The former no wave chanteuse mixes up her Windy City influences and opts for something totally open-ended.
BY MIKE SHANLEY
AZITA is a band. But when talking about the voice behind the band, that’s Azita Youssefi. After cutting her teeth in Chicago no wave bands Scissor Girls and Bride of No No, Youssefi took a right turn and sat down at the piano. The result came in 2003 with Enantiodromia, on Drag City. Accompanied only by her keys, along with bass and drums, her rough-around-the-edges vocals didn’t adhere to some linear singer-songwriter path. Instead she went in all sorts of melodic directions that avoided verse-chorus structures and made for an intriguing journey.
Since then, AZITA has amassed a solid catalog of albums that range from more pop oriented moments (Life on the Fly, How Will You?) to stark piano-and-voice performances (Disturbing the Air). Recently, Drag City released Year, a set of songs originally composed for Brian Torrey-Scott’s play of the same name. Most of the songs are relatively brief, in keeping with the movement of the play, and they play up the emotion of the story in a manner that makes it one of Youssefi’s most arresting and strongest works yet.
Youssefi had played piano when she was growing up, but like most kids, gave it up after a few years. During college she picked up the bass, her instrument of choice in Scissor Girls and Bride of No No. Both bands released a handful of albums and singles throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s. It wasn’t until a roommate purchased a set of 88s that she revisited her first instrument, taking lessons again. As her interest in the piano grew, her band was having trouble producing music. “With Bride of No No we were trying to make it all complex,” she recalls. “Not to make it complex on purpose, but because we had shitloads of ideas. But we were practicing three nights a week for three hours or five hours and we would write one song in one month or two months. It was just brutal. If I run into any of those people now, the first thing they say is, ‘Can you believe how much we practiced?’”
Some parts of Enantiodromia were written with Bride of No No in mind, but much of it came together as she tried to figure out how the songwriting process worked. “In general, whatever I do is mostly inspired by some kind of thing: I’m going to teach myself how to do this right now. And I get obsessive about it,” she says.
“At that time I was obsessed with rhyme schemes and I was reading text books on lyricism, like the kind of lyricism somebody who was writing Broadway tunes would do, where things would have to rhyme in a particular way or not. I was also trying to get a grasp on how to work with the piano, how to put parts together.”
Accompanied by bassist Matthew Lux and drummer John Herndon — two stalwarts of the Chicago’s progressive jazz scene as well as members of bands like Isotope 217 and Tortoise — Enantiodromia lived up to its $9 college word title (defined by Oxford as “the tendency of things to change into their opposites, as often seen in psychological development). For every “Bitter End in Time,” which has an underlying catchiness to it, there’s a more obtuse journey like “Reopening.” On a tour that year supporting Smog, AZITA offered an intriguing contrast to her labelmate’s directness, since Youssefi performed by herself with her piano, something that required undivided attention and which left at least one audience puzzled.
Although Year is just seeing its release now, the play was staged in 2006, around the same time as she started writing songs for How Will You? and Disturbing the Air. “I was trying to finish How Will You? around 2008 or 2009. It ended up being that the songs seemed like they belonged on two separate records,” she says. “There was a division of material. Some of it wanted to be very orchestral and spare, and the other thing wanted to be like a rock, pop record. So I ended up deciding to make it into two records. But when that happened, I had about six songs for each record but I didn’t have each record complete. It took a long time to finish.”
The two albums differ radically in both sound and tone. How Will You? opens brightly enough with a song titled “I’m Happy,” and while it doesn’t completely build on that bright sentiment, the song doesn’t go for irony either. “Things Go Wrong” adds a shuffle to the riff from Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” (that’s a good thing), while “Come William” begins with an Eno-esque piano and builds into tone poem that is probably AZITA’s most beautiful moment up to that point.
Her lyrics had taken on a poetic quality which might be missed if not for the album’s lyric sheet. The title track offers one vivid example: “On Spanish bells and fire escapes your face of glances falling green/ unwinding through the marshes to find the best spot for a dream.”
