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  • Interview with women's health advocate Christine Baze

    UR Chicago / Sounds section

    Interview with: Christine Baze
    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    Christine Baze wants to reach every “woman and every man who has a woman in their life that they love” so that she can scare the hell out of them. With good reason -- she's trying to prevent other women from suffering as she did in 2000, after being diagnosed with cervical cancer and having a hysterectomy 10 days later, throwing her life and musical career into disarray.

    During recovery, Baze learned about cervical cancer and HPV (high-risk types of the virus cause cervical cancer and low-risk types cause genital warts). She also watched Harold and Maude, a film famous for its humorous morbidity and spirited, 79-year-old Maude. Inspired by Maude's yellow umbrella, Baze began playing music again and decided to incorporate cervical cancer awareness into her message. She started the nonprofit organization Popsmear.org and the Yellow Umbrella tour, an annual musical benefit that educates women about preventing cervical cancer.

    HPV is extremely common -- almost 80 percent of women will get the virus by the age of 50. It gives no symptoms and is transmitted through sexual contact. Annual Pap tests are supposed to catch precancerous cells but they don't always do so, and Paps don't test for HPV, so it's important to get both the liquid Pap and HPV test. “People say, 'It's too invasive to get in the stirrups or get a finger up my butt,'” Baze says. “But you know what's really invasive? Getting a radical hysterectomy or internal radiation. Getting a Pap or an HPV test -- that's going to save your life.”

    Having HPV doesn't mean you'll get cervical cancer: The immune system usually fights off the infection. But when high-risk types of HPV persist, precancerous cell changes can occur and cause cervical cancer. However, because it is one of the few types of cancer for which the cause is known, Baze says it's beatable. “We've got the answers and we can't say that about any other cancer.”

    Baze's initial reaction to her own diagnosis was disbelief. “I was healthy and having the time of my life,” she recalls. “After the disbelief was incredible horror and anxiety.” But her compassion made her an activist. “Cancer disempowers you because your own body is betraying you,” she says. “But after chemo I felt so empowered and started getting onstage saying, 'Hey ladies! Pay attention! This can save your life.' It worked -- and now I'm in my fourth year of touring around the country doing essentially the same thing.”

    This fall, Baze and headliner Kaki King (previous lineups featured Ben Folds and the Samples) will perform in 35 U.S. cities, including Chicago. The tour is also sponsored by companies doing work related to cervical cancer, such as Digene, the makers of the HPV test.

    Baze, whose new album, Something New (Lime Green), mixes jazz with electronica, says her musical sensibilities shifted post-cancer. “I was trained as a classical pianist and did that for 20 years, then just before cancer my music had a nonsensical, whimsical attitude,” she says. “Now the songs come from a place of deep appreciation of my life. These days I think about the gift of cancer, the enlightenment that comes with it.”

    The tour reflects the same spirit. “We're celebrating the passion of music and the passion of life,” Baze says. “Even the venues and promoters have been so supportive; these guys come up to me at the end of the night like, 'Hey Christine, what's that test? HPV? I gotta tell my wife.' And they write it on their hand to remember, which is so cool. If that happens once every show, everything I'm doing is worth it.”

    Words: Gretchen Kalwinski

    The Yellow Umbrella Tour hits Schubas (3159 N. Southport; 773/525-2508) October 14; Something New is out now

    For more SOUNDS coverage, pick up the latest issue of UR Chicago in streetboxes now

  • Venus Zine: Review of Edith Frost's "It's A Game"

    Venus Zine; Interview; Edith Frost

    Venus Zine, November 2005Interview with Edith Frost The Chicago musician's new album, It's a Game, evokes a country carnival by Gretchen Kalwinski Edith Frost’s brand-spanking-new album, It’s a Game, the long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s Wonder Wonder, was released by Drag City on November 15, 2005, with a corresponding CD release party at Chicago’s Hothouse and a glowing, full-page review in the Chicago Tribune.Known for her heartbreak-y tunes and melancholy, wistful lyrics, Frost is used to fielding questions from journalists about her relationships. She's matter-of-fact about a recent breakup on her massive blog, edithfrost.com, and a recent post expresses frustration that her relationship status gets so much attention. I chatted with Frost at her Chicago apartment in the Ravenswood neighborhood, where we drank Hefeweizen and chewed the fat about Chicago weather, the new album, blogs, stupid jobs, and pets. 

    So I’ve listened to It’s a Game, and I wanted to tell you that I think it’s so beautiful and melodic.

    Thank you. … I like it too.

    Do you have a favorite tune on the album?

