Kris Delmhorst's fourth studio release, Strange Conversation (Signature Sounds, June 2006), is a vital and celebratory meditation on art and its ability to speak across time and distance. After several albums of genre-bending original work, Delmhorst found inspiration in the work of various well-known poets. Some of the poems are set verbatim to music, some dismantled and reassembled in significantly new renditions, others merely used as the jumping-off point for Delmhorst's own literate lyrical take. The fact that the album feels modern, cohesive, and joyful is testament both to the inherent timelessness of the poems and to the skillful adaptations that bring them to life as songs - not to mention Delmhorst's wine-deep, honey-bright voice, which can deliver even a centuries-old phrase directly to the doorstep of the listener's soul.
The inspiration for the project arrived by chance. In the midst of writing for another record, Delmhorst picked up a poetry anthology sitting on the coffee table and flipped through the pages. "My eye caught the first line of a Robert Browning poem as it flashed by, and the rhythm of the language was so musical that by the time I had paged backwards to find the poem again, a tune already existed in my head," she recalls. A week's worth of unwashed dishes and unanswered phone calls later, most of a new album had emerged. Delmhorst had already written a song based on a Robert Herrick poem a year earlier - a casual writing exercise which turned unexpectedly into a barn-burner of a rock tune - and had filed away a few ideas for other poeticallyinspired songs. Now, as she turned her attention to these stray thoughts, song after song came to life.
Lush where it might have been dry, riotous where it could have been reverent, the finished product is anything but academic. Delmhorst releases each poem into the air and gives it the freedom to go where it will, with unexpected results: Walt Whitman's cosmic hurrah becomes a sunny pop anthem, Edna St. Vincent Millay's dreamlike tavern comes to life in a torchy roadhouse waltz, George Eliot's thoughts on the permanence of art slide into a woozy Dixie shuffle, and Rumi's Sufi musings unfurl into a last-call, all-hands-on-deck singalong.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Delmhorst currently hangs her hat in small-town New England, although her musical base remains Cambridge MA, where she lived for many fruitful years. Her time there yielded two critically-praised albums made in collaboration with Morphine's Billy Conway, recorded at Hi-n-Dry Studio with a colorful crew from the Boston scene. Songs For a Hurricane (2003) was a moody journey through rough emotional weather, swirling with dark, jangly guitars and shot through with bright rays of folk and bluegrass. Five Stories (2001) employed a wide palette of instruments - from octave mandolin to baritone sax and melodica to flugelhorn - to bring to life a nuanced and timeless collection of songs.
When gathering the band to record Strange Conversation, Delmhorst decided to experiment with an all-new cast of characters and approached musicians she'd never recorded with previously. The chemistry of the band - drummer Lorne Entress (Lori McKenna, Erin McKeown), upright bassist Paul Kochanski (The Resophonics, Lori McKenna) and guitar ace Kevin Barry (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Paula Cole) - was so immediate that the whole album was recorded in just a few days. The players inhabit each song with thoughtfulness and heart, creating a current of musical depth and spontaneity that provides continuity as the record moves from jungly rockers to gauzy ballads. Touches of carefree Dixie horns, darkly moody strings, and ethereal lapsteel phrases lend extra character to the band tracks.
Again and again, propelled by the animating joy of Delmhorst and her band, the poems on Strange Conversation come vividly to life, seeming to speak to one another and to the events of the day. This is the 'strange conversation' of the title: the vast ongoing dialogue between artists of all kinds - spanning centuries and continents, languages and cultures - and in which no one ever has the final word.