Songwriter Interviews

Vanessa Daou

by Amanda Flinner

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a self portrait by Vanessa
Vanessa Daou was amused when her seductive album Zipless, based on the works of feminist poet/novelist Erica Jong, was branded with a Parental Advisory sticker as part of Tipper Gore's campaign to clean up pop music. Yes, the 1994 album was sexually explicit, with the sultry singer beckoning listeners with a breathless whisper to visit her "Near The Black Forest." But the Second Lady and the fellow Washington wives behind the Parents Music Resource Center were missing the point. The album was about freedom for women to not only embrace their sexuality but to embrace their identity as a whole, and the desires that go along with it.

By the time she released Zipless, Daou had already built a following in New York City's underground electronica scene as part of the nu jazz/trip-hop duo The Daou with then-husband Peter Daou. Their 1992 debut, Head Music, featured the club hit "Surrender Yourself." When it came time to record her solo effort, Daou's fascination with the power of seduction was stoked by the words of Erica Jong, her husband's aunt. Jong's 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, was controversial for its frank portrayal of female sexuality and popularized the phrase "the zipless fuck" for a carefree sexual encounter.

In celebration of the album's 25th anniversary, Daou re-released Zipless on vinyl through her own DRKR Records in December 2018. In this Songfacts interview, Daou explains the relevance of Zipless in the #MeToo era, the challenge of adapting Jong's poetry to music, and her first album of new material in six years.
photo from the Zipless era by Michael Halsband
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): What attracted you to Erica Jong's work and what makes her poetry so conducive to music?

Vanessa Daou: I was drawn immediately to the dualities of Erica's poetry: the sense of longing mixed with loss, of surrender and abdication, desire and denial, of the combination of universality and intimacy of Erica's language, her ability to capture the immediacy of the moment. I've always felt that poetry is the greatest vehicle for conveying not only feeling, but the ineffable human spirit.

Erica's work is malleable because she understands the tenuous connections between what was, what is, and what will be. It is through melody and song that a poem takes flight, is renewed by other voices, takes on new meanings and interpretations, travels through new generations. I knew that Erica's poems would translate well into songs because they communicate both intimacy and universality, two qualities which, for me, are essential for a great song.

Songfacts: The album took lyrical inspiration from Jong's poems. Who influenced you musically and vocally?

Daou: At the time, I was listening to The Velvet Underground, Nico, CAN, Bowie's Low, Jane's Addiction, PJ Harvey's Dry, lots of Grace Jones and Hendrix, Sonic Youth, Françoise Hardy, Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, and, as always, Billie Holiday.

Songfacts: After Jong introduced it in her novel Fear of Flying, the term "zipless" was popularized as a euphemism for a casual sexual encounter. What does the word mean to you?

Daou: Jong coined the term "the Zipless fuck" in Fear of Flying. While on its surface it represents an unfettered surrendering to all sexual impulses, I've always interpreted it in a broad, more existential way, reflecting a big embrace of all possibility. To get "zipless" is a philosophical act, couched as a sexual one.

Songfacts: Part of the deal with Jong was that you had to explain any changes you made to her words. What was the most challenging poem to adapt?

Daou: "Sunday Afternoons" was based on Jong's original poem "I Sit At My Desk Alone." It was a significantly longer poem which I compressed and made some additions and subtractions to. The challenge for me was not only keeping the original spirit of the lyrics, but conveying what I felt was the thrust of the poem - a smoldering sense of longing, with the burning embers of desire. A song differs from a poem in that it is lifted off the page, interpreted, and brought to life by the singer's voice, which is a combination of tone, timbre, and intonation. With a song, the music is also a vehicle for delivering meaning.

With "Sunday Afternoons," I wanted the melody to express the potency of the feelings and emotions of Erica's lyric, how her words made me "feel." The challenge was to shape the melody into a form which expressed longing and desire as felt on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sitting alone in a room, recollecting long-lost love. The further challenge was to express this scenario as melancholy without bitterness or sadness. My goal was to convey emotions distilled through the filter of a lover who has been tested, but not forsaken, and who has retained a purity of spirit, despite the ache left by longing.

Songfacts: In another interview, you mentioned Zipless is an idea whose shape and form changes with each generation. How has it changed in the current generation compared to when the album was first released?