    Well, “Emergency” and “Playmate” are the ones that — when we were talking about what to put out on mp3 — we talked about showcasing. I’d been thinking about those two, and then one day Rian Murphy [Drag City’s head of staff] just yelled out in the studio, “Everybody, what’s the one?” And they were like, “Emergency! Emergency!” “Playmate” is a super old song; it was written nine to 10 years ago. I actually played that when I first starting playing out with my own songs, when I was in New York. I was wondering if you have daily rituals for getting work done, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?Rian says that I used to do that a lot more. When he met me and when we were recording Calling Over Time, I guess I was sitting with a guitar every single day. I was just sitting every day playing folk and country tunes for the sake of playing. I really don’t do that any more, like I used to. I don’t practice regularly.

    Is it because it is so second nature to you that you don’t even need to make a ritual of it?

    No, I should be doing it! I should, because then I’d write a lot more songs. I should definitely get back into that habit. Because if you’re dealing with the music every day, then something is more likely to come of that than sitting and watching All My Children. (Laughs) Well, you never know, there might be something you could use from that show? (Laughs)There was a quote from the show today that I loved. Something like, “You got me pregnant and now you’re dumping me?!” In that one, the guy was a sperm donor. Like, he was like the family doctor, so he didn’t actually screw her. He impregnated her by insemination. Still pretty shocking.

    When I'm home writing during the day, I’ll turn on the judge shows sometimes. They’re a problem for me. 

    Those I can get sucked into, those and Elimidate, because it’s always on after South Park, which I love. I Tivo that, and so I get Elimidate at the end. At some point, I got sucked into the reality shows. My theory was that I’d start watching all of them and eliminate one every week until I’m down to the One True Reality show that I really love, but I’m still Tivo’ing all of those. My favorite is Big Brother. I don’t really watch-watch them, but I just work right here on the couch and have them on out of the corner of my eye … I swear I’m not … oh well. 

    I wanted to ask you about public versus private personas, because your music is introspective and wistful, but you’re also out in public mode pretty often, blogging and performing, so do you think of yourself as more of an introvert or extrovert?

    Well, my natural inclination is to be a total homebody. I can be perfectly happy just being at home and doing the little projects that I do. And, with the blog, from my perspective, it doesn’t seem that revealing or that I’m giving away too much. When I first started it years ago, I was blabbing too much and using too many names. I keep going back and forth, with “I want a private life, I don’t want them to know everything” and then just talking about everything on the blog. But it was just a matter of learning how to go about it and assuming that who you were talking about was going to read it. And performing is cool, because you get feedback. I do well at it, by my standards. In other words, I get a lot of fulfillment from it.

    Had you played with any of the musicians that you worked with on It’s a Game before? 

    Yeah, pretty much. Lindsay [Anderson], Josh [Abrams], and I had opened for Cat Power three years ago, and Ryan Hembrey is someone who I’ve been working with ever since I moved to Chicago. Mark Greenberg is someone I’ve also known forever, too. He worked on Wonder Wonder and also Love is Real. Jason [Toth], the drummer, is in Manischewitz, and I’d done a tour a while back with them. I have the worst luck with drummers — they always go onto bigger and better things. Like, my first drummer in Chicago was Glenn Kotche and he’s in Wilco now, and then Gerald Dowd who plays with Robbie Fulks, who has about 365 gigs a year. And Adam Vida who is in US Maple. There is just this trail of drummers behind me. 

    So your last album came out in 2001, four years ago, and a lot of reviewers so far have fixated on the four years between that one and the new album. I thought that seemed sort of weird …

    Yeah, I did too.Because it seems to put out the expectation that you’re supposed to trump out a record a year or something.Well, the others were like a year and half or two years apart, so maybe I’d set up these expectations by cranking out stuff a little faster. But to me, the time just flew by so fast — it didn’t seem like four years. I think if I’d had it together a bit more, it would have been maybe three and a half years instead, but that’s it.Do you find yourself going through seasonal cycles of productivity versus simmering?Well, if I’m touring I’m not writing, and I don’t write when there is something going on with my family. Basically, almost anything can distract me from making music. Your Web site has the heading of “roller skating enthusiast.”

    How frequently do you roller skate?I haven’t in a while — I need to get back into that. Do you think you’d ever like to skate with a roller derby like the Windy City Rollers? 

    No, but I bet they’d like me to. I mean, I’m a really good skater. Oh, I shouldn’t say that because there are really good skaters who could say, “No, you’re not.” I mean, I can skate. But I don’t have health insurance, and that is one of their requirements. Also, the roller derby is just not my thing. I’m more into wanting to be a wannabe figure skater. I like doing jumps and spins.

