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Nothing is Here to Stay: An Interview with Jarboe

BY JOHN MALKIN| MAY 13, 2019

John Malkin talks to musician Jarboe about the influence of Buddhism in her work.

Jarboe is an American vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and artist who lives near Atlanta, Georgia. She was a singer in the rock band Swans, has collaborated with other bands — including Neurosis — and has produced many solo albums. Her music can be considered a blend of melodic gothic, extreme metal, modern tribal, and experimental opera. Jarboe’s solo projects and musical collaborations have often been grounded in a spiritual, internal exploration.

Jarboe’s latest album, Cut of the Warrior, was released on December 14, 2018 by Translation Loss Records and is based on Tibetan Buddhist practices like tonglen — a method of empathetically exchanging self for others — and chod — a practice for confronting attachment to ego and the body. Chod practice was developed by the 11th-century Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön.

From an early age, Jarboe’s father encouraged her to sing and play organ, and she thrived musically. Later, her father was less enthusiastic when Jarboe decided to trade in traditional opera and choir vocals for rock and roll. Today, after some eight Swans albums, twelve solo albums, and multiple collaborations over thirty-five years, Jarboe continues to create music as a truly independent and thoughtful artist.

John Malkin: Tell me about your interest in Buddhism.

Jarboe: I’ve been studying Buddhism for many years. My interest came forth in Swans as well as my solo work. I was in New York during the International Year of Tibet [1991], and the Dalai Lama was at Madison Square Garden and the Paramount Theatre, delivering the Kalachakra Empowerment. I participated in that and it was a very interesting process. We were instructed to walk there, if possible. It was great. I’d get up at dawn and walk the sidewalk from the East Village all the way up to Madison Square Garden. I’d see the monks on the sidewalk doing the same — walking — and it was that whole ritualistic aspect of starting in the morning to get there that really set the tone for the day. It was a fascinating experience.

A lot of events during that time aligned with things I’d studied and thought about my whole life. A lot of it had to do with the fact that emotions are not real; they’re a chemical state that comes and goes. So, rather than being afraid of them, you can embrace them, because they’re going to be leaving the same way they came in. So, you’re not a slave to your emotions. That’s what opened up the door to all of my lyrics.

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Once I had this revelation about emotions, I let go of writing torch songs about pain and men and heartbreak and romance. I wasn’t interested in that anymore. I found something that rang true: trying to deliver a message about what I was studying, which was that these emotions are temporary states.

On the tour that I’ve been on for over a year now, throughout Europe, Australia, and the West Coast, we end with the song “Nothing Is Here to Stay.” The lyric “Nothing is here to stay” repeats in a mantra-way, but in a child-like voice that I use. “Pain is not punishment / pleasure is not reward / nothing is here to stay.”

Tell me about the album cover.

For Cut of the Warrior, she is illustrated with cuts on her body. The state of chod is the “cut of the warrior.” She is shedding the ego in a literal manifestation of the metaphor of chod; the warrior attempting to cut the ego.

On the Buddhist path, there are many secret rituals. A lot of them have been lost through time, but the basic gist involves the tantric feast. There’s a song called “Feast,” and she’s in that piece having visions. In my interpretation it’s a visualization rather than actual cuts to the body or sexual ritual. The feast is a visualization.

One of the new songs is titled “Karuna.”

Karuna, in the Buddhist interpretation, is compassion. I’ve been addressing the issue of compassion for a couple of years now, with things I saw happening in the United States. When I reacted deliberately, that resulted in the album “As Mind Dissolves, As Song Begins” [2017]. That is an interpretation of a line from Rumi. I was studying Rumi, and at the same time I was looking at these political rallies of the person who is in the white house right now. The juxtaposition of the divine laws and what I saw as shear hate really hit me hard. And that’s what gave birth to that.

I deliberately did an album of vitriol and anger and used rock instrumentation to manifest that, and then on the opposite side I used songs about divine love. This is to show the contrast. And I ended it with something called “The Rally,” which has a recording I made secretly at a rally. I used some chanting that happened at that rally and I processed it and put it into the mix. It’s rather chilling, especially for people that understand exactly whose rally I was talking about [laugh]. So, this set the tone for more intense discussions about compassion.

