The Garment District: Interview
“I am very interested in an intersection of orchestrated pristine pop music and the vibe and feel of more ambient experimental stuff.”
As a renaissance woman, Jennifer Baron — the mind behind The Garment District’s music — seems to be the modern definition of oracle. Not only does she reach down into the depths of her creativity through her music, but she also stretches her imagination past the threshold of a singular artistic form. This growth is prevalent on her latest Night People LP If You take Your Magic Slow, the follow up to Melody Elder, which is concise and direct on the whole, but wildly adventurous throughout.
Beyond the music, Baron is a photographer, collector, archivist, dog lover, and everything in between. Below, she dives into every aspect of her life — from building the aura that has surrounded her music to potential inspirational events — and it all starts with her past in New York living with her old bandmates (and Elephant 6 stalwarts) The Ladybug Transistor.
[After short discussion about New York…]
Jennifer Baron: Where do you live on Long Island?
Port W-OR-shington. Thirty minutes from the city. Twenty minutes from the beach. All traffic averaged and included.
Oh, that’s my dream: living by the beach, that is. I honestly think that because I was born in a beach town (in New Jersey), that I have spent the entirety of my life since trying to get back to that. It is such a place of pure comfort and inspiration, and where I feel most at one with the world. Some days I just can’t believe I moved away from a city that is so close to the ocean. I definitely didn’t take full advantage of New York’s proximity to the beach when I lived in the East Village because I was so wrapped up in just taking it all in and being present there at that particular time in my twenties. Little did I know then how much the Village and so much of NYC would change drastically starting during the Giuliani administration.
I am so glad I got to live in the East Village pre-Starbucks and Kmart. I actually first became convinced that I would live in the East Village in high school, and was obsessed with attending either NYU or The New School. The longer I lived in Brooklyn, I would regularly hear seagulls, and we’d ride our bikes on a long path (filled with old men playing card games and talking) to Coney Island and Brighton Beach, or take my Volvo wagon to Robert Moses State Park on Long Island and Jacob Riis Park in Far Rockaway. Did you grow up in New York?
I grew up in Ohio, but my entire family is in New York, so we were back here two to six times a year. I work with all New Yorkers now, and that’s quite an experience …
I would imagine that if you are from Long Island, you either never leave, or you’re so desensitized or numb to it that you’re totally accustomed. But I always imagined Long Island must be an oddly fascinating place to live.
By the ocean?
Long Island in general, and certain parts of New York. There are just so many people sharing a relatively small amount of space. It’s endlessly fascinating to me. Anytime I have a dream that involves a city, it takes place in NYC. Many of my dreams involve my walking the streets of NYC. That was an education to me, a regular ritual of daily life there and a real lesson in living in the moment, but could also lead to unexpected adventures, so deeply inspiring and will always occupy a significant portion of my soul. Millions and millions of people coming together on a daily basis; generations being pushed out and layers of the city being erased and replaced. It’s so archaeological. It’s a very different city now, and changes there seem to be more sped up and compressed into time than in other U.S. cities.
So, you moved from East Village to Brooklyn?
Actually, I first went to Brooklyn for a museum education internship at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I lived in Park Slope with one roommate from Bangladesh and one from Baltimore, and then later moved to a lovely block on East 7th Street in the East Village, right near Tompkins Square Park. At that time I was playing a lot of shows at places like Brownies, Mercury Lounge, and Under Acme, so they were right around the corner. I came back to Brooklyn to live in a spacious old Victorian house in Flatbush with my band, The Ladybug Transistor. Totally Partridge Family-/Fleetwood Mac-style. Over the past few years, new neighborhood names have cropped up, and this happened within parts of Flatbush, creating these euphemistic terms that I think may ultimately be for real estate purposes. I love living within what was at one time the most diverse zip codes in the U.S.
The blue house is a few blocks off of Prospect Park, on the SW side, on Marlborough Road. The basement is The Ladybug Transistor’s recording studio, Marlborough Farms, where many bands such as Crystal Stilts, The Beets, Hamish Kilgour, Bill Direen, Sapphire Mansions, and others have recently recorded with Gary Olson. That time was very influential. Having four songwriters in Ladybug was wonderful for our chemistry, as well as living in the house together with a yard, porch, spacious living room and piano room, grape arbor, and a tree-lined street. My parents could not believe it was Brooklyn when they’d visit. It was the sort of urban New York residential neighborhood where people have been living for generations that wasn’t as chopped up into apartments as it is now. It was a great time to live a super-communal existence; bands were always sleeping on our floor, our friends like Of Montreal, The Lucksmiths, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Aislers Set, etc. and we were touring heavily at that time and playing shows with them and many friends’ bands.
