Photo by Ted Di Ottavio

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Backstory from the North Adams Transcript

By John E. Mitchell
North Adams Transcript (MA)
Fri Aug 29 2008

Flutterbox is the musical partnership between vocalist Janine Nichols and bassist Neill Cardinal Furio. Together they create music whose sound is one part smoky pool hall and one part sonic mysticism.

Furio fashions this around Nichols’ vocals, which at times resemble Debbie Harry’s, if the former Blondie frontperson specialized in minimalist jazz electronica. Furio creates a variety of musical textures with his bass, thanks to his love of outdated technology – he loves oddball vintage pedals that never quite work right.

“You fix the thing, and it never works properly, and that adds so much to the sound,” he said.

He’s particularly fond of an old Swedish fuzzbox that he owns.

“I call it the Ekberg, because it’s an old Swedish fuzzbox that’s referred to as “The Big Stack,” he said.

Furio’s lyrics tend to be character-driven, sometimes historical – the Wright Brothers, Vincent Van Gogh’s mirror and the murder victim in the Black Dahlia case have all been captured in song. It’s the one area that Furio says he’s grown as a songwriter since starting at age 10, when he wrote a song called, “One, Two, Three, Infinity,” named after the first book he ever bought at a bookmobile.

“I did that first one for a school project because I really fell in love with the solar system, so I just started out writing about the planets and I thought, well, there’s your thing – you go in order from the first planet out to the last, and you just tell their stories and that makes it interesting,” he said.

“Then it was easy to write songs about my cats – “Valentino Meet Valentina” – that was another early song. We had more cats that were named after spices – Nutmeg, Ginger, Cinnamon, Cloves, things like that – so that became an early song. It was a little metaphor about how sweet they were.”

Furio picked up the guitar at that age – two broken strings meant he tuned a four-string to a nice chord and worked with that. Sometime later, a baseball injury had Furio’s dad renting him an upright bass to keep him from moping – it was an instrument he could play in a more comfortable standing-up position.

“It was a nice upbringing in North Carolina at a rural repertory drive-in theater with my mom on Lowry organ to accompany silent films,” he recalled. “You can imagine how few cars were in the lot every night.”

Furio’s musical output became stamped with a charmed quality, often including stories and songs in thematic performances, thus echoing childhood favorites like “Peter and the Wolf” and “Tubby the Tuba.”

He said that when he grew up, he thought that all songs had stories between them, that all stories were punctuated with songs, and his debut composition at age 10 was a “musical punctuation” to his school report on the planets. His solo performances reflected this style.

“There would be a story, and then there would be a song that would relate in an adult way - a kind of Greek chorus comment on what was happening in the story - until the bittersweet conclusion.”

Nichols was a frequent audience member for these shows and one whom Furio loved to have around. “I used to say to him ‘I love your shows – they’re like a math quiz!” Nichols said. “There are so many word games and they work on so many layers, they assume pockets of knowledge on the part of the audience.”

Nichols and Furio originally met at a show Furio did with an old musical partner, and they cultivated a friendship based on mutual interests – silent movies, old architecture, typefaces. Some time later, they collaborated on a song and performance at a going-away party for a friend of Nichols’. Still further on, they took to the stage at a John Lennon tribute concert and opened the show, effectively stealing it with their rendition of “In My Life,” and deciding to work together musically.

Prior to that sequence of events, Nichols had a life of many left turns, none of which involved a future in music. She was an art history major trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life when she met Howard Shore, then the musical director of “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s. Doing some stage design work with him secured a position as a producer through the original cast.

After that, she began booking for Arts at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, NY, making her mark through commissions like Bill Frisell’s Buster Keaton scores and the reunion collaboration between Lou Reed and John Cale, as well as creating multi-performer theme shows with Hal Willner.

Around 2000, Nichols found herself to be a single mother with the chance to reinvent herself. She felt very strongly that she wanted her new life to be one as a singer. Performer Jimmie Dale Gilmore put the bee in her bonnet one day when she substituted for a back-up singer in a soundcheck.

“I made a cassette of me singing along to records,” she said. “That was such a crazy thing to do. I sent the tape to Terry Adams from NRBQ, who immediately said, “If you give me 10 grand, I’ll produce a record of you singing along to records.”

Nichols took a musical vacation to New Orleans to take the stage as a guest vocalist for her friend Peter Holsapple’s band. It was an amazing success, and, more important, a confidence booster, proclaiming that her desire wasn’t off the mark at all.

“It was Leap Day, Feb. 29, 2000, and I felt like I was standing on my spot on the planet, doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t forget any lyrics. I just felt completely happy. The audience was so embracing. Everybody wanted to buy my record and ‘What’s my band?’ ‘I don’t have a record.’ ‘What do you mean, you don’t have a record?’”

She had a tape of that performance – another tape, a completely different tape, this time with a live band – that she sent to Furio and a couple of others. From there on, it snowballed. She became a singer; there was no stopping it. She and Furio were two musical peas in a pod who seemed destined to take the stage together.

“Neill writes these cagey, wonderful songs and I try to make them sound easy to sing, which they’re not,” Nichols said.

Now their collaboration builds on their personal rapport, mixed with Furio’s idiosyncratic, personal lyrical style. One work in progress called “More And Less” brings one of their favorite forms – the list song – into modern political terms that puts their humor at the center of the presentation: “More wish, less whoosh / More speech, less shush" until the inevitable punchline "More trees, less Bush."

One perpetually in-progress list song is “Something Green” – nicknamed “Something Brave” by Nichols in regard to what they would have to be to perform it. It’s a song that lists green things alphabetically, from absinthe to zucchini.

“I always felt that Johnny Cash song “40 Shades of Green” fell a little short, because he told, he didn’t show,” Furio said. “He broke the cardinal rule of songwriting by telling. He said, ‘And I’ll always miss you and those 40 shades of green ...’ So I thought, ‘What would those 40 shades be?’”

Furio thought for a moment – moss, grass, emerald. He kept going.

“The point where I was at about 80, I realized that maybe the best organizing principle of this song was to alphabetize it, because everything is better in alphabetical order,” he said. “The longer I spent with this song, the more green kept coming to me. It’s up to 160, so I’ve fully doubled my original output and, in fact, quadrupled Johnny Cash’s song.”

Interest in songs is a central point to both musicians – there must be more to write songs about than the same old bland stuff. That’s the starting point for Nichols’ voice and Furio’s bass to deliver something unique.

“The song is like the smoke signal, and so it’s got to be worth starting a fire over,” Furio said. Like that song, ‘Black Hole Sun’ by Soundgarden. I love that song.” ‘Black hole sun/Won’t you come/And wash away the rain.’ But the melody could be sung to the words ’I love you/You love me/Come on over for a cup of tea.’ It’s just not the same song anymore. It’s got to be worth starting a fire over to make it puff some smoke.”

“What the gestation period is for a song, for Neill, I really don’t know,” Nichols said. “Some of them seem 100 years in the making, and some of them seem like they were written overnight. I do know that when we sit down to play anything together, it comes amazingly quickly. I don’t think anyone has more songs in their book with as little rehearsal as we’ve had.”

Flutterbox will perform at Mass MoCA tonight at 8 o'clock.

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