Karuna was recorded in a dome and there’s a lot of clanging metal in it. It’s an actual session of [Tibetan Buddhist] meditation. There’s a line, “If you call her, she will come.” This is about calling on compassion.

It’s sounds like you’re engaged simultaneously in finding something to do with anger and being compassionate. And facing the reality of impermanence while not denying that there’s social injustice going on. I think some people tend to choose between a spiritual practice and taking action in the world. I’m always inspired by people who do both fully.

I think it’s important. The only way things can change and evolve is to take action and get involved. Whether it means going door-to-door or going to a march. At the same time, I am acutely aware of the fact that people don’t want to be preached to, so what I do is gently offer my own views, and if someone respects or cares about what I have to say, here it is. But I’m not going to go on a tirade, because people are getting enough of that as it is!

‘METALITALIA’ :

“The true and genuine Pythia of the American underground”

In un periodo in cui il cantautorato femminile più sperimentale sta dando alcuni dei suoi frutti più maturi, intriganti e più riusciti è bene non dimenticarsi di uno dei personaggi più rappresentativi per questa dinamica. The Living Jarboe è infatti stata uno dei primi esempi di cosa volesse dire trascendere generi, barriere e concezioni musicali contaminando lo spirito di rumori, evocazioni, distorsioni, sospiri. “The Cut Of The Warrior” è una sorta di nuova compilation di brani di cui vengono presentate talvolta più versioni, sottoforma di differenti mixaggi, ma che si presentano come un andamento unico e omogeneo. Un percorso per ritrovare il minimalismo della dea ex Swans, della collaboratrice di Neurosis e molti altri idoli della scena della musica estrema, vera e propria Pizia dell’underground americano. Un percorso per tornare a riconoscere nella poesia trascendente di Jarboe alcune delle sensazioni più intriganti che la musica spirituale possa dedicare al cuore e all’orecchio dell’ascoltatore. L’iniziale “Wayfaring Stranger In The Bardo” è infatti una colonna sonora minimale di un sentiero evocativo, dove il buddismo si configura come anelito per la conoscenza di sé e degli altri, in poche note, in poche parole, in pochi suoni che colpiscono forte nella loro essenza soffusa. In “Karuna” i vocalizzi della cantautrice statunitense diventano quelli di una sirena, tanto celestiale quanto infernale, in un momento di rara trascendenza sonora, in cui organetto e un lieve accompagnamento percussivo tracciano il percorso. Anche nella versione remixata (Byla Mix) i synth e le chitarre recuperano il tutto donando una veste di grande pad atmosferico e miscelando il tutto dentro un’unica pasta, quasi indistinta, ma di una bellezza rara. Nella finale ripresa di “GodGoddess” c’è una luce finale, delicata, come un grande abbraccio sonoro. Dice Jarboe in merito al retroscena religioso e sacro che permea il lavoro: “”Il praticante Chöd cerca di sfruttare il potere della paura attraverso attività come i rituali nei cimiteri e visualizzazioni in grado di offrire i loro corpi in una festa tantrica per mettere la loro comprensione del vuoto per il compito ultimo”. Immergersi nella sacralità del buddismo sembra dover essere la prerogativa per accedere a queste profondità ma in questo caso la forma dell’album risulta capace di essere fascinosa di per sé, senza necessariamente doversi tingere di così tanta complessità. La musica sperimentale tante volte soffre dello spettro di voler offrire più di quanto si possa generalmente sostenere entro i canoni di una certa estetica funzionale all’ascolto. In questo caso “The Cut Of The Warrior” riesce ad inserirsi come un prodotto che riesce ad entrare da subito dentro all’ascoltatore, ma è soprattutto in grado di mostrarsi in tutta la sua profondità, nei suoi abissi reconditi, nelle sue evocazioni più potenti attraverso un minimalismo ricercato. La sacralità di Jarboe è, in questo nuovo corso della sua poetica, intagliata come una ferita di una guerriera, profonda, pulita, forse letale, forse cicatrice di una grande storia.

