopian narratives pay tribute to the great American songbooks of Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone. FUZZY spoke with the writer and multi-instrumentalist about her new project.
FUZZY: Switchblade Moon is out now. Could you speak a little about the EP?
Switchblade Moon features a collection of songs and instrumentals that span the genres of experimental jazz, pop, noise and new classical music – all of which were composed, arranged, and produced over the last few years in Brooklyn, Santa Monica and at various apartments and homes in Brooklyn and upstate New York.
The songs on Switchblade Moon were written in response to the political atmosphere: climate change, the rise of nationalism, economic distress in the wake of another recession – in a spirit of peaceful political protest. Writing these songs, I thought of my friends and family across the country, the dystopian landscapes of “luxury blight,” gold towers and military bunkers. The opioid epidemic and the healthcare crisis. These themes surface in my lyrics and in my arrangements: while writing percussion arrangements for both tracks, I spoke about the tones we’d use and what they’d reference, how they’d function as poetic metaphors: the long, hollow cymbal scrapes of abandoned equipment in automotive factories; the marching snare’s traditional call to war; a metaphor that grows as the lyric repeats and echoes. The vibraphone at the beginning of 'Switchblade Moon' parrots the broken clocktower, permanently striking eleven o’clock, in my old hometown.
I was hiking a mountain with a friend years ago when we stopped to gaze up at a huge crescent moon in the sunset sky. The moon looked like a cut of light, and it glinted on the charcoal trees, like steel light glinting from a blade. I thought the words, “switchblade moon,” and wrote the phrase in my pocket notebook to include later in a poem. I didn’t end up writing a poem, though I did improvise the song’s pianomelody on my keyboard when I got home.
FUZZY: How does it feel to be releasing music during COVID-19?
Early in 2020, I booked a series of release shows and loosely plotted a summer tour to promote the release of Switchblade Moon, however, COVID-19 had other plans. Our release shows had been planned for the Hudson Valley and New York City – a short series of shared bills with longtime friends.Unfortunately, the virus is most dangerous in crowds and enclosed spaces, which makes music concerts and film screenings (and the combination of the two) particularly untenable for a while.
While it’s been emotionally and financially difficult to lose opportunities to perform and to connect with people face-to-face, staying healthy and keeping our most vulnerable people safe is far more important than performing, and I’d happily exchange a year of concerts and screenings for the safety of others. At home, I’m taking the time to learn new skills, work on a new book, and stay optimistic about the massive psychic reorientation and the social reforms that this year is going demand from us and from our government.
FUZZY: You also write poetry, having been published in Hyperallergic. What is the relationship between your poetry and your music?
My poetry and music are seamless to me – they spring from the same source. Every song is like a poem, and like poems, my songs build from images and impulses, and emerge mostly from my unconscious, from the impressions the world makes on my psyche.
I’ve also staged performances of my poetry/multimedia work which incorporate music into the performance. There’s always a back and forth between the two disciplines, or an incorporation of the two into a performance.
FUZZY: What is your songwriting process like?
There are two ways that songs come to me — they either arrive on their own, drifting into my mind as I’m walking in the woods or around the city, or they’re a product of repetition and experimentation once I sit down at my piano, or when I fingerpick patterns on my guitar. The songs that drift in are the spookiest — where do they come from? Maybe some ambient tone coming from a building, a bird in a tree, a remnant of a conversation I overhead. I tend to sing a bit of melody first, then the words take shape. Words have their own meter, musicality. Some are meant to be sung loudly; open-mouthed, with vowels projected to the back of the room. Then some, with many consonants, have sibilance that maybe keeps the sound closer.
While I’m writing, I’ll typically generate ideas for arrangements, then rehearse with collaborators, working out parts, seeing what’s possible, what sounds good. As for the actual recording itself, the tracks for Switchblade Moon were recorded in the studio, beginning with the rhythm section (piano, then drums, double bass) along with a scratch vocal that functioned as a guide. Sometimes the scratch vocal became the final vocal. Then, other instruments were layered above the rhythm track.
FUZZY: Who are your main musical influences?
I love classic, beautiful songwriting: Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell. I also grew up listening to punk music – Fugazi, Make Up, and other artists on Dischord – and the independent spirit of that label and the scene that it supports remains an influence on me today. Nick Cave and PJ Harvey are two of my very favorites – their work is sacred to me. I’m always hungry to listen to and be influenced by songwriters that are skilled lyricists and arrangers.
FUZZY: What would your dream collaboration be?
After producing my own work, I’d love to collaborate with a producer like John Congleton, whose work with Angel Olson and St. Vincent is just unreal. I love it so much. I also love Karl Blau’s production on Laura Veirs and Mirah records. The experience of handing over a song’s production to someone else, to see what kinds of sounds they hear, what kinds of ideas would emerge from the process, would be exciting. It would also be incredible to work with a virtuoso arranger and instrumentalist like Van Dyke Parks or Warren Ellis.
Switchblade Moon is out now. You can find out more about Jasmine on www.songsaboutghosts.com.
Words by Eleanor Noyce.
6th July 2020.