Reissue Of The Week: Jarboe – Skin Blood Women Roses
Kevin Mccaighy speaks to Jarboe about the timely reissue of one of her key recordings
In the years of pre- and post-millennial tension following the demise of the great entity known as Swans, their music was extremely hard to come by, almost completely out of reach; their legacy was easier to read about than to hear. Beginning my working life in a second-hand record shop in the North of England, their work was the stuff of legend even then. But none of it ever seemed to find its way into our racks, or the record collections of my friends.
“Their work is treasured”, a friend told me when we spoke about how difficult it was to find Swans music, “fans hold onto their records for dear life.”
All that changed one day, in the early noughties when one record did, finally, rise to the surface for me to claim as my own: Blood Women Roses, by Skin. This obscure side project was both my introduction to the extraordinary creative force that is Jarboe, and the beginning of a great voyage of education and enlightenment. Now, a quarter of a century later, the album has been remastered, renamed, and reissued (on Record Store Day) by the Belgian label Consouling Sounds on vinyl and CD for a new generation of inquisitive souls to experience.
Blood Women Roses is a pivotal release both in the history of Swans and for Jarboe herself. Having begun both a personal and creative relationship with Swans bandleader Michael Gira, Jarboe was already a key part of the running of the group before being integrated, guesting on Greed and Holy Money as well as emitting the infamous scream on ‘Time Is Money (Bastard)’. Created whilst Gira and Jarboe were living in London, Skin was conceived as a grand introductory statement. Jarboe explained the Skin project to Nick Soulsby in his book Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: “The Skin projects began with the original idea that Michael (Gira) might be interested in producing a solo album for me because he heard all the things I could do, singing-wise, that he didn’t feel were appropriate for Swans. When I first joined there wasn’t anything really melodic or song-oriented in Swans. The idea of the Skin album was that it would be the singer, the songwriter, the voice – the voice would always be upfront, and the production centred around the voice.”
In communication with me related to this review, Jarboe also added that: “The experience of living in London was a deeply romantic one for me with immersion into a different energy, a different culture.”
The mid-1980s independent/underground music scene was a remarkable era for extraordinary vocalists ranging from Marc Almond, Gavin Friday, Brendan Perry, and JG Thirlwell to Elizabeth Fraser, Diamanda Galas, Lisa Gerrard, and Lydia Lunch. With Blood Women Roses, Jarboe stepped forward into this firmament as a fully formed, multi-faceted artist, beginning with the gilded elegance of the opening track ‘One Thousand Years’.
Amidst desolate piano chords and shivering strings, Jarboe intones a languorous, glowing melody, bearing these immortal lyrics aloft:
“I’ll live forever.
I’ll never be filled,
I’ll never imagine I can change what i killed.”
The soaring, clarion call of Jarboe’s voice is unlike anything else heard in the Swans canon up until this point. The only recognisable element to what has come before is the grounding door-slamming hits of percussion that nail the song’s infernal rhythm. In the video produced for the song, Jarboe is a voice emerging from the shadows to bathe in the light, clutching a single red rose, a paragon of serpentine beauty.
What comes next, however, is just as spellbinding. To cover Arthur Hamilton’s jazz standard ‘Cry Me A River’ might be the most ‘out’ of choices that any independent artist could have made at that time, but it was apposite for a singer as in thrall to jazz as Jarboe. She delivers the most spine-chilling rendition of the song, a towering display of characterisation, vocal nuances and sheer narrative power. Every syllable she utters is laden with terrible loss. The A-side of Blood Women Roses might just be the bleakest, darkest and most enthralling set of torch songs; a testament to the new heights that Michael Gira’s songwriting was reaching, and the thrilling voice of Jarboe that not just made those songs breathe, but brought them vividly to life.
