Baby Dee: She knows just how lucky she is
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Baby Dee started out as street performer and moved to New York City, where, after a stint as a music director at a Catholic Church, “he” became “she.” Baby Dee then became a performance artist and quickly gained notoriety for outlandish shows that found her playing the harp while riding a tricycle dressed as a bumblebee. Dee’s discography includes a steady stream of indie releases that put her in the same camp as operatic singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons fame). And for the past two years, she’s concentrated on making State of Grace, a collaboration with singer Little Annie. She recently shared her thoughts on that album in an emailed interview.
Talk about what you’ve been up to the past year.
Let’s see, I did this album with Annie, Actually that one was about two years in the making. Annie’s an incredible lyricist. We’ve known each other forever. We lived in the same neighborhood in Manhattan, knew all the same people and played all the same venues but somehow never hooked up until about five years ago. Now we’re making up for lost time. As Annie’s fond of saying, “We’re the best songwriting team since Leopold and Loeb.” And then I had my dream gig, a six month residency with a theater company in Amsterdam. That ended yesterday. What fun! Waking up in the same bed every day and still doing lots of shows. I had a ball. I love the Dutch.
Describe the approach of the album.
Annie and I have a few things in common. One of them is that we both cringe at the idea of producing our own album. We both like big strong men to make decisions for us. I was afraid it would come out sounding like two girls dancing and I didn’t want that. But if we waited for the big strong men to become available we’d probably still be waiting, so we just jumped in and recorded piano and Hammond and vocals at my place. We sent that to my manager Richard Guy, in England and he took it from there. We did the bones of it ourselves and gave Rich carte blanche to take it wherever he liked. He turned out to be our big strong man. He got Chris Cundy to do horns, Eric Cheneaux to do guitar, Jordan Hunt to do strings and put it all together himself. It was his idea to invite Will [Oldham] to duet with Annie on the title track. Annie and I are over the moon about it. It came out perfect. He took it somewhere beyond our wildest dreams.
The songs are really beautiful. Did you write them together?
Yes. Annie wrote the lyrics. I wrote the music. But we actually did them together. She came to Cleveland for a few little visits of a couple of weeks. The only song we didn’t hammer out right in the room together was the final song on the album – “Perfect Gift.” That was neat. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple months and during that time I had written nothing but one little piano piece that came about during a stopover at home for just a few days. I went out on the road again and not only forgot the piece (I don’t write things down) but I’D FORGOTTEN I’D EVEN WRITTEN IT! So when we met again Annie said she’d written one little lyric and I thought “Wait a minute didn’t I write something?” I totally panicked and couldn’t remember it, but eventually I got lucky and it came back to me. And the cool part was that her little lyric and my little tune fit together perfectly as if we’d worked on them like we did with all the others. That was nice. Magic!
You moved back to Cleveland after spending some time away from the city. What’s that been like?
I moved back in the fall of ‘99 after 28 years in New York. At first I hated it, but after a few years I learned to love Cleveland. It has an unfortunate tendency toward big corporate stupidities but I can forgive that if I avoid places like the House of Blues. Cool American cities are getting hard to find. They all got attitude. Pittsburgh thinks it’s Warhol. Baltimore thinks it’s John Waters. Seattle thinks it’s Nirvana. Gimme a break! Anyway, yes, I like Cleveland.
I was at the house party concert you threw a couple of years ago. That seemed like fun. What was it like to entertain so many people at your house?
Oh neat! Wasn’t that a terrific night? I loved having all those people in the house. It was my favorite gig ever in Cleveland. I got to play the best piano in town – Andrew W.K.‘s!
I know you are tired of talking about your past but provide a little perspective. As you get older does your perspective on what you were doing then and what you’re doing now change? Do you see a clear connection between, say, riding on your tricycle while wearing a bumblebee outfit and collaborating with Andrew W.K.?
I guess maybe the answer is no. When you have a life as weird as mine, things just seem as strange as they actually are. Old age doesn’t make it make sense. I think I’ve always been lucky, though—to do as I pleased with my art, my life. I was lucky to be able to be the nerdy organist and to be the bear and to be the bee and to be the cat and to be the hermaphrodite. And I was lucky to get to know and work with wonderful people like Andrew. It’s all good fortune to me–always has been. It’s not like I felt sorry for myself when I worked the streets. I loved that gig. Those were some of the best years of my life.
It bothers me when I see critics refer to you as a “freak.” Does that bother you, too, or do you embrace that term?
Well good, I’m glad it bothers you. You’re a nice man. I don’t embrace the term, not really—even though I’ve worked in freak shows. There’s a friendliness among freakshow people. That’s a wonderful thing. But nobody really likes to be called a freak. Some people are different and work very hard to disappear into the crowd and blend in and some people are different and cop and attitude about it, I guess I’ve been both of those at various times in my life. Nowadays I just can’t be bothered. If I have to deal with the unkindness of some moron once in a while . . . well, who doesn’t?
Upcoming 2013 Tour Dates
Joe’s Pub, New York, NY
First Unitarian Church, Pittsburgh, PA
Mahall’s 20 Lanes, Lakewood, OH
The Monarch, Toronto, ON
Trinosophes, Detroit, MI
CSPS, Cedar Rapids, IA
Bryant Lake Bowl Theatre, Minneapolis, MN
West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg, MB
X-Dream Cabaret Closing Cabal @ Calgary Spoken Word Festival, Calgary, AB
Amnesia, San Francisco, CA
The Mezz Bar, Los Angeles, CA