Jill Tracy talks with Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller about the allure of the dark side, the arsenic craze, spending the night with skeletons, and the horrors of the entertainment industry
Excepts from an interview in NOIR CITY MAGAZINE:
Jill Tracy’s album Diabolical Streak was suggested to me because of my predilection for all things noir. It became an essential part of the musical backdrop to my writing Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. Jill Tracy finds a compelling sensuality in everything, from the promise of one wicked night to the fiery end of the world. Her breathy vocals entice the listener into a sonic dreamscape—a dark and magical realm, simultaneously cerebral, sexy and sinister. It’s not safe here, but you won’t be in any hurry to leave. Beneath the force and filigree of Tracy’s original piano lines lurks cold steel—the woman has guts to spare, creating something so distinctive amidst the corporate musical mediocrity that’s poisoning the culture.
San Francisco Chronicle hails Jill Tracy “a femme fatale for the thinking man.”
LA Weekly has christened her “the cult darling of the Underworld.”
One of the cuts from Diabolical Streak, “Evil Night Together” was chosen by Showtime Networks as the “final symphony” to promote the highly anticipated last season of Dexter. Her music has been featured on NPR, CBS-TV Navy NCIS, and numerous independent films.
During the first two years of Noir City at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, I asked Jill Tracy to provide musical interludes and introduce films at several screenings. She has also performed twice at LA Noir at the Egyptian Theater. Both of us were seeking fresh ways to expand our work—a constant challenge for independent artists in any medium. Recently I caught up with Jill Tracy again, and we discussed the obstacles, and inspirations, that writers and musicians share—as well as the beauty that forever lurks in the shadows. —Eddie Muller
Eddie Muller: Would you still make music if you couldn’t reach an audience?
Jill Tracy: Music has always been my catharsis. So yes, absolutely I would. I create my best music where there’s no audience.
EM: Don’t you need an audience to validate what you do? I ask myself: Would I still write if I knew I wasn’t reaching many readers?
JT: It depends on one’s intentions. I would always create music, regardless. But having people respond to what you do does elevate it to a different level. It’s odd, but when I perform a song for the first time in front of an audience, a little death happens. It’s not mine anymore. It’s sad, in a way.
EM: Do you get over that? You must.
JT: Yeah, because you’ve got to perform it again the next night! [Laughs] But your personal attachment is gone. Songs arise from emotions, experiences, moods and dreams. Playing it alone for myself, I can revisit that place—it’s an actual souvenir of Time. Playing in front of an audience takes that away.
EM: Isn’t the point to turn it loose?
JT: Depends. Some songs I’ll never perform live because I don’t want to turn them loose. They’re a tonic for me. I go back and spend time in that song, and I don’t want to share that experience with anyone.
EM: There are songs you’ve written that nobody’s heard?
JT: Oh, yeah.
EM: I couldn’t imagine writing a story—
JT: Isn’t it like keeping journal entries?
EM: I don’t keep a journal. No. To me, someone reading the story completes the creative process. But I’ve talked with painters, for example, who only show their work grudgingly. “I didn’t paint this to be seen, I painted it because I had to.”
JT: You’re vulnerable when someone hears your song for the first time. You’re disrobing for the crowd. But you’re right, it does eventually make that lovely transition into something else. I give it to THEM. And the beautiful thing is—often they need the song more than I do. I’m constantly moved and shocked by the amount of mail I receive where someone tells me my music was the only thing helping them through a rough time, or it was because of a certain song of mine that saved them from committing suicide. Often fans will come up to me at shows with tears in their eyes, just wanting me to hug them. It’s such a poignant and rare connection, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
EM: Music affects people so immediately. No one reacts to a book the way they react to music. As a writer, that makes me envious. [Laughs]. It takes so much time to produce a novel, and to read it. Music plugs in directly.
JT: Yes, music is a living thing, captured immediacy—and the strange, intoxicating intimacy with a crowd. But I envy artists who can hang their work on a wall and step away from it. They can see others react to it. I can’t watch myself perform, or watch others watching me perform. I’m in it. It’s intangible. The moment the song is out in the atmosphere, it vanishes.
EM: That’s why you make records! Isn’t it gratifying to know you can get into somebody’s head like that? When someone tells me, “I read your book straight through,” that’s so satisfying. You must feel the same thrill when you know people play your album over and over again, that it has that impact on them.
JT: That’s my goal, to create music that transports them into another world, and allows them to linger there. I am a gatekeeper of emotions…There’s nothing more powerful than that. That’s the magic music allows—like a trap door or portal, it accompanies us—to a place we never knew existed, but wish to go. Similar to when I read your novel. I was ill with the flu. I was in bed. It was fantastic, because I was able to get out of my miserable head and live in your world for a while.
EM: Diabolical Streak was more like stepping into a novel or a film than it was like listening to a collection of songs. It’s like, “Oooh, this is a place she’s created.”
JT: The kingdom of the mind’s eye.
EM: How influenced were you by cinema?