‘We’ll Fall Apart’, ‘Still A Child’, ”Blood On Your Hands’ remain some of the most emotionallu powerful songs that Michael Gira has ever written, their gunshot percussion and witheringly direct lyrics delivered by Jarboe in lacerating, mournful intonations:
“Will you deny me, when I get down on my knees
You’re nothing now
Your body’s burning down
Do you remember how cruel you used to be
Do you remember what you deny my weakness now’
(‘We’ll Fall Apart’)
‘Still A Child’ bears all the hallmarks of a clear new pathway for Gira’s songwriting, and anticipates the great project that would follow immediately in the wake of Skin, the behemoth that would become Children Of God. Jarboe’s lone piano melody ringing like a bell in the twilight, Jarboe’s voice, brimming with fragility, covets an exquisite phrase:
“I’m still a child
but I’m closer to death”
(‘Still A Child’)
The brutal thuds of ‘Come Out’, with its programmed drums and dancefloor groove acts as a severe jolt to the system, an incantatory crossover track that belies the gulf between the underground rock and dance scenes during the 1980s. The unadulterated phallic/weapon references in the lyrics are as blatant and direct as those employed by the likes of Grace Jones, and their great friend JG Thirlwell aka Foetus:
“This is what you you’ll get/ I’ll make it what you want/ I’ll use it on you/ I’ll make sure I pull the trigger”
The purity of Jarboe’s cover of Ira Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ rivals her rendition of ‘Cry Me A River’ and listening to it all these years later, it hints tantalisingly at the future Jarboe might have had as a celebrated jazz singer and interpreter of songs, in a world where Swans did not exist. The magic drone of her piano dominates the song, and points towards the actual course her creative life would take; one without labels or limits. ‘Red Rose’ is a piercing, crepuscular piece, delivered in an almost child-like voice, helpless against waves of groaning choral voices and bomb-like piano tones.
When I asked Jarboe about what she found both challenging and rewarding about making the album, she responded this way: “I’d say both ‘We’ll Fall Apart’ and ‘Cry Me A River’ we’re both challenging and rewarding. ‘We’ll Fall Apart’ involved two approaches of delivery. There was a quite controlled version we recorded and there was an emotional barely contained delivery. I chose the emotional delivery as the final one used for the mix down.
“’Cry Me A River’, in my interpretation, was always going to be a foray into extreme heartbreak and revenge so that vocal was deliberately recorded in that vein and by John Fryer at Blackwing Studio.
“I remember Michael was very pleased with my performance and [was] beaming.”
The Skin project remains a watershed moment in the history of Gira, Jarboe, and everyone involved with what would be Swans going forward. Blood Women Roses was released in 1987 on the short-lived Mute Records sub-label Product Inc. Michael Gira would record his own Skin album Shame, Humility, Revenge which would eventually be released in 1988, and a third, Ten Songs For Another World would follow in 1990. More importantly, Skin brought forth a plethora of new pathways that produce spectacular results in the form of the double magnum opus Children Of God, a landmark recording by Swans that would help guide the tumultuous course of the band for the next decade. As a showcase for Jarboe’s stunning abilities, Blood Women Roses is extraordinary, but I will leave the last word to her. When I asked her why the name of the project has changed to her name rather than Skin, she had this to say: “Regarding the artist name, it is because the album is an essential part of my history. It established my flexibility as a vocalist and musician. Michael, as owner of Young God Records, suggested I put the album out on my own. That is what I have done.”
THE ART DESK
10 Questions for Musician Jarboe
‘skin blood women roses’, collaboration and the secret to excellent hearing
by Guy OddyFriday, 22 April 2022https://www.facebook.com/plugins/like.php?href&send=false&layout=button_count&width=450&show_faces=false&action=like&colorscheme=light&font&height=21https://apis.google.com/u/0/se/0/_/+1/fastbutton?usegapi=1&size=small&hl=en-GB&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theartsdesk.com&url=https%3A%2F%2Ftheartsdesk.com%2Fnew-music%2F10-questions-musician-jarboe&gsrc=3p&ic=1&jsh=m%3B%2F_%2Fscs%2Fabc-static%2F_%2Fjs%2Fk%3Dgapi.lb.en.iTmf4rxOyWc.O%2Fd%3D1%2Frs%3DAHpOoo-LTnDn-AS2QlMWYZdnaV1OuFR7Iw%2Fm%3D__features__#_methods=onPlusOne%2C_ready%2C_close%2C_open%2C_resizeMe%2C_renderstart%2Concircled%2Cdrefresh%2Cerefresh&id=I0_1651769599530&_gfid=I0_1651769599530&parent=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theartsdesk.com&pfname=&rpctoken=15186778ShareFacebookTwitterEmail
Still evolving: JarboeJ Williams
Jarboe is a singer and musician who first rose to prominence as a member of Swans from 1985 to 1997. During this time, she and her then partner and fellow Swan, Michael Gira, also released three albums as Skin (known as World of Skin in the USA). The first of these, Blood Women Roses, a disc of gothic torch songs, jazz and electronic experimentation, has been remastered and is to be rereleased as skin blood women roses on 23 April 2022 for Record Store Day by Belgian label Consoling Sounds, under her own name.