Your parents wouldn’t stay on the floor, right?
No, they stayed in hotels. But my mom and I did sleep on an attic floor together, along with a couple of cats, when I first moved to Brooklyn and was apartment hunting in Park Slope.
So they’re not FROM New York?
No. My mom and dad grew up outside of Philadelphia and my brother and I were born in Neptune, New Jersey, right near Asbury Park. My dad worked for Sears, and that took us from New Jersey all across Pennsylvania, where we eventually settled in Pittsburgh. My mom was a high school English teacher for many years. She used to teach a course called “Poetry and Rock Lyrics,” and I loved to help her write out song lyrics for index cards that she used in lessons and to decorate her classroom walls. If my parents had not divorced, I would have spent my youth in rural southern West Virginia.
When did you eventually move BACK to Pittsburgh from New York?
At the end of 2001.
Was it around that time y’all picked up Bailey, your dog?
We rescued Bailey from Lake Erie Lab Rescue in 2006, one year before our wedding…
I’m outside with Bailey in our yard. He’s eating grass, a total omnivore. He thinks he’s part-cow and that he can sneak a second meal. Bailey is my first dog and has vastly changed my life. I grew up with a calico cat named Gypsy, but my husband, Greg, is allergic to cats. Having a big dog, and sharing a home and my days and nights with him, has been life-altering. He follows me around everywhere. He provides so much companionship and comfort and has helped us through a lot; he is a very loving creature. Especially recently, when my grandparents passed away within a six-month period, and we had to clean out the house they lived in from 1965 until 2012, which really was the most constant and familiar place to me from childhood.
Did they have a lot of stuff?
Yes, typical depression-era and Old World mentality. Too much stuff in the garage to even put my Gramps’ old Cadillac in there. They were also musicians, particularly my grandpa and his siblings. They all played in a Croatian Tamburitza band, called an orchestra, led by my great-grandfather John Baron, who came to the U.S. from Zagreb, when they were growing up in Braddock, PA (here is a photo from my family’s archives with a story about their group). My grandma saved every issue of Life magazine in plastic sleeves, so I’ve been scanning and archiving them. Some of my favorite issues have Angela Davis portraits, and artwork by Milton Glaser on the covers. I sent some pages to the Seattle-based collage artist Jesse Treece, who designed the cover art for my 7-inch on La Station Radar.
I also sent some to Shawn at Night People. I save so much paper ephemera in my craft room, to use as source material for future projects. Also, I’m the keeper of all of my grandparents’ numerous photo albums now, which are meticulously dated and inscribed with my grandmother’s careful handwriting with sweet captions, so I suppose I am the family archivist now.
While outside forces attempt to tell people what to buy and listen to and when to listen to it, and so much mass music autotunes the crap out of vocals or vocals are mixed way up front — that sometimes can turn me against even using vocals as an instrument.
Old Shawn Reed… Where did you two meet up?
In 2011, I went to a show at The Shop in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, an industrial venue that hosts experimental and underground shows, and Wet Hair was on the bill. The funny thing is that I can’t remember which band I went there to see that night. I love that rare experience when you go to a show and are pleasantly surprised by music you’ve never heard before, or have only vaguely heard of, which is what happened with Wet Hair. It’s nice to know that can still happen. I loved their particular sound, and their combination of electronic noises and pop music — an ability to create a distinct atmospheric sound that seemed all their own, while also sonically recalling some of my favorite bands, such as New Order, The Clean, and Spacemen 3. After they played, I spent time looking at all the Night-People releases at their table, which is always a great ritual after a show like that. I loved seeing Shawn’s silkscreened tapes in physical form and was impressed with his selection of beautiful limited-edition handmade cassettes and 45s. And that is when we met and talked briefly in person. I had already started working on some of Melody Elder. I had a few nearly finished songs, along with some demos and compositions in progress. Shawn was one of the few people I shared that new music with at that time. I was listening to a bunch of other releases on Night-People and very much respect and admire the aesthetic and community he supports and has created via Night-People, and Shawn’s attention to and respect for the handmade process. I sent some of the music that would later become Melody Elder to Shawn, and he wrote me back one night at like 1:30 a.m. asking if I wanted to do a tape.