    You’re from a warm climate, and it’s getting to be wintertime in Chicago. Do you have coping mechanisms for Chicago winters?

    I don’t know — the winter seems to go very fast for me. I got used to the cold because I lived in New York for six years. There, it seemed like worse, sloppier winters, since it was on the ocean. It’s colder and more bitter here, but more tolerable, I think. And I learned in New York how to dress: three pairs of socks, hose under the long johns, pants, blah, blah, blah. I get more bothered by the really gross hot weather. I finally broke down and bought an AC this summer, during that weekend when it was 94 degrees all weekend. Y’know, in Texas, everybody knows that you don’t live without an air conditioner — you just don’t do it! And here, it’s more like you don’t live without heat. All of the buildings I’ve lived in have had good heat but not automatic AC, like in Texas. But, coming from a place where there weren’t really seasons — where it was just hot, hotter, or maybe not as hot — I do like Chicago’s defined seasons.

    This is a big apartment building. Do your neighbors ever hear you singing and playing and complain? 

    It’s a really quiet building and no one has ever complained. Also, I don’t jam that loud; I don’t do the amp too much, just sometimes to make sure it works. I think that if they were going to complain, it would actually be about the incessant TV. I don’t think they hear me; we have pretty thick walls. I don’t hear them, except for little footsteps from above and their cats sometimes.I hear my landlord’s bassett hound sometimes, when it’s chasing toys across the hardwood floors. I can’t have a dog in this apartment. I’ve had cats in other apartments, but not here. Really, if I could I would, because they’re so fun, but when I tour and go away, it’d be such a drag for the cats. If I was living with someone it would be different. It wouldn’t be like I was putting this creature in the position to be really lonely. My best pal just got a dog, Lois, so I live vicariously through her, and Drag City has Easy; she is a pitbull who is the sweetest. So I get a lot of pet privileges. 

    I love offices with dogs. Venus shares space with this skateboard company, and the owner rescued these two greyhounds that are always there. 

    Greyhounds are so damn big, though!

    Yeah, but these two are really mellow and sweet. They sleep in the sun for most of the day, and I’ve only seen them be high strung when they hear a vacuum cleaner. 

    Yeah, the great nemesis of all dogs — they say it’s the postman, but no!

    How do different producers’ styles affect the sound of your albums? 

    Well, Rian has produced all but the second album, Telescopic, which was done by Neil Haggerty, and they had very different styles. Rian is a lot more of the kind of guy who will gather all the pieces and musicians together and say, “Work your magic!” Whereas Neil was a lot more structured about things. He took detailed notes, even to the point of changing structures a little bit, like adding longer middle parts or whatever. And he was really really specific about what he wanted. And they’re all great ideas, so it worked out. But Rian is a lot freer with bringing people together and letting them work. And he does come up with ideas for arrangements that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with myself. His talent really lies more in being the conduit or the facilitator. 

    Kind of like throwing all of the ingredients in the pot and letting them work together? 

    Yeah, and he’s really good about knowing who might sound good together. And he just keeps it light and jokey. He’s a funny guy.Must be comforting to have a producer who you can trust to go with their instincts like that.It’s really cool to have worked with Rian for so long. To have him know the language, you know? He knows what is best for it and what will make the music sound good, because he’s heard it for so long, so he knows what works and what doesn’t work.

    Were you a musical kid?

    My mom had me in lessons periodically. I took some cello and piano when I was a kid, and I got a little guitar when I was 14. And she always had a piano and was always hanging out with orchestra people. And my dad has always been really into jazz and classical stuff, and he turned me onto a lot of stuff too. My mom always had a lot of records around: Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Led Zeppelin. But yeah, there was always music around, and that was fortunate for me, but I was in Mexico from fourth to ninth grade, and they didn’t have a music program there. So when I moved back to Texas for high school, the other kids had already been in the programs, and I really wasn’t prepared to read music or play an instrument in band or anything. I missed out on the schooling in the early years, kind of caught up, took music lessons at University of Texas, and tried to make up for it. But there are still big holes in my knowledge of music — like as far as the technical part of it, even though I’ve taken all these classes, and I should remember all this theory and stuff. But that’s never been very natural for me. I do a lot better just with three chords and banging around. I know that a while back you weren’t getting international distribution.

    What’s going on with that?