GUY ODDY: It is really exciting to hear a new take on your first Skin album with the rerelease of Blood Women Roses. However, why has the newly remastered version of the record been issued under your own name rather than as the work of Skin and how is your relationship with Michael Gira these days?
JARBOE: Quite simply, Michael Gira suggested I put it out on my own. I’d say our relationship is amicable and, as of now, it looks we could be at the same event in Berlin in November 2022.
The opening track on the album, “One Thousand Years” was quite a stand-out tune when it was first released, and I remember being particularly impressed by its video (see below) when it was broadcast on UK TV’s The Tube. What are your memories of recording it and the rest of the album?
There are so many memories of the album recording. I will highlight the wonderful studios. Blackwing, for example, was an inspiring place to record. Also, the lead vocal on “One Thousand Years” was not intended as the actual take. It is a recording of me standing at the desk with microphone in hand in the control room just doing a run through as a test for the engineer. We decided to keep that “test” recording. We experimented with gathering sounds and manipulating them on this album. The boom sound on “Still A Child” is Michael slamming the door to the studio.
“Cry Me a River” also appears on the album and is an interesting reinterpretation of the famous Julie London tune. What made you think of covering that track?
The idea was to reinterpret a classic and make it my own. It was always an emotional song for me not a coy one and I wanted to express a ferocity and intensity – I ad-libbed the ending line “part of me died over you”. You hear me moaning in the background vocals throughout and the piano is treated to sound icy and foreboding.
Blood Women Roses got quite a lot of positive coverage in relatively mainstream UK media when it was first released. Did that come as a surprise to you, given that it is quite an experimental recording?
I remember the UK music journalist Jack Barron entitled his review Birth of a Singer and seeing this, I absolutely did experience warm light in my heart and yes, tears of joy in my eyes.
You were born and raised in the southern part of the USA. Do you think that this has influenced your work and, if so, how?
The street musicians of New Orleans fascinated me as a child, so I’d say there is an influence. You can for one example, hear it in my interpretation of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog” deliberately sung with a strong Southern accent. “Mother Father” also uses the Southern voice, as does “My Buried Child.”
You’ve also been interested in Buddhism for many years. How has this manifested itself in your music?
In my solo albums, beginning with Thirteen Masks and Sacrificial Cake, there is dharma or Tibetan Buddhist symbolism in a lyric or imagery in the song. On the album Alchemic: “nothing is here to stay; pain is not punishment. Pleasure is not reward. Nothing is here to stay” and “You are not your emotions”. Illusory is an album exploring karma and The Cut of the Warrior has an image of a Buddhist nun on the cover with her metaphorical skin cuts representing repeated efforts to “cut the ego”.
It’s 25 years since you left Swans and became a solo artist. Do you miss being in a band or do you value the freedom of being your own boss more?
Swans was an education. I got my degree.
Swans’ gigs in the ’80s were notoriously loud – much more so than modern health and safety legislation in the UK would allow. How’s your hearing these days?
I sent a deliberate message on stage in Swans by taking out my earplugs and inserting them in my ears before the band started. I wanted the audience to see that I wore earplugs. I have excellent hearing.
As well as a fair few solo albums, you’ve also made several collaborative records with a number of artists, such as Neurosis, Justin Broadrick, Father Murphy and Helen Money. Which was your favourite of these projects and why?
Performing with Neurosis, even with doing all that panting on “Within” live and without getting dizzy was a pleasure and I love the album we made together. It was good to say “hello” to the creative and personable Justin Broadrick when Godflesh performed at the Necronomicon Convention in Rhode Island in August 2019 – on the same night as me. My show was created just for that event. I had Brett Robinson hit a gong on stage that night and he also played a brain wave modulator. Kris Force played viola and P. Emerson Williams was on electric guitar. I played iPad as well as doing live narration. Helen Money does gorgeous cello on stage and is an excellent musician. I also toured with my friends, Chiara and Federico (Father Murphy) in Europe and the US and we also did Dark Mofo in Tasmania together. They are angels. I enjoyed those shows so very much.
Finally, with you bringing all kinds of interesting sounds to the recordings in which you have participated throughout your career, have you ever considered producing any other artists? If so, with whom would you most like to work?
Collaboration with other musicians involves the production aspect of something other than one’s own work and has been and continues to be part of my experience. As for naming an artist I’d enjoy working with in any capacity? Warren Ellis.