UNDER THE TUCSON SUN Marianne Dissard

The French-born,
Arizona-based songwriter/filmmaker/poet finds meaning – and solace – in the
universal language of music.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

In the wake of the January 8 shooting rampage that claimed six lives
and seriously wounded 13 in Tucson,
AZ, the nation briefly paused and
took a step back from partisan brinksmanship – Sarah Palin notwithstanding – to
refocus on the fragility of life and what really unites us.

 

Nowhere was this sentiment more visceral than in the downtown arts
community of Tucson
that singer/songwriter, filmmaker and poet Marianne Dissard has called home for
the past 16 years. From out of the dark madness of that morning, commiserating musicians
and artists gathered later that night at The Rialto Theatre, which canceled its
scheduled event and opened its doors for an impromptu musical vigil for the
victims.

 

Playing songs and celebrating the victims’ lives, including wounded Congresswoman
Gabrielle Giffords, a long-time fan of Tucson’s
fertile music scene, the evening turned out to be a somber but cathartic
reaffirmation of community for Dissard, her fellow musicians and the audience.

 

“It was a really solemn and quiet and reflective moment where we all
came together and did what we do – usually in a more riotous way, I suppose,”
says Dissard, who still retains the rich accent of her native France. “But it was also
life-affirming — it was really a great moment to be there and to be with
people we usually work and interact with and just to perform.”

 

A small irony of that night is that Dissard could not play “The One
& Only,” a love song to Tucson
from her marvelous brand new album, L’Abandon,
whose sentiments were now freighted with unintended meanings for its author. That
night, however, Dissard deemed the slinky, shout-along blues song too
ebullient, and stuck with more appropriately melancholy fare.

 

“I can talk no end usually when I’m on stage, just babble on, but this
time I was like, ‘I don’t have anything to say — I’m just going to sing,” she
says, remembering that she dropped her laptop to the ground that morning upon
hearing the news, as though punishing it for the news it brought. “It was a
pretty solemn moment.”

 

There are musical moments on L’Abandon that might’ve fit the somber occasion – the rueful piano-and-pedal-steel waltz
“Fondre,” the minor-key mystery of “Le Gros Chat” — but the record mostly
lives up to its title. Dissard likens it to “a wild embrace, abandoning myself,
losing myself, letting go.”

 

The 11 French-language songs are speckled in international colors from
French chanson and mariachi to roots-flavored rock, hints of the avant garde
and even cabaret. Like its studio predecessor, 2009’s L’Entredeux, which she co-wrote with Calexico’s Joey Burns, L’Abandon is a collaborative effort,
this time with Italian composer Christian Ravaglioli’s music put to Dissard’s earthy
and lyrical imagery.

 

In fact, emblematic of the record’s – and Tucson’s – culture mash-up, Dissard
assembled a mini-U.N. for a band, including the likes of Canadian guitar whiz
Luke Doucet, Mexico’s Sergio Mendoza (Y La Orkesta, Calexico), Mexican-Americans
Salvador Duran (Iron & Wine, Calexico) and Brian Lopez (Mostly Bears), and Denmark’s
Thøger T. Lund (Giant Sand), among others. (For her current European tour,
Lopez, Mendoza, Olivier Samouillan and longtime
BLURT fave
Gabriel Sullivan are Dissard’s backing musicians.)

 

That international cast overcame the potential for Tower of Babel
incomprehension – Dissard doesn’t speak Italian, Ravaglioli speaks neither
French nor English – by relying on the universal language of music.

 

“You have that certain innocence of the ones who don’t know,” Dissard
says of the process. “You don’t know what you’re getting into, and therefore
you’re not afraid to try it. It worked out. We just spent hours and hours just
being next to each other, him on the piano and me trying to make sense of what
he was going for.”

 

Dissard turned to her directorial experience – she first visited
Tucson in 1989 to interview filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy), and in 1994 directed Drunken Bees, a film chronicling Howe
Gelb’s Tucson fixture Giant Sand – to marshal this disparate crew. (She plans
to include a bonus DVD, a film remake of Andy Warhol’s western, Lonesome Cowgirls, with her latest
release).

 

“Hopefully you’ve cast your crew well enough that things will happen
the way you think they should,” she says, breaking into the smoky, infectious laughter
that seems to embody her album title. “I remember being very conscious in the
studio of having to have a certain type of energy, almost being in a state of
performance in the studio itself so that everyone would just go, ‘well, we know
this is the energy we need to give to this album.’ It really is the same thing
as being a director on the set and conducting people’s intentions.”

 

That was most likely made easier by an outstanding batch of songs,
rich in the romance of French chanson and delivered in vibrant rock shades. While
some may blanch at pop songs in a language they can’t understand (“who pays that much attention to lyrics, anyway?”
she asks), Dissard’s connection to one key element of the rich chanson
tradition virtually makes that a moot point.

 

“There are a couple of trends to that tradition,” she says, citing the
lyric content, and the need to hear every word of the story being told. “There’s
also, to me, another very important strain of that which is the body, the theatricality
of it. I mean, Edith Piaf has great lyrics, she’s got great tales, but she’s
also like a body singing, and Jaques Brel will sweat through his songs, and
bleed from every pore of his body.

 

“So, to me, those two are as essential in what I’m doing. The irony of
it is, is that I sing in French, so it doesn’t really translate into other
countries when I sing. But the incarnation of a song is something that does
translate; again, another ‘universal language.'”

 

That’s comes across in L’Abandon‘s
songs even without seeing them performed live. These stories -the language is
immaterial – translate the full conviction of the writers and players, of the
experiences that conceived them and the recording process that brought them
into this world. You can hear it in the Left Bank-dusky noir blend of the
accordion-powered “La Peau du Lait,” in the border-trumpet blasts that buffet
“Almas Pervesas,” and the galloping twang – as sung by a growling female George
Brassens — of “L’Exile.”

 

But unlike those tracks and L’Entredeux,
which Burns and Dissard crafted into a straightforward French
chanson-meets-Americana record, L’Abandon songs like the early P.J. Harvey-flavored rocker “Ecrivain Public,” the
whispered space-out of “Ete Hiver” (which Dissard attacks with the drama of a
modern Brel), or the polyglot samples and soulful, Tindersticks-like “Neige
Romaine” expand Dissard’s vocabulary into all kinds of intriguing directions.
Yet throughout, downtown Tucson’s
vibrant eclecticism and the storied history of chanson permeate the record –
two things we can be grateful Dissard decided not to abandon.

 

“The thing that attracts me to (these musical strands) is that I like
my music to be living – I like, here in Tucson, the people that are all working
together, are all in each other’s bands and are basically making sure that
music is something that’s played live, that’s part of the community.”

 

And in the long shadow of the Jan. 8 tragedy, that’s more than just a
nice perk of living in Tucson
– it proved to be a life-affirming necessity.

 

[Photo Credit: Scott Christensen]

 

Marianne Dissard
on the web:

 

OFFICIAL WEBSITE –
mariannedissard.com

FACEBOOK
– facebook.com/pages/Marianne-Dissard/87460442223

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