Daou: I see the word and idea of Zipless as organic, amoeba-like, changing and morphing with each generation. At the time of Fear of Flying's release, the term "Zipless fuck" was, as we discussed previously, directly connected to the guilt-free, train-as-metaphor, sex scene in the book. As with a train, time moves on, leaving old places and meanings behind, into new open spaces where new interpretations can be created.

We have entered a new era. Whereas the 1970s were a time of bra burning - which symbolized the rejection of previous constraints - the 1990s were a time of wearing new garments, of remaking the past. On the underground music scene of 1990s New York City, the practice of scouring old vinyl records for sounds and loops was symbolic of not only remaking, but rethinking. I decided to title the album, simply, Zipless, in order to focus on the pure idea of freedom, untethered to the sexual.

Today, the threats to Roe v Wade, the perpetual assault on women physically and professionally, and the epidemic of domestic violence, are set against a backdrop of the emergence of the #MeToo movement. This has ushered in a new era of women empowered by their voices and bodies, not burdened by them. Women are now emboldened by their intelligence, unafraid to unleash the truth and leap fearlessly into their futures.

Songfacts: How did you feel about Zipless being stickered by the PMRC?

Daou: Amused.

Songfacts: "Near The Black Forest" was in heavy rotation on VH1 back in the mid-'90s. What are your memories of making the video?

Daou: I was in awe of the architecture and enthralled by the location, the Queens Hall of Science. My idea behind the video was to merge past and future, portray a mix and clash of cultures - think Mad Max meets the bar scene in Total Recall. The walls of the Queens Museum were undulating and embedded with blue-tinged glass. The experience was a mixture of the surreal and the erotic. We were all swept up in unison, by the rhythm of the music, by the swaying bodies, and by the singular poetry of that awe-inspiring space.

Songfacts: How did the success of Zipless affect your own songwriting? Was there pressure to prove yourself as a lyricist?

Daou: The success of Zipless affected my songwriting in that it solidified my commitment to the song. The combination of lyric and melody, as expressed through voice, has the potential to reach hearts and minds in a way no other format is able. I began to see the recorded song as not only a form of expression, but as a time capsule, capable of capturing not just the spirit of the moment, but the zeitgeist.

Songfacts: You were around 27 years old when you recited these lines from "Autumn Perspective":

I see myself then: tense, solemn,
in high-heeled shoes that pinch,
not basking in the light of goals fulfilled,
but looking back to now and seeing
a lazy, sunburned, sandaled girl
in a bare room, full of promise
and feeling envious


What do these words mean to you revisiting them 25 years later?

Daou: The words carry with them 25 years of my own memories as an as artist, dreamer, researcher, and explorer: touring France as the guest of singer/songwriter Étienne Daho and performing one week of sold-out shows with him at the historic L'Olympia Theatre, traveling to Brazil as a data analyst for a biologist, living through the dark days in NYC post 9/11, serving for two years as the Head of Visual Research and Photo Archives for the Dedalus Foundation, writing articles for aRUDE Magazine, immersing myself in my longtime investigations of Art and Healing and earning a certificate from UCLA in Social Emotional Arts, as well as experiencing both great and hard times with family, friends, and lovers. A 25-year-long kaleidoscope of memories.

another self portrait
Songfacts: You've always been one to fully embrace technology, with Plutonium Glow being one of the earliest albums marketed and sold online. Why did you decide on old-school vinyl for the Zipless re-release?

Daou: Technology is a flexible instrument. While certain technologies might eventually become outmoded and obsolete, others resurface and are rediscovered. Certain experiences can never be mimicked or replaced - like logs burning in a fireplace. There will always be fireplaces because the perfection of their design is essential to the efficiency and immediacy of the experience. The same is true of vinyl, it is aesthetically and functionally perfect. There can be no improvement of the design so the format will never be faced with obsolescence.

Songfacts: Finally, what can you tell us about your new album slated for 2019?

Daou: On my new album, I take many creative leaps. Most of the songs were recorded in one take. I explore the redemptive power of poetry, grace, the idea synthesis, and transformation through the creative process. Conceptually, it reflects my long-held fascination with the idea of achieving freedom and facilitating healing (whether physical or psychological) through the process of art-making.

January 2, 2019. Get more of Vanessa Daou at vanessadaou.com.
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