By contrast, Disturbing the Air sounds like the thoughts of someone deep in despair. Youssefi recorded the album at home, adding only some subtle synthesizer fills to her piano. The title track appears in three brief installments spread throughout the album. “But there before you, my heart wasn’t felt/ Wasn’t for you, my heart wasn’t known/ you were happy with me/ should I abide by that thought now/ should I block it out,” she sings in the Part Three.
When reviewing her album, I speculated that Disturbing the Air was a break-up album, but Youssefi shoots down the idea quickly. “Nope,” she says, with a laugh. “I don’t know what that means. But I wouldn’t say that anything I do is a category of a thing.” She doesn’t give specifics, though she later says that album is similar to Year’s subject of a missing person.
She does, however, admit the album has a definite structure. “It’s supposed to be like chapters of a book,” she says. “It’s very intentionally in order, sort of arranged to be like a novel. When I started dealing with the material on its own, it ended up having to be that way. Which is partially why it took so long time to finish it.”
As she worked on both albums, Youssefi also collaborated with Torrey-Scott again. His play Year depicts a group of characters coping with the death of one of their friends, who occasionally reappears as a ghost. They had collaborated previously — her EP Detail from the Mountain Side came from an earlier play — but this time, Youssefi also appeared onstage. “In this one I was sort of like a Greek chorus,” she says. “I was commenting on the action of the play. In between [scenes], it would switch to me at the piano and I was playing and singing. That’s why the songs are pretty short. There’s not that many sections that repeat, choruses and stuff that you’d have in normal songs. Because that’s probably not what you need in a play, you need an idea to come across and then you’re onto the next thing.”
The resulting album finds her working successfully in a variety of styles to evoke the particular mood. “Opening” and “Closing,” which bookend the album, move pensively with piano power chords. “Ice” has a bright, poppy feel to it. Her voice, once a little warbly, has the authority and strength necessary for her role.
The biggest surprise for an AZITA follower comes with “Something That Happened.” At nine minutes — nearly one-third of the whole album — the song is built on a reggae groove, full of dub effects before it collapses into a dark drone for the last minute or so. On record, it sounds like an authentic tip of the hat to dub masters, and this digression of sound came to her naturally. “Strangely, when I wrote all this stuff, these are the sounds that I had in mind, even when it was just piano and voice,” Youssefi says. “When we did the play, it was me and guitarist Emmett Kelly [onstage]. I said to him, ‘This has to be a reggae thing.’ And he said, ‘No way. You’re crazy.’
“I wrote the vocal melody to sound almost like a Bob Marley line or something,” she says. “I don’t know why. I just, for some reason, thought that would work for that particular little bit of text.” (Unlike the performance, Youssefi fleshed out Year with a full band: guitarist Sam Wagfield, bassist Toby Summerfield and drummer Adam Vida.)
Although the lyrics are based on dialogue from the play, the songs were written predominantly by Youssefi this time around. “With the previous play that we did, he wrote all the lyrics and I set them to music,” she says. “I tweaked a few sentences here and there. With this one, I ended up doing a lot more of the writing because the lyrics weren’t working. But I had read the script so I understood the story.”
In the end, it opened Youssefi up to the different possibilities when returning to her own work. “When I started with Enantiodromia, I wasn’t sure how to write songs at all,” she says. “I didn’t want to write words first and then set them to music because I felt like I would lose, like, very particular melodic choices that you make when you’re only considering melody. So I’d write the tune first and work like hell to get words to fit the melody.
“Then after the second one of these play records, where I had this freedom in writing all the music — because all the words were done — it made the whole thing go so much faster in the writing stage. It just really changed my ideas about how to do things. So I think that that helped me finish Disturbing the Air, which for example has some songs that are just piano melodies. I’ve been going back and forth a lot more since I had this experience.”