JT: I have always been drawn to the mysterious— fantastical, otherworldly imagery. Worlds sans-time. I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Jean Cocteau. As a child, I tried to build a time machine in my bedroom closet with a tiny chair and my favorite zebra lamp. I thought one could travel through the shadows. I just wanted to live in those worlds. I still do.
JT: When I wrote “Where Shadows Fall,” I wanted to capture that sultry, intoxicating feeling watching film noir. Being under the sway of chiaroscuro—the shadows— that rapturous, dangerous and melancholy place we can really only fully attain in our minds. “Night has fallen, and so have we/ But seduction deceives us eventually…”
(Great moody horns and even bass flute on that tune by the legendary Ralph Carney, and gorgeous percussion by Randy Odell.)
EM: What inspires you of late?
JT: I’ve been immersing myself in unusual locations to compose music. It’s exhilarating and challenging as the environment not only drives the work but becomes part of it. I had a piano love affair with the antique Steinways in the (supposedly haunted) 1890 Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, BC; channeled music in an abandoned 1800s San Francisco medical asylum, and the eccentric Los Angeles mansion of a 19th century murderer. I created an ongoing after-dark series at the wondrous San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers where I hosted night tours of the gardens and then performed music and curated each evening on a different intriguing theme— like the strange history of perfumes, poisonous plants and the arsenic craze, spirits that supposedly lived in various woods of violins.
EM: Your music videos have been shot in some provocative locations.
JT: My music video for “Haunted by the Thought of You” was shot in the magnificent 1909 Masonic Lodge in San Francisco, full of secret crawlspaces, strange tiny doors, and painted backdrops of Hades.This is where the Freemasons held their mysterious rituals. There are some great secret symbols and codes hidden in the video.
“Pulling Your Insides Out” is elegant noir, shot during an actual lightning storm in desolate alleys of Red Hook Brooklyn, walking the same streets favored by H.P. Lovecraft.
EM: Dare I say, your work is very literate. Are you concerned that it might be too literate, so it’s bound to be marginalized?
JT: Industry executives have consistently told me over the years, “Your music is amazing, but it’s too elegant, too sophisticated, too dark, too poetic, too smart, too cinematic,…you need to dumb it down and sound like everyone else.” One A&R guy actually said to me: “Your music and aesthetic is the best, most original thing I’ve come across in years, it’s just that I’d lose my job if I signed you. But could you send about 10 more copies of your CD? Everyone in the office wants one. It’s all we’ve been listening to!” (I told him he was welcome to BUY them from my site.)
Another TV executive told me I could not use the words “books” or “history” in a series pitch. Another told me I could not use the term “noir” or “femme fatale” as no one knew what that meant! (“Use spooky and sexy.”) The entertainment industry doesn’t give audiences the credit they deserve. I’ve walked out of several meetings with famous companies.
EM: That took bravery, but sounds like you dodged a bullet.
JT: As a child I absolutely loved it when a song made me pull out the dictionary to look up a word. God, how many kids first heard about Nabokov by hearing the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me?” People are hungry to be inspired, to heighten their awareness. I know it’s the same in the book world. You have crap selling millions, and there are wonderful, artistic novels that nobody hears about.
EM: Fifty Shades of Dung. For every literary talent that gets recognized, like Michael Chabon or Jonathan Franzen, there are thousands who never get published, let alone recognized. In that regard, the parallels between the music, art, and publishing businesses are identical. We’re all in the same boat. And frankly, I’ll bet Chabon and Franzen bitch about their sales, too.
JT: The only goal for the business is making money and moving units. It’s never had anything to do with how wonderful a piece of art is, or how unique.
EM: True, but it has gotten worse. Lots of the popular entertainment that’s come out of this culture was the best America had to offer. Music, movies, books that were wildly popular. Hemingway was a significant writer and a best-selling author. He wasn’t force-fed to the public. There used to be an overlap where what was valuable artistically also sold. Now that huge corporations dominate the culture, all they care about is making the numbers work for them. And the broadest common denominator is where they’re going to invest. Otherwise, good luck selling your book or song for 99¢ on the internet.
JT: It’s never been at a lower point in history. It’s mortifying.
EM: It’s intended to keep people in the dark, and uninformed. They make better consumers that way.
JT: Death by complacency. I don’t let it frustrate me like I used to. Now that the traditional industry is crumbling, I’m reimagining my path. There’s never been a more vital time for artists and fans to band together. We don’t have to play the old game anymore.
EM: You’ve always celebrated the outlier approach. When you first started out, didn’t you mastermind your own show?
JT: Right. Jill Tracy’s Mysteria was an ongoing live series of not only my music and stories, but an entire dark carnival, with sword swallowers, contortionists, puppeteers and snake charmers—a complete sensory experience. This was around 1996-97. A dark variety show was practically unheard of at that time. I created Mysteria out of necessity because no club would book me. So I sold them the entire spectacle. Mysteria went on to packed houses, and an ardent following and press. I was nominated for 2 California Music Awards, SF Weekly Awards, Best of the Bay, 3 magazine covers.
