The S&R Interview: 22 questions with Danielle Kimak Stauss of Rabbit Velvet

Lilac, lovelace / remind me of / your true grace

About four years ago I tripped across a band called The Lost Patrol. Since then I’ve noted their work a number of times: they made my best CDs for 2007 and 2008 reviews; their music served as a key element in a piece on the nonlinearity of influence; and they were the subject of a TunesDay post on the band’s “epic retro-futurism.”

Their lead singer when I found them was one Danielle Kimak Stauss, a woman whose hypnotic vocals haunted Steven Masucci’s vast, empty musical landscapes with an ice-cold passion that bordered on the transcendent. After 2007’s superb Launch & Landing Stauss and the band parted ways, and while LP has produced two wonderful CDs in the interim (featuring new singer Mollie Israel), Danielle was nowhere to be heard.

Until now. She’s back with a new project, Rabbit Velvet, and the results are … well, put it this way. I hate that it took so long, but the result has rewarded my patience. Entitled Crows and Doves, it also rewards intelligence, thoughtfulness and repeated listens (I’ve probably spun it 25 times in the last two weeks, in fact, and with each listen I pick up on some nuance that I’d missed before).

Danielle graciously agreed to field some questions, and the reflection evident in her answers explains a lot about the music itself. Enjoy.

SS: When I loaded Crows and Doves onto my iTunes the genre field said that it was “Auraphonica.” Just for fun, how would you describe your music to someone who didn’t know what that means but seemed interested in learning more?

DKS: Atmospheric, ambient oriented rock-dance music.

SS: With The Lost Patrol, you were the face and voice of another artist’s vision. Now you’re presenting the audience with your own vision. Can you describe the process of that transformation?

DKS: I have never worked in presenting music, publicly, live, or in recorded format without someone else’s shoulders to stand on. I do love working in the team atmosphere in multiple ways. To me, a band is more of an escape, to be with people who wanted the same result, and vision as yourself – a place to feel sane, not really an episode to invite stardom, or to achieve some monetary gains. SO – I was extremely frustrated, as in parts, as I started this project. It felt like a bird cage-ish hell, being in a small room with a metal box to work with. It was necessary, though. My life right now does not really allow me to get out to working with other folks, for the time being.

To describe the transformation of trying to write solely, in a new electronic format, after ages of writing live, with people, would be in steps chronologically:

  • Regaining the heart to write music again.
  • Hearing from some folks that GarageBand could serve as a recording tablet.
  • Seeing some students of mine fool around in GarageBand.
  • I fooled around in GarageBand, and loved it.
  • I talked with Larry Alexander about recording in GarageBand, and what gear I would need to continue.
  • Starting to write, and then being really upset, as I am deeply impatient, about working out problems technically on GarageBand (and most anything technical for that matter).
  • Being deeply upset, and horribly guilty that I am using some borrowed/altered loops in my writing.
  • Feeling strangely alien at writing in this person-to-machine format.
  • Being really happy at some small, preliminary successes in writing and recording.
  • Feeling like the music is inadequate, and undeserving to be heard, as it was recorded in such a way.
  • Being encouraged by other friends, who are musicians, and engineers, and forward thinking persons, that the music is valid, and I should put the music out, as it has its own character, regardless of the past (as I am such an insecure weakling at points). It was Shaun Ellis of the group High Hearts (out of Lambertville, NJ) who said something that struck home to me. I argued that an old friend of mine constantly said, “The recording is just a lie, it’s the live show that matters.” And I lived that for the past 20 years. Shaun said something to the effect of, “Well, a painting is only alive when you see the painting. Does this not make it art, when you are not looking at it?” So, this changed how I thought of rabbit velvet for a while.
  • Taking time off for months to listen to other things, and re-engage writing on the guitar.
  • Realizing the rv music does possess its own validity, within the mission of simply writing.
  • Deciding to go forth and give birth to the music.

SS: When we hear music that’s new to us we probably can’t help trying to triangulate the sound – who does this remind me of, in other words. As I listen to Crows and Doves I hear all kinds of things. Last night I described it to some friends as “kind of like Imogen Heap meets Switchblade Symphony.” With maybe some Goldfrapp and Kate Bush and Siouxie thrown in here and there. How would you describe the influences at work on this new disc?

DKS: A great influence was having naught but the machine at parts to begin dealing with. Necessity was key. After not writing anything for about a year and half, I needed to take the attitude that this was what I had to work with, so I was going to try and exploit it as much as possible. The last two live groups I worked with had “missing parts,” in terms of what a regular live rock band might consist of. We just made that part of “the sound.”