  • Davide Romagnoli

‘METAL INJECTION’ :

Invincible and immaculate, Jarboe is the goddess of dark and avant-garde music. The forward-thinking queen of unreality, this is the woman who had a huge part in starting a new generation of weirdness. Her’s is a project that is forward thinking and thrilling, dynamic and over the top, constantly enamored with the promise of a darker and more potent tomorrow. Her records have always been deep and thoughtful, full of unique sonic twists and turns, overwhelming beauty and a very real sense of the crushing struggle of being.
With powerful sonic pulses and crushing ebbs and flows, The Cut Of the Warrior is an amazing blend of four original compositions as well as a set of three collaborative remixes that have led to some really thoughtful and exciting new musical directions. This is the spirit of avant music recaptured by someone who has chosen to remain at the cutting edge, crafting music that is wholly different, very beautiful and currently scaring the hell out of my cat. What more could you want?

I think what gets me about The Cut Of The Warrior is that while Jarboe’s music remains incredibly beautiful it also represents a much darker side of the human psyche and operates far outside of the realms of traditional music, placing an emphasis on minimalist ideas, mesmerizing repetitions and reverb packed effects around her massive vocals. These songs are powerful explorations of Jarboe’s Buddhist ties and they create music that is not only meditative but enveloping. This all being said, this is not a record that gets lost in navel-gazing.
Even in the most Steve Reich-esque moments of a track like ‘GodGoddess’ there is a clear sense of forward motion and an overarching sentiment that Jarboe is creating something powerful that is going to draw you in and keep you fascinated. The transcendent and simple poetry of these trance-like reflections is addictive. I’m on my fifth or sixth listen of The Cut Of The Warrior now and every time I go through this record I find even more to love. It’s an album that rewards the listener right away with lush soundscapes, but with the more that you invest the more you understand to what extent Jarboe has been able to truly embrace her inner greatness.

Powerful and transcendental, Jarboe really taps into what makes her special on The Cut Of The Warrior. This record sees her leap from peak to peak, and the collaborations add a sense of breadth to her work that we have perhaps not seen since the Neurosis collaboration she did all those years ago. This is one of the United States’ most important composers at the height of her late period powers crafting something that is uniquely heavy and incredibly, almost disconcertingly disturbing in all the most subtle ways whilst simultaneously communicating a message of love and hope. There are some truly subversive ideas going on here paired up against some gorgeous melodies.
Jarboe has unveiled something that cuts through the ego and uses ideas of repetition in order to put the listener in a state of pure and unadulterated sonic adulation. This is not an album to be taken lightly nor is it one that isn’t going to leave you with a few surprises, but that’s part of the point. This is an album that was meant to leave you in awe, allow you to embrace the future and fall more in love with the music of Jarboe and her incredibly rich history in the world of avant-garde than ever before.

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‘VIOLA NOIR’ :

Год назад Jarboe альбомом As Mind Dissolves As Song Begins продемонстрировала концепт из абстракции, мистической эклектичности, The Cut Of The Warrior основан на тематике из духовной традиции чод (одна из школ буддизма). Как следствие — он более спокоен и монолитен. Здесь практически нет контрастов — четыре трека представлены как четыре ступени одного процесса. И их вариации в виде миксов и репризы.

Сакраментальные tribal/new age литания Wayfaring Stranger in The Bardo GodGoddess преобразовываются в пульсирующий neoclassic/dark folk этюд GodGoddess, а затем в Feast, где ritual ambient составляющая выходит на первый план. Karuna уже идет как полноценный ритуал. Byla показывает более «приземленную» и вместе с тем безмятежную сторону оригинала, версия Wayfaring Stranger in The Bardo от End Christian придерживается experimental/noise ambient эстетики, а GodGoddess Reprise выдержан в dark synth/ethereal тонах.

Тонкая, но впечатляющая работа. Характерная для Jarboe, вне времени, вне пространства, отсекающая привязанности и страхи.