To regain her artistic footing, the French-born musician realized that leaving her adopted home of Tucson and eventually becoming the prodigal daughter would be necessary.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
In the winter of 2012, Marianne Dissard returned to her home in Tucson after a four-year stretch of nearly non-stop touring behind her first two LPs, 2008’s L’Entredeux and 2010’s L’Abandon. She was exhausted — ‘’physically, spiritually and mentally,” she says – but the city Dissard had called home for nearly 20 years wasn’t the salve she’d hope for.
“It’s part of the exhaustion of coming back from touring, not finding your ground,” says the French-born Dissard, who has since returned to Europe. “Some people do it much better and faster than me. Within a day, they’re like, ‘Okay, I’m home.’ Me, I have a hard time stopping spinning.”
Soon enough, however, Dissard realized that what was eating at her and making her feel mangled, inside and out, went much deeper than just having a tough time decompressing after a tour. She’d simply run her course in Tucson, where she’d recorded her first two LPs with help from the town’s indie royalty, members of Calexico and Giant Sand. (Go here to read BLURT’s 2011 Tucson profile of Dissard.)
Having toured extensively in Europe and collaborated with members of the hip-hop community in the interim, Dissard — who’s also a filmmaker — had re-discovered other parts of her artistic self, as well as the desire to explore new ones.
“It was like I wasn’t living there anymore, I was just packing suitcases and travelling, and when I got back there I realized, ‘this is just not where I want to live’” anymore, she says of the city and what she called its laid-back arts scene. “It was just time to go. Everything I listen to, the things I want to explore with my music, my stage performances, with my writing — they could not really develop any further in that energy, I thought.”
And so for two months that winter she wrote songs from that dark place of isolation, exploring the changes happening within her. It was from there that her latest recording, what she calls the last in a trilogy of Tucson LPs, took shape as The Cat. Not Me. With most of the music written by Sergio Mendoza of Calexico, the record reads like a logical extension of her previous solo LPs.
The album still includes spacious and dusky Southwest vibes in the haunting guitar lines and minor chords of “Mouton Bercail” or the shuffling tempo and lonesome harmonica on “Oiseau,” songs that feel like they couldn’t have been written anywhere else. And of course Dissard’s smoky voice and dramatic flair on the lullaby-like “Pomme” or orchestrally dense “Heureusement Sans Heurt” fit neatly within the French chanteuse tradition.
But there are key changes going on here — thematically and sonically —that suggest The Cat. Not Me. is a quintessential transition LP. Influenced by PJ Harvey’s White Chalk LP, Dissard asked her co-writer to help realize her dream of a piano-based record. Mendoza, together with Giant Sand bassist Thøger Lund, complied and put his own fiery stamp on the music, Dissard says, keeping it far from White Chalk’s sparse structures. Instead, strings and horns surge into the tempos on the thrumming march “Je Ne Le Savais Pas,” and crank up the urgency quotient on the passionate “Tortue.”
But the LP’s two most telling cuts are “Doll Circa,” a confessional vignette about a young, acting-out Dissard torturing her Barbie doll, and the processional piano ballad, “La Partie de Puzzle du Jardin Francaise.” Both tracks find Dissard blending in samples and playing with structures, something the filmmaker found both familiar and exhilarating.
“It has to do with my film background, when I do editing,” she says. “It’s more experimental stuff, it’s all about mixing and matching and editing and changing timelines — it’s not tied to musicians needing to be put in context.”
Before that stage, though, Dissard had to come to terms with the changes she was going through personally. As winter passed, Dissard discovered the thematic red thread linking her songs. That the realization came via her cat, whose daily gift of dead and mangled Tucson wildlife included the half-eaten salamander pictured on the LP’s cover, turned out to be indicative of the life-fulcrum where she found herself.
“I took photos of those offerings every day — and I wasn’t sure why, but it was so fascinating to me,” Dissard says. “But then I understood that it had to do with the state of mind or physical shape I felt in when I was actually writing the record. Not so much the recording, but the writing of the lyrics came from a period of time when I was really feeling mangled.”
