For Valerie Orth, the Music Is the Message 

How activist burnout fueled a young singer-songwriter.

Valerie Orth's cell phone isn't working. Her apartment is cold. She has no central heating, and the large windows make the rooms feel drafty. Orth paces the floor in hiking boots and a long knit scarf. She piles blankets on the sofa and stocks the cupboards with Throat Coat medicinal tea. Even in such conditions, she remains relatively sanguine.

"If I were going to be sponsored by a company, it would be Throat Coat," the singer said, setting her kettle to boil on a recent Wednesday afternoon. She smiled facetiously, brown eyes twinkling.

Despite her humble living conditions, Orth has a lot to be happy about these days. Five years since leaving an activist job with Global Exchange, she's become a successful folk singer, clocking two full-length albums. Her current one, Faraway City, took a year and half to make, and the effort shows. Orth plays guitar and sings multi-part harmonies over tracks provided by a seven-piece band. Her personnel include pianist Julie Wolf of Ani Difranco fame, and free-jazz titan Scott Amendola, playing the part of a rock drummer. For a fledgling singer with a completely intuitive composition style, it's a remarkable piece of work.

Orth might say it's a little disingenuous to characterize her as "intuitive." She did, after all, grow up singing in musical theater productions, and went on to join an African diaspora choir at Tufts University. Citing influences that mostly stem from feminist folk and world music — Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco, Zap Mama, Indigo Girls, Tori Amos, Meshell Ndegeocello — Orth says she was probably singing before she could talk. But her background is mainly in activism. She campaigned for a women's studies department at Tufts, organized singer-songwriter benefits, and attended rallies for fair trade and environmental justice. After graduating, Orth took a job with Green Core, then moved to San Francisco and became a labor organizer for Global Exchange. She challenged corporate behemoths like Proctor & Gamble, joined the fight for fair-trade coffee, and traveled to China to consolidate worker support. She led the effort to pass San Francisco's anti-sweatshop law in 2005.

Then she got burnt out. "With the sweatshop law I worked a couple years to pass it, then three years on the advisory board with the city, trying to implement it," she said. "It was moving so slow that I thought, 'There has to be a better way to have an impact.'"

Music didn't offer a lot of concrete rewards, at first. Orth recorded her first album over a period of four months with no budget, no management, and no business plan. Most of it happened over two weeks, when she and her engineer cloistered themselves inside a lake house in Minnesota. Orth played guitar and sang several original tunes, mixed the demo, and put it on CD. It's pure, shoestring-budget folk with almost no adornments. "A really interesting experience," she said. "Not something I would do again."

Faraway City is Orth's real debut, in that it includes a five-piece studio band, twelve fully fleshed-out tunes, and multilayered vocal harmonies — mostly Orth singing multiple tracks, except for "The Ones I Owe" and "Toolbox," which feature background singers. Aesthetically speaking, it's very much in the Ani DiFranco vein of folk. Orth has the same glottal intonation and staccato guitar style as DiFranco. Her choruses soar and her politics prickle through, even when the lyrics center on relationships.

That said, Orth has a different stage persona than many of her forbears. She may approach her causes with missionary zeal, but her natural demeanor is pretty demure. She lives with roommates in a big apartment on the lip of the Castro, drinks tea, and wears chunky jewelry. She describes her whole artistic philosophy in platitudes. Even her lyrics veer from the particular to the general (It takes a village to send a message/It takes all of us to make a difference, she coos in "Movers & Shakers"). In interviews, she talks about not wanting to be put in a box.

"Tracy Chapman — she's been able to have a strong political message that still is able to reach a mainstream audience," she said. "Ani DiFranco ... I think that because her stance was so strong and in-your-face, people were resistant to her when she was big in the late-Nineties."

Having an understated personality can be a great asset, especially in the singer-songwriter world. Orth can sing about protest movements without risk of becoming a protest singer per se. She gets to play at Burning Man and decorate her apartment with Ghanaian folk art, and not be a hippie. She's not worried about alienating her audience. And, best of all, she's a musician first and foremost. Orth starts most of her songs on guitar and then has producer Jon Evans help with the editing. She wrote "Movers and Shakers" from the drum's perspective.

Faraway City started with a listening session and culminated with one of the best rock bands around. Orth gives her band a lot of latitude. Evans contributed most of the album's bass lines, though he cedes the live show to bassist Veronika Safarova. Oakland-born rapper Mystic makes a theatrical cameo on "Black & White," Orth's song about racial profiling. (She says she met Mystic on MySpace and that they bonded over shared political ideals.) Amendola gets to take liberties, contributing a sleigh-bells-and-drum loop on "Keeps Coming Back," thumb piano on "Black & White," and dubbing three drum sets over one another for several tracks. Orth's touring drummer, Jeff Mars, also hails from the jazz world, and he's equally nonconformist.

"I think we went a bit more 'out-there' than the regular singer-songwriter genre," Orth said hesitantly. Indeed, Faraway City is a surprising album — not so much for its left-leaning lyrics as for the considered nature of its production. Orth says that, ultimately, her goals are modest. She wants to live off of music. She wants to be uncompromising, cut a few more albums, collaborate with musicians of rank. All of that seems practical in the long run.

Maybe she'll even get central heating.

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