Artistically though, I was trying to evoke some of the old soul-disco I grew up on. Dancing to records was a part of life as a kid, and I do love to dance, so some of that just had to come out. It was pretty easy with all the loops magically granted to me from Garageband. I also loved Afro-drums, as Baba Olatunji was present in my house from birth. So, this love of percussion, and the ability to instantly create your own drum loops, presented me the perfect opportunity to play with the polyphonic rhythms. Experimenting with strings and multiple vocal layers was fun. I also loved all that great ’80s MTV pop and all the post-punk stuff with fabulous atmosphere, and yes, I have been to quite a few Siouxsie concerts and I own some Kate Bush albums.

SS: Most artists, when they’re just getting started, go through a period where they’re more or less imitating their heroes. The really good ones then grow past that stage, often to the point where the influences aren’t always readily obvious. Does this describe your own path, and if so, whom did you imitate when you were younger?

DKS: I am fiercely proud that any group I have been with has never been allowed to sound like anything else already out there. If it did, I wouldn’t have stayed with the group. The problem with writing is that you do live inside of yourself so much, it is hard to see things objectively. So I don’t know if I have accomplished this originality here or if at any point in working with groups. I still feel like there are more artistic leaps and surprises, and risks, that I wish to take. I want to beat the machine up a bit, so as to make things sound more “un-Garageband.”

Once, when I was younger, I was caught imitating Dolly Parton (“Here You Come Again”). I also found a couple of old, horrid notebooks after I was infatuated with U2 as a teen. The lyrics were very Bono-y…I even set up my guitar with the same basic, beginning two pedals that The Edge used…I still do love that crunchy sound….

SS: I seem to ask this question of every musician I talk to, so now it’s your turn. The music industry – labels and radio, primarily – is an absolute mess and seems to be of no value at all for most truly talented artists or audiences craving something with a bit more substance than American Idol. Is it frustrating for an independent artist like you having to not only be the artist, but now the marketer, as well?

DKS: The only time I have never really had to bother with marketing the music was when I played in a post-collegiate group called Silence in downstate NY. The reason was that living near a college campus had its own built-in audience, craving the new, daring, whatever. We had kids flocking to the shows, but part of this was the built-in proximity of things. I did travel to Vassar and Bard to hang posters for local shows, but it didn’t seem like marketing. There has always been a push to help visually present any band I have been with. As a visual artist, this was always joyful time spent.

The reward in my life was getting the time to hang out with other musicians, share the love of creating a product, and the rush of that live show, or feeling that sense of pride of making the recording/getting the disc out. That time spent with those people, in the ability to reveal my true self through song and expression, was the gift. I never really felt the need to make a million bucks with the music, and I could never equate money with music. I do understand though, that it takes an investment to do certain things within a band’s functioning though…

The bottom line is, I would do whatever I could to help a band get the sound out there. With all bands, I have been booking agent, press writer, promotional assistant, poster maker, roadie and public relations. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be able to have complete artistic freedom and someone else footing the bill for it. There have always been people around who have helped the groups along their way, but now it is a solo event, and there is much to do.

I have come to see the old-world record industry as a thing of the past. For a short blip in time, people figured how to record and own the rights to that music, as well as exploit artists/performers, and have laws created to protect a vast billion-dollar industry. I think the creation of personas that the record industry constantly looks for to market as the next freak to look at is just bizarre, although I see how it works for them. I don’t completely equate the theatrics of performing with the artistry of writing, and perhaps I draw the line at the stance I would like to have in the record industry and how I see the need to market it. I am sure in medieval/renaissance times, etc., there were fantastic musicians who were just regarded as humble locals, playing in tradition. Going to Nashville to play was very humbling – seeing amazing session players and other folks playing at 10:30am in some showcase-type place…

SS: With the economics of indie music being what they are, the reality is that many of your generation’s biggest talents are having to pursue musical careers more or less as a hobby. There’s no label artist development budget and it’s hard to really maximize your creative vision while working a day job. What do you think are the long-term implications of these dynamics? Is it possible for a golden age the likes of the “classic rock” boom in the ’70s to occur under these economic conditions?

DKS: As previously…and…longterm, I think there will be even more of an underground movement with people who do things out of the love for them in every aspect of seeing live music, or hearing original sounds, being the trend, if it is not already. I know high school kids who support their own local heroes at shows held by guerilla promoters, who book local church halls and have hundreds of kids show up to see the bands. The younger bands have been doing all the footwork themselves, so they are perhaps immune to the industry grandeur of the past. I think you will see a turnaround with more mom and pop record stores becoming the place to see new bands, and to experience this “in your neighborhood.” The smaller clubs, like The Saint in Asbury Park, who have always lived by this rule of presenting what’s new, will be even more in demand, as people cannot spend a crazy amount of money on what larger venues charge to see a performer. You will have the minds who crave originality seeking out the true alternative presses and podcasts to find out what is spinning around out there, where money does not count, and artistry, originality, and heartfelt matters do. It means even more to have someone write about music who is not getting paid for it, or who does not have to quell the advertisers by reciprocating a kind review in their periodical.