    Yeah, yeah, they got me a better distribution deal since the last album, but it’s only been in the last six months or year. It used to be that if there was a store that had my stuff, they had it as imports, for the most part. I used to go there and hear, “I’ve never heard of you. I haven’t seen your records. Where do I get your records?” It should be a lot better now, I’m hoping. I’ve never had a bad tour [in Europe], but it’s been a little lacking as far as prepping them for who the fuck I am! (Laughs) But there are always these weird little pockets of fans, like in Stockholm, I had like fuckin’ 20 superfans, with lighters, singing along to every word, but that’s an anomaly. 

    Where do you like to play in Europe? 

    Paris has always been great. London I’ve only played once, but it was awesome show. When I played Spain, I had so much fun there, because I speak Spanish — since I used to live in Mexico — and it made it a lot easier to joke with the audience. Sure, they didn’t know who the hell I was there, but I had the advantage of being able to joke with them and speak to them. The show there was a super-fun show. 

    That’s right, you speak Spanish. I read that you moved around a bit when you were a kid, in Texas and Mexico.

    Yeah, the order was San Antonio, Austin, Guadalajara, Austin, San Antonio, Austin, New York, then Chicago. And there were about five different homes in every place.

    You’ve maintained your blog for 10 years, you were on the Internet before most people even knew what the Internet was, and you once had a day job as a programmer. Do you still do that work to make extra cash?

    No, well, the last little freelance thing that I did was with Drag City, helping them with their Itunes, uploading data entry, but that’s just song titles and stuff, not like “programming.” As far as Web stuff, I just do my own site now. I like separating my fun from my work (laughs). The best job I ever had was as a courier, when I was using my van to drive packages from like downtown FedEx to the airport. It was for a shipping company. I was a substitute-courier for Adam Jacobs, this Chicago character who tapes concerts. And so it was no brainwork — just picking up, signing for the packages, driving them out somewhere while listening to the radio. It was so removed from any of my responsibilities in my real career — the music — that I really [enjoyed] that shit work. 

    That sounds like a dream day job for a creative person — just being able to zone out. 

    Yeah, stupid jobs can be really fun like that if you don’t have to worry about what you’re doing so much. Working in music could be a drag if you’re just being immersed in music all day and having to do it for your vocation, too. I think it takes a lot of dedication to keep things separate.Yeah, it makes you value what you’re doing for the love of it as opposed to the money. I’ve been lucky, because more and more over the years, the music has moved from being hobby to work. Even my tax lady can say so, and then she can take more of a percentage! It’s hard, but the more I work at it the more I can do that. If I got off my ass and played more shows, I could make a pretty comfortable living. It’s just that I’m lazy and I like to avoid working. 

    You were just playing some shows with Calexico in Austin. How did that go? 

    I met them in Tulsa — we played there and then Fort Worth the next night — and then we played Austin. It was a blast, it was so fun. I didn’t have copies of It’s a Game with me, so I was just talking it up and playing some songs off of it. I had the pedal-steel player from Calexico, and “Playmate” was actually one of the songs that we were doing. He would come up at the end and we’d do “Mirage” and “Playmate” on pedal steel. It was sooo pretty. I don’t know how they do that, those guys. Pedal steel seems like a really hard instrument to me. But it was perfect.

    Many of the tunes on the new album are hinged on heartbreak or a love-affair ending. Do people make assumptions about you and your love life based on that? 

    Yeah, it’s part of the mythos or whatever. I don’t like it — I wish that my thoughts were a little less rooted in the real (laughs). But the thing is that it’s just the topic that is easiest for me to write about. I have all of these aspects of my life — friends, family, hobbies — but I just don’t choose to write about them. The way I see it is that you write a sad song and you can kind of “validate your feelings” and then you can leave it behind and it becomes just a pretty song eventually — you know, after a few weeks. I just really like sad songs. Some of my favorite songs are really broken-heartedy kind of songs. It’s just ... yeah, why do people like that, why is that enjoyable? I don’t know (laughs). I envy the people who can just make up a story and write really vivid imagery and can take you to a place that they haven’t even necessarily been. I can do that somewhat — a little bit — but that is harder for me. It is easier for me to just pull from my own e-mail or things I’ve said or things I overheard. Plus, the songs do tend to be patched together a lot, because I’ll just write like three phrases down or something when the thing is going on. And then, in a notebook, piece of paper, or on a computer or something and might not come back to it till much later. There was one, “My Lover Won’t Call” — I literally had every word of that for 10 years, and it took me that long to finally stumble across it and say, “Oh, I could finish that” (laughs). So, in that way, the albums end up being much more at a distance than what is going on in my head at the moment, because it is so pieced together time-wise.

    So the songs are not necessarily about what’s happening at that time period.You’re actually mining old scraps of paper, moments, and journals?

