Dudley Saunders

Dudley Saunders has been exploring the hidden lives of marginalized people since his late teens, starting first with his award-winning performance art pieces, then in fiction, documentary film and - finally - indie-folk music. The Kentucky native first began performing his "surreal, modern folk tales" (Village Voice) to downtown New York audiences in the early 90s, with a musical style halfway between the experimental chamber pop of The Decemberists and the Appalachian folk of Gillian Welch, ­ a style New York Press called "a new kind of American balladry", which lead Amplifier to dub him "a masterful storyteller in Bruce Springsteen/Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits territory."

After a brief foray with the Knitting Factory’s label, Dudley released three solo albums with New York's Fang Records, most recently The Emergency Lane.

He now lives and records in Los Angeles, where he is at work on a new album, to be titled "Novelsongs".

How do you describe your music to people?

I describe it badly.  Usually I just say it’s experimental folk, or exploratory folk, because I almost always start from some traditional folk form and then explode it to fit the subject matter.  Like Breath from my first album Restore starts with the lines of an Appalachian murder ballad – “Oh, I’m a-feared for my life/I’m afraid you’re gonna murder me” – but it’s actually about a man being murdered by AIDS in New York, so the images and melody quickly warp far away from the traditional.  Or The Truck of the Rising Sun, which actually incorporates a verse from House Of The Rising Sun at the end.  It’s not always that obvious, but it’s all folk music at heart, albeit folk music about some deeply disturbed folks.  To me, those people are beautiful and very real.

Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
Well, when I was growing up in Kentucky, there were a lot of things you couldn’t say out loud and a lot things you weren’t supposed to feel.  But if you did it in music, you could get away with murder.  Literally – I mean, if you really listen to a lot of old country music, it’s full of murder and insanity and despair that isn’t gonna give way to a little church-going.  Of course, once I started hearing Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, it got even more clear you could get away with anything in music.  If you put the content of a Nirvana song into a novel or a play, it would be considered too depressing and upsetting.  But on the radio, everybody just cranks the volume.  Very weird.

Beyond that, though, it was the fact that music could open up all these forbidden emotional worlds.  It’s really amazing how a few of the right chords can make the bottom of your stomach fall out.

What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Create.   Although it doesn’t much feel like creating, more like exploring what’s already there but hidden.  But I should point out that half of my creating happens in between writing sessions, when I’m walking to the hardware store and the right words suddenly click together.  You have to be part of the world to write.

What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
Making it a business at all.  If this were any other “business” you would let it fail, like a start-up.  If you have a start-up business, you have a limited time in which to start turning a profit, and if you can’t deliver a financial return in time, you go bust.  But if you’re hooked on making music, failure doesn’t stop you.  

Still, the other side of that coin is the challenge to treat it like a business and get adequate investment or buy-in from other people.  If you have a real start-up, you figure out what resources you really need to get it going, and then you get adequate financing.  If you need 12 software engineers, you have to have money to pay them.  In music, most of us never even get to that point – and in our defense, there aren’t a whole lot of hedge funds just itching to fund that new indie-folk star in the making.  But when we try to do it all on our own, we are shooting ourselves and our music in the foot.

So, I guess for me, the biggest challenge is to reach out and get adequate support from the outside – like any business should.

When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I don’t know why, but I thought I’d be a chemist.  I’d never studied any chemistry, but I sure liked the test-tubes I saw in movies.  Later, I wanted to make horror films.  Then I found out what real horror was, and decided monsters really weren’t what we should all be afraid of.  Once you’ve met the extreme right-wing, the Blob just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
Well, I come from a number of communities.  As a young child in Kentucky, I was impacted by the traditional music as played traditionally, crossed with the popular folk artists who sort of re-wired folk music, like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or all that lot.  So that taught me that folk music could be elastic.  Then, when I was 19, there was the East Village art-world community in New York, where the general expectation was that you should always take things to the next level: if you weren’t upsetting someone (yourself included) then you weren’t trying hard enough.  And then, finally, the gay community during the AIDS crisis, which gave me such a devastating experience of abandonment and hostility and pure rage that I really began to see how the medieval horrors of old folk music were exactly like the horrors of our modern age.  It sealed the deal on my music.

What other artists out there do you love?
I love pieces of everybody out there.  I love some Sufjan Stevens and find some of his stuff kind of twee.  Same for Chris Garneau.  Those Monsters of Folk are pretty great, and I sure would love to shoehorn my way in there one day.  I’ve been listening to Rickie Lee Jones lately, and a little Diamanda Galas.   One undersung artist I love is Namoli Brennett*.  Also my friend David Poe, Howe Gelb, about half of Bon Iver.  I’m leaving folks out.  I’ll kick myself later.

[*Be sure to check out the SCS interview with Namoli Brennett- Ed.]

What does your future hold?
Well, I’m about halfway through with what I call my Novelsong Project – it’s a series of songs taken from novels that stick in my brain.  It’s a very weird process, because I’m not adapting the novels, but writing songs based on my REACTION to the novels.  So far it ranges from cyber-punk author William Gibson all the way to the post-modern Brit-Lit of Martin Amis.  But this time I’m determined to find a new label to work with – part of breaking out of my self-imposed DIY strait-jacket.  But I’ll call my own bluff: there’s no way I won’t be writing songs ad infinitum.  I mean, what are the other options?  There’s not enough reality TV to fill that void.