SS: Let’s talk about the sound of Crows and Doves. I was struck by the interplay of the dreamingly melodic and the jarringly discordant. Can you tell us a little about your creative process? Where do these wonderful noises come from and how do you get them out of your head and fully realized on the record?

DKS: As artists of the Surreal and Dada movements of the early 20th Century would play with “random chance” as part of their artistic process, in songwriting I have been able to treat the parts and loops presented through GarageBand as part of this new process. At first I doubted using the loops, but then I embraced it. I realized there was a great difference with something that would be slightly off playing against my chronic enrapture with vocal melody and harmony, which I did really get to play with on this album. I realized I could also change the voice of a loop. For instance, the “horn” part in “Flying Over London” was really a guitar part, but I altered the voicing of it with droopy, lilting horns. I also realized how to write parts on the keyboard of the laptop. I don’t even own a “musical” keyboard. I am a “musical typist.” It’s silly – I know… I have taken my process here in the parallel that Warhol made art of silkscreen, not painting. It can be done with its own uniqueness and that lends to the sound. (Not that I am as good/wonderful as Warhol, or anything like that).

I also must give respect here to the master. I got to work with Stephen Masucci in The Lost Patrol for about seven years. I never worked with anyone who was so analytical, methodical and prolific about songwriting. I had understood basic music arrangement through schooling, and learning to play the flute, and singing in chorus as kid. Even in writing with all the other bands there was discussion of the elements that could make up a song – the beats, the verse, the chorus, the dynamics of things, and I learned a great deal every step of the way but, nothing comes close to working with Stephen. He taught me how to listen to everything, and try to analyze what was interesting, strong, and unique in music, even if it was something that you may not have listened to in the usual sense. He knows an immense amount about the qualities and physics of sound – it’s mind-blowing. He also knows a great deal about pop/rock music history. Really, there is no one like him on the planet. He is a genius and there is no escaping his effect…

SS: Your Web site links to a variety of extremely accomplished visual artists – people like Jill Parisi, Nelson Chan and Samantha Schneyer. If you surf through their portfolios, you see all kinds of tension – light and dark, stark b/w vs. vivid color, realism vs. the fantastic, etc. In a way, the diversity and creative tension I see in the artists you like sort of mirrors the dynamic tension in your own music. Or am I imagining things?

DKS: These people are all my friends, and/or former students. I have enjoyed their passion for their art. We have shared discussion on the trials of creating, one way or another, and I appreciate their hearts and brains.

In terms of rabbit velvet, I did not want to create something that did sound monotonous, or too pop-infused all the way through, but I am still latched in to the pop/folk traditional structures of song, which is something I would like to get away from eventually. I would say there’s a lot more foundering and experimenting with moods for the pieces here, but dynamics are a great way of putting that….I would still like to explore those differences more.

SS: I always like the “Influences” and “Sounds Like” sections on an artist’s MySpace page, and yours is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across. I’m not going to reproduce it here, in part because readers need something to peruse while they’re at your page sampling the tunes, but I wanted to ask about your inclusion of non-musicians like Wes Andersen, Fellini, Tim Burton and David Lynch. A lot of artists draw on non-musical inspirations, buts it fair to say that your music is unusually visual?

DKS: I guess, as my background is pretty visual, I appreciate the offerings of these folks as well. They all took risks of sorts within their craft, and I appreciate that.

Eventually, I want to pursue a more visual sense of the music. I have had dreams of writing on a more epic level and bringing the visual into it. I like artists like William Kentridge and Matthew Barney and Julie Taymor, who cross the lines of art/theater/film/performance/costume, but I need to divorce some of my stances on “just song writing”…I love David Lynch’s and Wes Andersen’s use of music to make the mood of the scene in their flicks…

Balinese shadow puppets based on the drawings I have done for rabbit velvet – the rabbit, the crow, the dove, the skull, the lotus – are my next dream….

SS: Another great thing about your Influences and Sounds Like lists is that you name-check a lot of really brilliant artists who aren’t as well known as they should be. In particular, you mention VAST, whom I’ve been saying for awhile is one of the greatest acts of this generation. When you think of great artists that people really don’t know enough about, who comes to mind?

DKS: Ahhh….well, VAST is definitely one of them…Catherine Wheel was great and just not appreciated by an American audience; however, I had gotten the idea that they were fairly successful in England….