But as Dissard explains, sometimes we’re the cat, too. The record, she says, is really about the ambivalence we have reconciling our animal selves with who we think we are. “We’re responsible for our instincts and urges, and responsible for our own lives and beings, but sometimes it’s the animal in us that’s speaking,” she says. “ ‘It’s the cat in me, not me!’ It’s also the cat’s fault if I do anything wrong — if I hate you, bite your head off, it’s not me, it’s the animal in me.”
Anthropomorphic imagery pervades Dissard’s narratives: the bird in “Oiseau” is stuck inside, endlessly flying against windows, unable to grasp or penetrate the glass; the lizard in “Salamander” sheds its skin by painfully flaying it over stones; the tortoise shell in “Tortue” provides shelter, but it also carries the “nightmares” we drag around with us. If Dissard’s first two LPs explored her relationships with others, she says these songs are about the battles we fight with ourselves.
“It is very hard to shed, to let go of the bad relationship you have with yourself,” she says. “The songs are about getting stuck in myself, and getting to the point where I go, ‘okay, what do I do now? Do I keep going this way and I’m going to just shoot myself? This is pretty bad, this is like suicide-note type stuff —or do I manage to shed my skin?’”
Leaving Tucson behind, then, became a form of molting. Dissard headed first to Minneapolis to finish her new record, where she worked again with DJ/producer Brendan Kelly, aka BK-One of the city’s two-decade-old hip-hop collective, Rhymesayers. Kelly had helped with L’Abandon, and also introduced Dissard to another Rhymesayers artist, the DJ/producer Budo, who wound up being instrumental in Dissard’s evolution.
She had done a few live gigs with Budo, the nom de plume of Seattle-born Josh Karp, now most famous for his work with Grammy award-winning duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Dissard and Budo had hoped to collaborate further after some shows at last year’s SXSW, but the Macklemore explosion short-circuited that, with the exception of a recent one-off in Paris. But the influence of those shows, and hip-hop’s energy in general, had changed Dissard.
“I was trying to find a musician to accompany me on stage that had developed this kind of energy I’d been thriving with,” she says. “I’m a little dramatic on stage. I’m a little hyper. So I think that’s something that maybe the Tucson guys I was touring with were like, ‘whoa, what’s going on here?’ But when it comes to a more dramatic performance style, I kind of felt more interested in what was coming from hip-hop, from a different scene and from a different city.”
What really impressed Dissard and dovetailed with her new-found interests was what Budo did remixing The Cat. Not Me. LP. He took the record’s many textures and — where a missing full horn section would make the pair look like karaoke singers, for instance —whittled the track down without losing its lush essence or energy. “For me that was quite the lesson on approaching mixing,” said Dissard, who did the studio mix of the record. Combined with what she’d picked up from BK-One, that experience was also transformative.
“I had figured out how to deal with musicians in Tucson, people who will bring you a guitar track or piano track and go, ‘Okay, try putting your voice on that,’” she says. “But people like Brendan and Budo, producers who come from a different background — ‘whoa, what are you doing now with samples? You can play around, move this thing here, this thing there? You’re not tied to structures or a progression? Okay!’ “
Dissard insists she isn’t dissing her previous work or Tucson’s musicians, instead looking at the three records as “time pieces,” or simply what she knew how to do at the time she was doing it. In recording L’Entredeux, Calexico’s Joey Burns firmly held the production reins because Dissard had never done it before. She watched, listened and learned, though, and took control for L’Abandon, where she recreated what she’d experienced on the road — “get a bunch of guys who know what they’re doing together in the same room,” she says, “and if your casting is right, you’re fine.”
Yet it’s The Cat. Not Me. that she says is her first real studio album, the one that most bears the stamp of her personal vision. Where it leads next, she has no idea. It’s already taken her half-a-world away. But she will likely look back on this record as a rite of passage that signaled not just a new era, but a world of new directions.