Dave's True Story
True story: female folksinger meets beatnik guitarist in New York City folk club scene. One drunken night, gal asks guy to teach her one of his jazzed-out folk-pop-bop tunes. Performing together, they gain a following as practitioners of unique brand of cool music, anticipating the lounge revival by a couple of years and selling 10,000 copies of their self-released CD. Hip indie jazz label signs them, getting their new record, Sex Without Bodies, in shops worldwide and setting the stage for global lounge domination.
Dave’s True Story: see above.
Though the "lounge" label has stuck thanks to the ’90s revival of said genre, singer Kelly Flint and guitarist/songwriter/occasional vocalist David Cantor say they don’t fit snugly into most people’s idea of what lounge music entails. "We touch it," is all Cantor concedes of his music’s relationship to the formerly square, suddenly hip genre. "When we started doing this," adds Flint, "it was 1992 and nobody was doing anything like it. Everyone told us that we were crazy and that it was never going to fly.
"Then, all of a sudden, there were these lounge things," Flint continues, as we all enjoy libations around a table in the Moroccan lounge of the Fez, a hip downtown club they’ve played countless times. "Then we got all happy because we thought, oh wow, maybe we were just a little bit ahead of our time and maybe it is going to fly. So then we kind of naturally made friends with all these lounge acts and we kind of found that we didn’t fit in with them."
That they came from what Kelly calls "a very lyric-oriented, singer-songwriter background" may explain why Dave’s True Story did not fit in so well with other seemingly similar-minded groups. "We would play folk festivals before we would play jazz festivals," she says.
Their folk roots, and in particular Cantor’s hyper-literate lyrical style, set them apart from most players in the lounge scene. While so many current lounge acts live and breathe nostalgia, acting like it really is 1960, Dave’s True Story takes retro to another level. This band could not have existed in a previous decade. The over-hyped return of lounge aside, DTS bucks so many ’90s trends—grrrrl, gangsta, grunge—it’s immediately obvious that they tore no pages out of anyone else’s book. They wrote it all themselves, using bouncy, breezy, bluesy guitar playing and sensuous singing to frame their tales of unrequited love ("Stormy"), unrequited literature ("I’ll Never Read Trollope Again"), and uncontrollable physical reactions ("Spasm"). Funky bass, muted drumming, and occasional horns flesh it all out, punctuating nicely.
The lack of non-lounge influences also contributes to their uniqueness. Dave was a Zappa and Beefheart fan as a kid, progressed to Steely Dan, now likes Soul Coughing, Morphine, and Marshall Crenshaw. Kelly said she grew up listening to basically only female pop artists, especially Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, and of course Joni Mitchell. "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns could be my favorite record of all time," she says, beaming. "Somehow," she admits, "Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and all those guys escaped me. I didn’t listen to any of it until after Dave and I made our first record.
"And then people came out to see us—like this guy who brought me a tape of Helen Merrill. People would say, ‘You sound like Doris Day, you sound like so-and-so.’ People started bringing me records. Earl May, the bass player on our first record, said, ‘Who have you been listening to, because you don’t sound like anybody.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really listen to jazz.’ He said, ‘Good—keep it that way. Don’t listen to any of the singers. Just listen to the horn players.’ So I made him make me a list, and I started listening to John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and all those guys. Then I started listening to singers. I think Anita O’Day is my favorite."
Dave and Kelly were both in the songwriters’ circle at the Fast Folk group when they met. When someone suggested that Kelly sing with Dave, at first she begged off, having never before done such jazzy songs. "And then one night Dave and I went out and got drunk," Kelly recalls. "I said to him, ‘Hey, why don’t you teach me one of your songs?’ He did, and it was really fun to sing. Then we went to a festival and got a really good response. So we took it as a sign."
Dave was something of a reluctant performer at first. Though he had been working as a solo singer-songwriter before joining forces with Kelly, he had no qualms about surrendering the spotlight to her. "I had no expectations of starting a band," he said.
"Oh, he totally didn’t want to be in a band," answers Kelly. "He said, ‘I’ll just write the songs, you get yourself a guitar player. I don’t want to be on stage.’ I had to drag him kicking and screaming."
"Now she’d have to drag me kicking and screaming off stage," Dave says wryly, as both partners in true crime have a laugh.
"Now he’s completely addicted," says Kelly.
Starting out, gigs were hard to come by. "They wouldn’t book us here at the Fez for years," says Flint. "Then finally one day they called us and said, ‘We have a cancellation, will you play next Saturday night?’ I think she called me on a Friday. So we made the flyers and we put them in the mail on Saturday, and a big blizzard came and the mail didn’t go out until Wednesday. Saturday night came and there was still snow here. We were sitting in the back room, eating McDonald’s, thinking no one was out there. And we came out into the room without even looking, because we didn’t think anyone would be there. There were like 200 people in the room and you could hear a pin drop. And we were going to quit after that gig. But then we couldn’t quit."
