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Another Country: Myriam Gendron and Dorothy Parker

Sometimes the best folk lyrics are borrowed

In his new column Another Country, Duncan Cooper showcases country, folk and bluegrass music that's so often unsung around these parts, with an emphasis on new approaches to old American classics.

Contemporary folk music has long been built on filching, and I think that’s part of why I like it so much. Who wouldn’t want to steal when getting caught only makes it more fun? When Bob Dylan was confronted in 2012 about pilfering lines, the king of productive plagiarism told Rolling Stone that his critics were “wussies and pussies,” then dropped this historian-style declarative: “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition… You make everything yours. We all do it.” Old lyrics become new, melodies rise from the grave, forms repeat on and on. Is that not life?

One of my favorite albums of the year, Myriam Gendron’s Not So Deep as a Well, certainly employs quotation; the lyrics are all poems by Dorothy Parker, barely funny and profoundly sad. During Parker's heyday in the early 20th century, she was known for her savage wit, making her beloved by readers and hated by the tycoons she targeted; as she got older, she disavowed much of her wisecracking ways to focus on advocating for communists and minorities (her estate was bequeathed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and she’s celebrated by a memorial garden at the NAACP headquarters). All of which is to say, she was a real icon. But Gendron’s debut LP, which shares a title with Parker’s 1936 collection, is up to something more than simply plucking lines. She makes Parker sing, proving equally the poetry's timelessness and her undeniable gift as a musician.

T.S. Eliot once wrote, regarding appropriation: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” By that metric, Gendron is surely a good poet. Like Sibylle Baier before her, she uses her voice's narrow range to the lyrics’ advantage, all defeated monotony: Now my heart is shattered/ If I bowled it down the street/ Who's to say it mattered? she sings on “Threnody.” And Gendron’s solo guitar accompaniment is gorgeous, but simple—just like Parker’s writing. I played the album and someone asked, "Is this John Fahey?" In every way I can tell, this album is a success. It’s out now on vinyl from Feeding Tube and digitally from Mama Bird. I spoke to Gendron from her home in Montreal about her album and how, for an artist, having a strong concept lets you get past your own insecurities.

This is your first album, but your guitar playing gives me the sense you've been at this for a while. I’ve been playing guitar as a hobby for over 10 years, but never really brought it to that other level. It’s very recent that I write songs. It pretty much started with this Dorothy Parker project a year ago.

How did you come up with the concept? It all happened pretty naturally. I came across that book while browsing in a bookstore and I thought the poems were really musical, so I tried to write songs with them. It worked really well, really fast. I made people listen to it and they liked it, so I started believing that it could be something bigger. I tried to perform, and the response was really good. With my boyfriend, we tried to get labels to release it, and it worked.

What’s your relationship with Dorothy Parker’s work? It built during the process of writing the songs. The more I would get into her poetry, the more I’d feel a connection to her work. I barely knew of her before starting this project. What moves me in her poetry and what makes this work is this mix of strength and fragility. She was obviously a very sad woman, and that’s not the side of her we hear of generally, because she was mostly known for her wit, her way of making fun of people. Her poetry shows a way of dealing with pain that’s very sad and very funny.

Are you worried about being known for reinterpreting, as opposed to lyrics of your own writing? I find it comfortable to use someone else’s words. For me, it’s a way of starting easily. You don’t want to feel completely naked all of a sudden in front of the whole world. It’s hard to say. I do feel like I should write my own lyrics, but I’m not there yet. I don’t feel like I’m ready, so it’s a good way of getting into this world.

What’s next for you? The response has been very good. I’m very lucky and very happy about it. I don’t have big hopes for a music career or anything, so I’ll see where it leads me. For now, I’m expecting a baby in one week, so that’s going to slow things down a bit for the next few months. I don’t want to stop, and I believe I should be able to start performing again in the fall. I don’t want to think of it as a career plan, because I don’t want to depend on it financially. By day, I’m a book dealer. I work in a book store where we sell used books and new books. I’m in charge of the used part, so I buy books and evaluate them. It’s pretty cool. Not well paid, but it’s a good job. I want to go back to my daily life after my maternity leave and I’ll keep doing music for fun.

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Another Country: Myriam Gendron and Dorothy Parker