According to singer-songwriter Dudley Saunders it’s the things we don’t talk about that cause us the most trouble. And it is within this framework that Saunders, who was honoured last year with an Outmusic Award for outstanding album, writes about the things that unnerve, disturb and get under his skin in his brand of “avant folk” music.
Originally a performance artist and writer, moving to music was not a huge step for Dudley Saunders as it permeated through much of what he did. But what seemed to tip him over the edge was in discovering that where people might have hated hearing things in text or spoken word, they didn’t have the same trouble when hearing it in a song.
“Think about Kurt Cobain,” explained Saunders. “If he’d written those songs as short stories or movies, people would have run screaming. But in songs? They couldn’t buy them fast enough”.
But despite a clear focus on his music Saunders, isn’t giving quite ready to give up completely on his non-music roots. With a few ideas floating around in his head involving video and live performance he is entering what he calls a “season of change” and will be testing the waters later this year.
“Honestly, though, it’s mostly a matter of using the art form that fits what it is I want to express, and sometimes a song is not a good fit. For the most part, though, it’s amazing what you can do in a song, and I’m constantly surprised.”
He has also not completely abandoned the written word with a novel making the rounds through the New York publishing world and a screen adaptation of Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, The Rosewood Casket.
“Right now, though, I’m drawn to expressing ineffable things, which means a poetic emotional form like a song is what I need. Guess I’m selfish that way.”
Selfish or not, Saunders’ album, The Emergency Lane, for which he won the Outmusic Award is making waves and not just because it is a self-described “mix of Hank Williams country, Joni Mitchell-jazz and Radiohead art-rock”.
While Saunders doesn’t see his songs as particularly shocking, he does admit things don’t really upset him as much as they seem to do other people claiming his songs are as vivid and as honest as he can imagine them wondering “what’s the point of writing something if you aren’t willing to bring it fully to life?”.
But with titles like Love Song for Jeffrey Dahmer, Saunders is definitely pushing the envelope. The song, which came to him after hearing a story from an S&M bottom who only truly felt safe when he was completely tied up and immobile, got him thinking about Dahmer and how he was so terrified about being left by his lovers that he felt compelled to eat them so they would stay.
“It occurred to me: what if he had unknowingly brought home a super-dominant S&M bondage top one night? Who tied him up and said, “I won’t let YOU leave ME.” Would that have finally made him feel safe? And the song was born, along with the last lines “Beneath your sleeve/you’re cuffed to me/so you know I won’t ever leave”. It’s the love song that maybe he needed to be sung to him.”
Pushing the envelope though appears to have paid off, being honoured with an Outmusic Award for The Emergency Lane in 2009. For Saunders, the nomination for his album was almost as shocking as the win.
“You have to understand, when I began, no-one did music that included gay male sexuality, unless you count some of the Bowie-era glam-rock teasing that no one took seriously,” he explained. “And at times it seemed no one wanted to hear it less than the gay community, who were focused on convincing straight people how normal and unthreatening we were. I did not fit that script and they hated me for it. But fast-forward a couple of decades to the Outmusic Awards, and they said the hell with that assimilationist strait-jacket and honoured me. It was really quite moving to me”.
While Saunders cites influences like Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, Leonard Cohen, the Carter Family and Miles Davis, perhaps the influencer which comes as the biggest surprise is Daniel Boone.
A descendent of Boone (he is Saunders’ great-great-great Grandfather), Saunders says while Boone might not have a direct influence on this music, there are family traits that do affect his work.
“Like Daniel, everyone in my family likes to go exploring new things and places, often when it’s terribly inconvenient. Don’t go into the forest with my dad, because you’ll turn around and find he’s disappeared halfway up the mountain on a deer trail. And it’s why when I sit down to written a country song, the next thing I know it’s shot-through with trip-hop and jazz.”
And just in case you wondered, Saunders says the television show got it all wrong; Daniel Boone was NOT a big man – all the Boones are short and barrel-chested.
Getting ready to make his way to Vancouver for a show on August on August 3rd at the Railway Club, Saunders will perform with local singer-songwriter Norinne Braun who he had developed a friendship a number of years ago when she put one of his songs on a compilation CD. While he is disappointed that he won’t be able to perform during the actual Pride celebrations (he had not realized until it was too late that his visit coincided with our local Pride celebrations), he is looking forward to his first visit to Vancouver before heading for a show in Seattle.
Included in his Vancouver show will not only be songs from The Emergency Lane but also a number of songs that he is tinkering with for his next album due out in 2011. Using characters from novels by the likes of Mary Gaitskill, Martin Amis, Sarah Schulman and Haruke Murakami, Saunders plans to use them as jumping off point for these new songs, although he does confess most won’t recognize their books when he is done with them.
“For instance, I read a Martin Amis novel about a man surviving the Soviet gulag, and then later that night I came across a crazy old Russian man in a 7-11 parking lot in Los Angeles. The two men instantly merged in my brain and became “Wheelchair in the 7-11 Parking Lot”. The guy in my song is completely different from Amis’ character, but Amis helped me find him. The novels have all done this for me, opened up emotional territory I couldn’t get to on my own, so it’s been very exciting.”
Visit http://www.dudleysaunders.com for more information.
Dudley Saunders and Norinne Braun
The Railway Club
3 August 2010 @ 9:30pm
Dudley Saunders, recipient of the 2009 Outmusic Award for Outstanding Album of the Year makes his Vancouver debut with local singer-songwriter Norine Braun at the Railyway Club on Tuesday, August 3rd beginning at 9:30pm. $10 cover.