    Yeah, by the point that I am pulling it together and actually making it into a song, that is definitely not the point that I’m actually going through the heartbreak. When the heartbreak is happening, I will tend to write stream-of-consciousness shit, but I’m not in a state where I want to actually sit down and do a demo or figure out chords or anything. It’s just like “bleh, bleh, bleh,” and then I’ll come back to it and be like, “Hmm, that rhymes!” I have to go through [the scraps of paper] later and attempt to pull something out of it that makes sense. It’s just about the discipline to do that.

    Top photo © Drag CityBottom photo © Eric ZiegenhagenNovember 23, 2005.

  • Venus Zine-McCarren Park Concert

    Neko Case, Joanna Newsom, and Martha Wainright at McCarrenPark Pool, August 24, 2006

    Venus Zine / September 1, 2006

    Three performers crank it out in an abandoned pool, despite the ominous weather

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    John Lennon once described New York as the center of the universe, saying that, “If I was living in the time of Rome, I’d go to Rome. But I’m living now, so I’ll be in New York.” Freelance work being a bit slow in Chicago right now, I had this in mind when I hopped a red-eye to NYC to visit a pal. We got $2 sandwiches at the deli on the corner in her Brooklyn ‘hood, then hopped on the train to McCarren Park Pool where Joanna Newsom and Martha Wainwright were playing a 6 p.m. show headlined by the superb Neko Case.

    The pool, unused for 20 years and three times the size of an Olympic one, has only recently been used as a venue, (to much controversy, since Clear Channel is sponsoring the shows). We got there amidst threatening rain clouds, and plopped down on the crumbling edge of the old pool just as the rain started full throttle and the charismatic Wainwright started to play. She began with the pensive “Far Away;” “Green grass blades are all on fire / I own the crack that's in the wind,” and later did a rocky-version of the standard “Stormy Weather” in a small homage to the increasing sea of umbrellas and ponchos. She was sweetly apologetic about the weather, yelling to the crowd, “You guys are such troupers; thank you for staying…Wish we had bathing suits.” As she wound up the set with “Baby,” she noted that she wasn’t going to be touring for a while “cause I need to make a new fuckin’ record!”

    When Newsom walked onstage in her ‘70s sun-dress, the sky was clear, and the rain was drying from the peeling paint bottom of the decrepit pool. With a voice that the New York Times describes as “froggy, girlish” and my friend Meghan calls “Lamb Chop-esque” (the puppet, not the band), Newsom charmed the cheerful gaggle of hipsters with her weird, winsome songs, warbling in “Emily,” “I saw you last night by the river / I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water / frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever / in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror.”

    By the time Newsom finished, the sky was clear. It was almost too bad, we thought, because it could’ve been great to see force-of-nature Case belt out songs during a thunderstorm. But to no one’s surprise, Case was magnificent anyway. She played a nice mix from her albums Furnace Room Lullaby, Blacklisted, The Tigers Have Spoken, and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Almost immediately, she played one of my favorites, uh “Favorite,” and the crowd began visibly swooning as she sang, “I thought you were golden / I thought you were wise / Caught you returning / To the house you caught fire.” One girl, evidently moved by the spirit, started waltzing by herself in an empty part of the pool, and three art-girl rockers began dancing near her with a spazzy mix of mod and country moves. In “Set Out Running,” Case threw back her head to bellow, “Want to GET it all behind me / you know everything reminds me / can’t be myself without you / wanna crawl down deep inside,” and I realized that the only trouble with her performances is that she makes it look so easy that people think that if they throw their heads back and belt it out, they can sound that way too. Hence, leaving the shows, you often see folks mimicking her singing with the same lusty abandon but without her blessed vocal chords. Ouch.

    Case was in punchy spirits and kept referencing unicorn tarot cards that were recently gifted to her. “The unicorn oracle is guiding every decision I make tonight — even my clothes,” she informed the crowd. “Unicorns have this sexual power that I think is harnessed from every 12-year-old girl in the world. Basically when they’re not humping their Pink Panthers, they’re looking at unicorns and they don’t know why….” We left the show elated and I’m catching tonight’s red-eye back to Chicago.

    So, in short, my visit did just what I wanted:
    Jolts of confusion, in a good way: check. (Newsom).
    Goosebumps from a favorite performer: check. (Case).
    Celebrity sighting: check. (Jimmy Fallon was at the show).
    New music introduction: check. (First time hearing Wainright live).

    Back to ye olde Midwest, and my big, affordable apartment go I, fresh with invigoration. Thanks and kiss-kiss, NYC.