With quitting no longer an option, it was a question of if and when someone with the power to bring their music to the masses would notice. They started gigging the New York clubs non-stop, and in 1994 they released an eponymous debut album. Dave’s True Story, on their own Bepop label, contains 11 Cantor originals, including live favorites like the I’m-whatever-you-want-me-to-be-baby number "Flexible Man" and the woman-to-woman paean "Nadine." That fine debut highlights Dave’s clever—but never too clever—songwriting and guitar playing in tandem with Kelly’s always-on-the-mark vocalese, and it did its job, spreading the word around about the band. But despite selling 10,000 copies of the record mostly on their own, there was only so much they could expect to achieve at that level.
Finally, after much waiting, Chesky Records materialized, smitten and ready to make a commitment to them. The family-run, global indie that specializes in jazz and classical music but with a roster diverse enough to house the likes of true folkie Livingston Taylor (yeah, brother of James), signed them, as Cantor puts it, "instantaneously."
"They said, ‘You’re our Michael Jackson,’" says Kelly. "They’re really into us."
To capture a live sound, Chesky has its artists record their albums live, and quickly. Thus, Sex Without Bodies was committed to tape over a mere four days in a Chelsea church. Kelly admits it was stressful, though she says the urgency of getting the performance down right in a short amount of time didn’t worry her as much as did the possibility of getting sick for the November sessions. "I became completely neurotic," she says. "You know that stuff Purel, you’ve seen that commercial? It’s an antiseptic hand lotion. Every time I touched a cab or something, I used it. Because if I got sick, I was screwed."
Speaking of being screwed, if there’s one topic that comes up often in Dave’s True Story songs, it’s sex. Granted, if there’s another topic that comes up often in Dave’s True Story songs, it might be English literature. Still, the tension on-stage between beatnik hipster Dave and fashion-plate chanteuse Kelly lends itself perfectly to the playfulness of the songs. Kelly gets most of the punch lines, rife with sly, nudge-and-wink sexual connotations, but gleefully free of Aerosmithsonian single entendres. The originally shy Dave seems comfy in the straight man role. "She’s certainly the focus on stage," he says of Kelly, though she emphasizes that the key to their engaging live shows is the chemistry between them.
As Adult Album Alternative radio stations and some big retailers warm to Dave and Kelly’s Sex, Kelly sees success on a wide scale as something that’s attainable, provided they get the right exposure. "If we played ‘Spasm’ on David Letterman," she says, "I think people would say, ‘Whoa, what was that? That was so…different.’
"I would like to have a career like Tom Waits. I think that’s realistic, because I don’t think we’re mainstream, and I don’t think he’s mainstream. The thing about Dave and me is that when people hear the record, they buy it. I know, because I get so much email from people. They say, ‘I took your record home and I put it on my turntable, and I listen to nothing else.’
"I think people used to criticize us for being exactly the way we were back when we started, and now people are sort of saying, ‘God, you’re the only band I know that has a point of view.’ It’s like we didn’t change, but they got over it or something."
Here’s hoping the rest of the world gets over it or something, too.
Y3: Kelly, did Dave ever write a lyric that you didn’t want to sing?
Kelly: Oh yeah. We have a song called "Cinder" and now it goes "There’s a small, noisy creature tearing holes in my words." He had written, "There’s a small, noisy creature tearing holes in my dress." And I felt it sounded like hamster time in the emergency room. [Everyone laughs.] I didn’t like the lyric.
Dave: Also, "Next To You."
Kelly: Yeah, he wrote a song called "Next To You," and it was actually one of the first songs I ever learned. How does that song go again?
Dave: Well, it’s a really torchy song. "You whip me, you beat me, and I come back for more."
Kelly: He wrote this other song called "Small Black Heart," which is really—talk about unrequited love, talk about being in the bottom of the thing. But it’s so, so much at the bottom, that it’s really great. How does that song go, how does the chorus go?
Dave: Uh, actually we haven’t really done it.
Kelly: No, we’ve never performed it. "With each hit…"
Dave: "…Comes a tiny little ball…"
Kelly: [Laughs] Yeah, "…in my heart. The smaller it would grow, ‘til black from blue, it turns into this…something tiny ball that hangs on just for spite, and barely then, and barely then." [Everyone laughs] Now, that I like, because it’s so dramatic. It’s so over the top that I thought it was funny.
YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1998