So while the record companies were busy sending me rejection letters saying “there could not possibly be a market for my work,” I was busy making a living selling music on my website, charting on CD Baby’s Top-Sellers in piano pop, singer/songwriter, gothic, film score, neoclassical, acoustic, all simultaneously! (Laughs) The industry had no idea! I realized the system was broken way back then. I knew I couldn’t go in the front door, and not really the back door either … so I became intent on inventing TRAP doors.
EM: That’s great. I empathize with what you’re saying about stretching your boundaries, while staying true to yourself. You have to scout out those pockets of like-minded souls. That’s what we do with the NOIR CITY film festivals. The ones outside San Francisco aren’t jackpots, but we’re able to reach the exact audience that wants film noir on a big screen. But it’s no “mass market.” More and more these days, artists who want mainstream commercial success have to whore themselves for the corporation.
JT: Can there really a goal of “mainstream” success today for serious artists? If you’re trying to fit in with the crowd, pretty soon you will just become lost in it. You must not be afraid to own your niche. Embrace your strange. Major label album sales are at an all-time low. It can’t be just about vacuous pop culture and marketing to kids.
EM: When I was fifteen, I never wanted to listen to musicians who were my age.
JT: That’s so true. I’d hear Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin, and it was this seductive, subversive thing. Everyone was older than you and you’re like, Wow, I can’t wait to experience the kind of life they’re singing about! That was the allure of that music. It represented what we aspired to, what we dreamed of. It was dangerous. That was the whole point. Today it’s all safe, homogenized and soulless. Created by corporations.
That’s why, sadly, art has less meaning in young people’s lives. When I was growing up, that’s how you bonded with someone. (Certainly if you were an outlier.) What bands do you listen to? What books are you reading? What are your favorite films?
Now, it’s what phone do you have? What apps? How many Facebook friends do you have?
Tech has become the barometer. It’s tragic.
EM: Yet artists can’t accomplish anything without the internet, right?
JT: Everything has changed. It’s our lifeline. We’re able to bypass the old school commercial system and operate directly to fans. We did not have that choice before.
The hardest, but in the end, most liberating thing for me was to accept the fact that the childhood dream I once had—and struggled years to attain—simply doesn’t exist anymore. That is still a difficult revelation. But once I decided not to be held hostage by the old dream, the floodgates seemed to open.
EM: Do you resent how much effort it takes now to handle the business side, when what you want to be doing is creating art?
JT: Of course, but that’s the way it’s evolved. I’m running a business. I am the brand. I would much rather be focused on the creative. But there is a newfound freedom living this way, too. You learn to prioritize, delegate, and say no to things.
EM: With this ability to be connected all the time, is there a downside to the internet?
JT: I read an interesting study the other day talking about how if social media had been around in the last century, how many classic novels would actually have been written? Would many of the greats have merely sat around in cafes reading their Twitter feed?
EM: Imagine if all those great barroom writers were on Facebook instead of scrawling stuff into composition books.
JT: The Internet is a blessing and a curse. The ease and ability to obtain information and connect with anyone in the world is glorious. But at the same time it’s destroying our individuality. Everyone is getting their news/views from the same sources, not looking outside, or challenging themselves to think further. We’re trapped in a giant echo chamber.
There has never been a greater need to venture outside the cage, to seize our true passions and authenticity. To be an individual now takes a great deal of effort.
Sometimes I will post on Twitter—“No tweets today. Honoring the Mystery.”
EM: Your short film “The Fine Art of Poisoning” has become practically a cult classic, winning all sorts of awards and getting attention from the likes of Clive Barker and Guy Maddin. Any more film projects for you?
JT: I’m delighted and shocked when I hear from film school students who say “The Fine Art of Poisoning” was part of their curriculum! Animator Bill Domonkos is a genius. We went on to collaborate on NERVOUS96.
I’ve worked with the brilliant Jeremy Carr on 4 films now, including our new short “Portraits of a Nightmare” and well as his debut feature Other Madnesses, which has already won several awards. I’m eager to work on more films.
EM: What’s this I heard about you getting a grant to compose inside the Mütter Museum?
JT: This is a dream come true! I’m the first musician to ever be awarded a grant from Philadelphia’s famed Mütter Museum, to create a series of work based on its collection of medical oddities and specimens. I spent nights alone in the Mütter at a piano amidst the death cast and conjoined liver of original Siamese twins Chang and Eng, the skeleton of the Ossified Man, Einstein’s brain, and the Mermaid Baby. The project will include not only a music album based on the Mütter collection, but also an art book and memoir of my experiences inside the museum after dark.
EM: But my favorite part of all this is that you ended up in Penthouse…
JT: Ha! Yes, I can now say I have a spread in Penthouse. It was part of an interview about my work at the Mütter and my getting inspiration from the dark side of history. I was not nude, but way better—at a piano, in a black backless gown surrounded by 139 human skulls from Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl’s 1874 collection. Who else could say that? My father even went to a newsstand to buy Penthouse that month —while my stepmother waited uncomfortably in the car. (Laughs)
EM: In the true spirit of the femme fatale. Smart is sexy after all.