Around that time I also noticed a bunch of new articles and blog posts about Night-People, and I even read your interview with Shawn, and that was a pivotal time for me, very inspiring, to also understand what I was getting into. I had taken a hiatus from making music while working in art museums and becoming heavily involved in the indie craft scene. In Pittsburgh, I am one of the organizers of Handmade Arcade, our city’s first and largest independent craft fair. It is a wonderful community to be immersed in, and in many ways, has been a natural organic extension to making music and being in bands. I used to be a vendor, with my own line of handmade greeting cards, T-shirts, tote bags, etc. I traveled with friends to national craft shows, selling at fairs such as Renegade Craft Fair and the BUST Magazine Craftacular, starting out during the pre-Etsy days. So sending my music to a complete stranger, like Shawn was to me, was a freeing experience, and I will always value and be grateful for that support and enthusiasm from him. And I like making personal connections with people. Shawn has an interesting complexity but also a consistency that allows for all types of artists, to his music and his authentic approach to running the label.
So, Melody Elder was years in the making?
Not really. I sent Shawn samples during the Spring of 2011, and some of them were complete, while others were demos or in-progress. Half of those songs I recorded with my friend Kevin Smith. He makes and repairs pedals and vintage electronics, and is also a circuit bender and musician, and helped with the beats I was looking for, so it was a very creative and productive atmosphere working in his cozy attic studio, with various vintage gear and handmade sound devices at my disposal. We both used to live in NYC, and have some friends in common there, but our paths did not cross until we met in Pittsburgh, where we actually used to live two doors down from each other at different times. In a similar process to If You take Your Magic Slow, some of Melody Elder was also recorded at home, along with my husband Greg.
That’s interesting, because you ARE composing music for others to play, so how often is your music-making process spontaneous and how much of is it pre-planned?
On Melody Elder, I pretty much play everything. Almost everything is planned at least to some extent, with the majority of it highly planned. My cousin Lucy Evans Blehar sings lead vocals on my tape and LP, and Kevin contributed some beats and some circuit-bending sounds to Melody Elder. To be honest, the way I approach my music is how I hear everything in my head combined with how it starts to unfold and evolve as I am writing and recording it, or creating a demo. That process is highly personal and intuitive for me. What the song or composition requires and calls for is what dictates how I proceed. I think very carefully about every note, melody, pattern, instrument, lyric, layer, etc. A lot of thought and care goes into my process, even if the end result is more freeform or experimental. Each individual bit is how it’s communicating itself to me. For Melody Elder, all the recording you hear is me. Kevin and I collaborated on circuit-bending sounds and beats, and I worked very closely with Lucy, who sings the melodies and lyrics that I write. On the new album, If You Take Your Magic Slow, the songwriting and arrangements were similarly mapped out by me, so we’d have to do a song-by-song for a breakdown.
If You Take Your Magic Slow is much more orchestrated and arranged. How was that process different?
Yes, though I still feel that portions of Melody Elder are carefully arranged, even if there were some limits on instrumentation or resources. For example, songs such as “The Parlance” and “Apple Bay Day” were improvisational and recorded at home, with more emphasis on the feel and vibe of the first take, while songs such as “Only Air,” “Bird Or Bat,” and “Nature-Nurture” are much more arranged, with close attention to structure, melody lines, and texture.
I am very interested in an intersection of orchestrated pristine pop music and the vibe and feel of more ambient experimental stuff.
Because of my musical influences as a child, such as growing [up] with my parents’ extensive LP collection and having their records literally be our first toys even during the pre-verbal stage (Beach Boys, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young), and how I somehow morphed into the musician I am today, I feel like this album being more orchestrated and arranged, is more of a return to music I had been a part of in the past and an authentic extension of the way I hear music and approach music-making and songwriting. On Melody Elder, there are moments of spontaneity and improv, but a lot of the material is orchestrated and arranged, even if I had limited production capabilities for the release. With the new LP, I knew I wanted to use full-band arrangements and additional instrumentation on many of the songs. At that stage, I also had the wonderful opportunity to work in the home-based studio of Greg Matecko in Hazelwood, PA, a sleepy post-Industrial hamlet located along the mighty Monongahela River outside of Pittsburgh. I feel that both releases reflect my interest in achieving a balance of spontaneity and orchestration. Like, all around my house are written ideas for songs, in various stages of completion.