There are so many bands that I wished could have made more of an indent, and stayed around… or been known on a grander scale…Bad Brains, All About Eve, The Nightblooms…The Verve (there other things aside from “Bittersweet Symphony”). I thought that Richard Barone’s Cool Blue Halo album, back in the late ’80s, recorded live, was brilliant.

I feel like there’s a huge divide of people who do know this music and do appreciate it, and people who don’t. I was in shock as some of my younger students who are 14, 15, had no idea who David Bowie was. It was like a bad movie – the scene where you wake up , and nothing is as you thought it was…

To continue on the list: Cocteau Twins, The Sundays, Fairground Attraction, DeVotchKa, The Flaming Lips…

SS: One of your Sounds Like items is “a frillier-softer-fluffier Trent Reznor raised on Soul Train.” Care to explain that one for us?

DKS: A young musician, whom I let listen to some preliminary tracks, said that….

SS: You seem to be responsible for pretty much everything on the CD. Your MySpace page doesn’t indicate any upcoming live activity. Are you going to be touring, and if so, who are you going to have backing you?

DKS: No, there will be no tour. I am XTC-ing it. Oh yeah, another band I wish more people knew of as being legendary.

SS: Guilty pleasures question: if I were to snoop through your music collection, what CDs would I find that might be a little hard to explain?

DKS: I like so many different kinds of music. There is everything there from Kenny Rogers, to Soul 2 Soul, to The Sisters of Mercy, to Herb Alpert and the Tijuna Brass…I’m a “mood” listener.

SS: Why “Rabbit Velvet”?

DKS: I feel meek and timid, and defenseless, and frozen sometimes like a rabbit. It’s been a bit scary coming up out of the realms of The Lost Patrol. There is also a great connection to fertility and the moon, as some friends may peg me into an “earth mama” category…I associate these aspects with being female… This music was the first time for me, being all girl – soft, and velvety, sweet, pretty, some really love-drama oriented lyrics…songs about love for my mom and my grandmother. There is a lush vibe going on. Oh, another band I wish more people knew of – Lush. I also raised rabbits for 10 years as a kid. I’ve done a bunch of paintings with rabbits as the obsession…

SS: What’s the best concert you ever saw?

DKS: Can’t pick one – sorry…they all had different reasons for their greatness… Jeff Buckley, live at T-Birds in Asbury Park, before Grace came out…

The Nightblooms – they were supposed to play in a small, unorganized pub in New Paltz. No one had hung up a single poster on campus/in town to promote the show. As it was, the opening bands went over on the gig time limits and The Nightblooms were not able to play. A bunch of friends and I convinced them to come to a house that had a PA system, and they played for about 70-80 of us. It was wild…amazing…pure luck to see them, and have them play in a small, private house.

Porno for Pyros – Live at ENIT Festival. They played a couple of Jane songs…

The Sky Cries Mary – at Wetlands…NYC

SS: What’s the best concert you ever played?

DKS: Silence – Live at The Griffon in New Paltz

Afterglow – The Asbury Music Awards, 1995

The Lost Patrol – The Loop Lounge (first time)

SS: When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician?

DKS: I was about four or five, and I saw Heart perform on some show I think The Bay City Rollers had…I was like, I want to be like those girls…then I went to a Catholic school, which was a torturous hell void of expression. The Catholic school only lasted for about two years, thank God, so when I went to public school, and Mrs. Brown (the music teacher) came into class with her acoustic and we all sang together…I was just – that’s the shit…I want to do that… (we did not have that in Catholic school).

SS: What are the last three books you read?

DKS: Messages – by Stan Romanek

Gardner’s Art Through the Ages – Fred Kleiner

Essays and Conversations – Isamu Noguchi

SS: What CDs have you been spinning lately?

DKS: Best of Bowie; Aarktica – In Sea (Soundtrack); Fantastic Mr. Fox; Beats Antique – Tribal Derivations; Sarah Brightman – Eden; Caron Wheeler – UK Black.

SS: If you could play a sold-out show at any live venue in the world, where would it be? And who would open for you?

DKS: I’ve always dreamed of playing The Beacon Theatre/NYC, as my great grandfather built it. I don’t think I’d feel confident enough to headline at this point in the game (I am the timid rabbit these days…)

SS: How can people get the CD?

DKS: has both downloads and the hard copy. Downloads are available on iTunes.

SS: What question have I not asked that you wish I had? And then answer it.

DKS: I am greatly filled of answering your thoughtful questions… Thank You…

Let’s wrap up with a little sample of what the CD is all about because, you know, you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine aimed at your average teen….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s