Noe Venable wobbles up onto her tiptoes, presses her hands to the glass, and peers into the darkened Albany storefront. Closed. On a breezy Monday afternoon. Curses.
The cheery Oaklander pouts a little, like a kid denied entrance to a candy store. Except Noe is a 27-year-old singer-songwriter who can't get into the Bone Room, an extremely creepy-lookin' taxidermy/archaeological odds 'n' ends shop. She had hoped to visit some sort of giant albino snake.
Instead, she settles for a window display of stuffed roosters and bat skeletons, which particularly fascinate her. Noe digs nature, albeit its seedy "ewww, gross" dark side. "I've had moments in altered states where I've heard trees crying, yes," she says. "That is a very hippie experience. But I feel that nature is a chaotic thing, it's a brutal thing. Nature is not only pretty flowers -- it's things eating each other. And there's this survival of the fittest. It's weird underground tunnels and the claw-crashing of fighting insects. It's Blue Velvet, that moment with the beetles in the grass."
Meet a folk singer even David Lynch could love. Goth? Hippie? Sarah McLachlan? Tim Burton? Noe is a weird hybrid of wide-eyed enthusiasm and wide-eyed terror, on a mission to rescue the phrase "acoustic female singer-songwriter" from the dungeon of music critic four-letter words. Thus, she's got a lot on her mind. She fully cops to a unicorn fetish, admits she cried when she first heard OK Computer, openly discusses her "awareness of death," earnestly shares theories on how to slow down time, and describes her unsuccessful dalliance with experimental music by saying, "A lot of people were making music that was, like, 'A Duet for Clarinet and Swiss Cheese,' and then the clarinetist would get up there and squawk for two hours, and the Swiss cheese would sit on a little chair."
To rise above the hideously overloaded pack, singer-songwriters need character. Noe has a Robert Altman movie's worth.
You've joined the party just as she's begun a phase she calls "crossing over to Womanland." A former playwriting major (one professor praised her work but insisted she had nothing to say), Noe didn't pick up an acoustic guitar until she had a bout with mono and needed distraction while she was laid up and restless. Five hundred songs later, she's cut four self- produced, self-released solo albums rife with grim character studies in fine terror- inducing Tom Waits tradition: "Jawbone Canyon," "Papa Ain't Comin' Home," "Broken Bird, Broken Bird." It's an attempt to mate the soothing and familiar -- folky acoustic guitar strummin', homespun percussion, violins, eerie pianos, Noe's own otherworldly soprano -- with the brawling insects, the bat skeletons.
Partially, yes, this is Lilith Fair backlash. Any female acoustic guitar strummer battles charges of coffeehouse folk pretentiousness. Ani DiFranco jokes abound, ho ho. It can get old, and it can compel you to ditch Womanland for a while. "What really bothered me about a lot of that music is I just found it to be very safe," Noe says. "A lot of music is sentimental, but it doesn't really take any kind of emotional risk. Emotions are strange. They're messy and they can be ugly and they come in weird colors and leopard spots."
Fortunately, many weird colors and leopard spots sneak into Noe's latest CD, The World Is Bound by Secret Knots. Her sonic backdrop is slicker and sharper now -- a strong Tori Amos resemblance immediately strikes you -- and her fairy tale lyrics have veered back to Womanland and now freely conjure up those dreaded Lilith buzzwords: intimate, confessional, ethereal. She references the ocean constantly. But there's also an outlandish and weirdly entrancing theatrical element to it all. She wails, she whispers, she preaches, she moans, she channels the dead and then wakes 'em. It all ends with her pounding a piano and shouting "I remember when I was a kid! Thinkin' 'bout unicorns the way I did!"
Far out. She's more of a song stylist now, off-Broadway and deliberately off her rocker. "I don't want to be a zealot," she says, "but sometimes I feel like deep down I have a very strong current of the crazy woman on the street corner, or the witch. And I can't help that. It's innate. I'm beginning to accept that."
Weirdly enough, the more extreme her approach, the more diverse her appeal. Noe has opened for Ani DiFranco (ha, ha), They Might Be Giants, and that Toad the Wet Sprocket guy. In May she showed up at Carlos Mena's monthlong hip-hop/poetry showcase at Oakland's Black Box, entrancing a mostly rap-centric audience with a spoken word piece about meeting Death at Walgreens. She blends by clashing, whether she's locking horns with unfamiliar audiences or firing off open letters to wayward newspapers: When San Francisco Chronicle scribe Joel Selvin unloaded a two-part series in early May lamenting the slow death of the Bay Area music scene, Venable responded with a remarkably friendly rebuttal, eschewing what she calls the "you don't know what's happening, dumbfuck" approach and instead praising the living rooms, warehouses, and warm fringes where the bay's musicians still thrive.
The twentysomething dreamer with the acoustic guitar is perhaps our oldest rock archetype, both rife with possibility and completely done to death -- a minefield of clichés and regressive folk yawns. It's possible to navigate and overcome that, but not without bravery and guile. "It's scary to get up and rip your heart out in front of people," Noe says. "Unfortunately, some people's hearts are more interesting to watch being ripped out than others."
So what you really need is innovation -- a fully formed persona willing to be completely honest, inventive, outlandish, over-the-top. Only that will topple the stereotypes, Lilith and otherwise.
Noe's onto it. "You think of acoustic guitars as being kind of wussy," she says. "But the motion, when you're playin' an electric guitar, these guys are rockin' out, but the motion is, like [pinches her fingers] deet deet deet deet deet deet deet. But with an acoustic guitar, your fingers are callused, it hurts, and you're playing hard. I think it's possible to wrench those instruments from their modern associations and bring them back to something more primal, which is just beating on shit."
So there you have it: Beat on shit, embrace the unicorn, and leave the Swiss cheese out of it.
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