The Daily Californian Online

With Debut, Chloe Roth Rejuvenates Modern Folk

By Belinda Gu
Daily Cal Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2011
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Interviews

Chloe Makes Music, the musical alias of Berkeley alum Chloe Roth, weaves the lyrical finesse of Ani Difranco with the buoyant fragility of Sufjan Stevens - in his sensitive Christian-boy days - to entangle the listener in an intoxicating patchwork of dreamlike harmonies. Her debut album The Puppeteer coats the listener's taste buds with the nostalgia of an elusive memory: uncertain, but palpable like a heartbeat. The harmonies are captivating but unobtrusive, leading eager ears down familiar avenues of loss, disappointment and uncertainty.

Her spellbinding tones conjure images of small children running barefoot through damp grass, mouths freshly stained from cherry popsicles. Yet darker, more subdued sonic hues drag the listener back from the innocence of childish bliss to observe echoes of past pains. Indeed, "Wingnut," "Murphey's Law" and "Wormwood" are all eulogies for Roth's friends.

The album's opening track, "Apollo & Daphne," strips and re-garments the tale in Ovid's "Metamorphosis," yet the immediacy of its lyrics transports it from myth to narrative: "Desperately she begged it to relieve her of her body/And hardly had she finished when her limbs grew ossified."

Roth admits her love of wordplay. "I loved having the added challenge of rigid structures," she said. "I took a lot of (Ovid's) words and cut and pasted until it was lyrical."

Lyrics, it seems, have always been the essence of Roth's artistic outlet. Also a journalist and a poet, Roth claims: "That's what I'm best at: words. Not numbers, not real life. You meet musicians and they're all fucking weirdos."

I'm not sure if anyone would sort Roth into the "fucking weirdos" cabinet, but conventionality has certainly never been her backyard. Classically trained in violin, she instead chooses to compose primarily on guitar, unhindered by technical awareness on the foreign fretboard to come up with melodies that "aren't necessarily correct music-wise." Roth adverts the brand "folk singer" by decorating the prototypical folk-song skeleton with diverse chord progressions and capricious arpeggios that carry smooth melodies through a surreal landscape.

Her music writing methodology explores a technique of the French composer Ravel, who assigned letters of the alphabet to notes in the diatonic scale. This way, music is intrinsically written into lyrics, and the song is created by manipulating corresponding chords or notes. The result is a honed, revitalized sound blossomed from folksy roots that is distinctively her own.

Roth enlisted the help of her long time friend Christopher Chu of the Morning Benders to produce the album. Chu composed layers of string parts to elevate core structures, creating deft orchestrations to lend the album a fuller, more dynamic backdrop against which Roth's haunting voice is juxtaposed. Yet her soft croonings command the music and maintains a cohesive balance through a myriad of instrumental threads that include harmonium, saw, accordion, banjo and glockenspiel.

Onstage, however, Roth breathes a different life into her music, stripping it down to a poignant nakedness with minimal instrumental reinforcements. The Valentine's Day release of The Puppeteer at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco saw the audience become progressively quieter as Roth's decibels dropped. Her captivity of a sweaty room of drunken lovers comes from the sincerity of her performance, during which she feels "most authentically like (her)self."

"I can only make what comes naturally for me to make," Roth states simply. Yet she never stays long inside her comfort bubble of obscure literary references set to soft melodies: "Sometimes I just feel like listening to Sigur Ros - no one knows what the fuck they're talking about." Music for music's sake exposes the fluidity of lyrics; Roth expresses her desire to cover a metal album, "to take gnarly lyrics and make them ethereal." Her ability to make music pleasurable spins folklore into intimate memory, diluting the distinction between what is imagined and what is remembered.

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