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Almost Famous

Why isn’t Dayna Kurtz a household name?

Steve Almond
April 05, 2007

You are wondering how I met Dayna Kurtz, and how I came to be such a maniac fan, and why I view listening to her music as a certified mitzvah.

I must begin, regrettably, at the cheapie bins. This was back in the CD era, before we all went virtual”how’s that for nostalgia at the speed of capitalism?”at a shop called Disc Diggers in my hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts. Disc Diggers was large and dusty and filled with clerks on the surly downsides of failed musical careers. Every month or so, these guys combed the racks for albums with no hope of selling and tossed them into a giant wooden crate marked “99 cents.” I spent most of my shopping time there, dreams of rescue in my cheapskate heart.

This is where I first came across Postcards from Downtown, Dayna’s second record. I remember being struck by the cover photo, which showed the artist seated amid what looked like the ruins of a carnival. So I bought the record for a buck and let it sit around for a few days”why not?”then slipped it on, expecting, I suppose, some kind of boho Joni Mitchell wannabe.

Dayna’s voice was about as far from Joni Mitchell as voices get: a deep, bluesy howl, which she set atop lush, boozy arrangements. It took me two weeks to get Postcards off my stereo”and this is saying something, as I am a Registered Music Geek with 3,000 CDs to my name. But this one had me bad, all sunk deep in the latitudes of sex and woe. Her voice had turned my heart spooky with lust. Who the hell was this woman, I wanted to know, and why wasn’t she famous?

* * *

I’ll do my best with the first question, as there’s no satisfactory way to answer the second. I should tell you, to begin with, about the first time I saw Dayna Kurtz live. This was six years ago, a Sunday night in winter, bitter cold, a lousy slot for live music. There were five people at the dinky Cambridge bar where she was playing, and four of them had just ordered dinner, so I was the only person listening, other than the sound guy. Dayna clambered onto the stage and started singing, just her and her guitar, and it was one those moments you don’t forget. The room was filled instantly with her deep, human trembling.

The quartet at the other table, a couple of guys in ties and their dates, was there for the burgers. Really, I had nothing against them”except they wouldn’t shut up. There was this one guy in particular (always is) and he couldn’t just talk to his date. He had to shout. I finally turned to him and told him to shut up. But he went on and on, yelling about television shows and health products and the ungrateful poor.

Dayna kept singing. She had every right to stop. But she gave herself to those songs, fully and without embarrassment. She sounded like Billy Holliday and Leonard Cohen crooning into the same mic. The strummed melodies were lush and hypnotic, full of the complicated joy of sorrow.

As for me, I kept pleading for “Paterson,” her wrenching paean to the city she called home for several years. The lyrics themselves are worthy of her hero Allen Ginsberg, who grew up there:

Every sad old papa was a proud young man
Full of victories he’d almost won
All the mistakes he made
paved the streets of Paterson

Afterwards, I went and tried to explain to her how brave and vulnerable her songs made me feel, how they made me forget to breathe, but I didn’t have the words, so I just stood there and apologized for the jerk.

Dayna shrugged. “Assholes gotta eat, too,” she said.

There was an affectionate sarcasm in her tone that I recognized instantly (and with that little twinge of bio-genetic joy) as Judaic in nature.

I helped her lug her gear outside to her car. Except there was no car. It had been stolen. Now, Dayna broke down. She had just come from a festival where she’d played for 700 fans and taken a hot tub with Greg Brown and here she was in Cambridge, in the howling cold, with a psycho fan and no money and no car.

“Fuck,” she said, beginning quietly to weep. “This is so fucked up.”

In the end, we took my car to Pat’s towing (she had parked illegally, it turned out) and Dayna paid 95 dollars cash and we got her aimed back toward Brooklyn. But I’ve never forgotten that night. It managed to convey everything you need to know about America in these times: our aggressive disdain for art and artists, those who commit the unpardonable crime of making us feel more than we wish to feel; the ludicrous sacrifices endured by these criminals. And how one might, in the darkest moments, turn to the art itself for redemption. Dayna did her gig. She delivered her songs to that room with astonishing grace. She got herself home, and lived to sing another day.

* * *

One more quick story. This took place last year, Valentine’s Day, in fact. Dayna had agreed”with understandable reluctance”to return to the greater Boston metro area, specifically to my hometown, Somerville. This was a bittersweet occasion for me, because I had just found out that my fiancée Erin was pregnant (that’s the sweet part), but she was in Southern California, finishing up her master’s degree and puking on the hour. I’d gotten her a fancy box of chocolates for the holiday, but they’d not arrived yet and I was scrambling to find a way to make it up to her.

I’d turned Erin into a Dayna Kurtz fan, of course. She was more or less chemically addicted to Dayna’s torchy cover of the Jean Lenoir song, “Parlez-moi D’Amour.” And so I pleaded with the manager of the club to let me say hello to Dayna, then I pled my case with her. She not only sung the song, but dedicated it to Erin, who was lying 3,000 miles away, on her couch, having just thrown up. She told me Dayna sounded better via speakerphone than most singers do in a concert hall.

* * *

Dayna had the crowd in the palm of her hand that night, and she handled us with extreme care. Her vocal and musical virtuosity (at one point, she played banjo) were very much on display, but it was of the sort designed to elicit pleasure rather than awe. She’d come a long way from her Cambridge nightmare, and certainly from the days when she drove around selling albums out of her car trunk. Her astounding LP of covers, Beautiful Yesterday (2004) had featured a duet with Norah Jones. This alone, I assumed, had vaulted her into stardom.

But when I talked with her after her set, it was clear Dayna was still hustling to make a living at music, and doing so mostly at the behest of European audiences, who regard her as the second coming of Nina Simone.

She lacks the glamorous good looks of Norah, and her music doesn’t have the radio-friendly lite-jazz appeal. Her lyrics deal primarily with the unbearable feelings: sorrow, disappointment, rage. Which may be another way of saying that her sensibility is unmistakably Jewish.

The only overt nod to religion in her music is “The Day of Atonement, 2001,” a haunting diatribe against religious intolerance that begins with a squiggly flourish of clarinet and gives way to a wash of klezmer horns.

It’s the Day of Atonement 2004
Would Jesus be happy we evened the score?
You hypocrites, bullies, who profit from war
May your Gods all spit on your graves

Like I said: rage.

* * *

This is what I cherish in Dayna’s work. Her songs are like the short stories I admire (and try to write). They make considerable demands on the audience. You can’t just sit there and expect them to do all the work.

It was for this reason that I was curious to ask her a little bit more about her background, which, it turns out, is a lot like mine. Her parents were “rabid atheists” who identified themselves as ethical humanists, which is, in her wry estimation, “kind of like Unitarianism for Jews. I didn’t go to Hebrew school, didn’t have a bat mitzvah. Instead, I had a ‘becoming ceremony’ where people read poetry and I played the recorder.” Dayna’s family, like my own, also cherrypicked when it came to holidays, emphasizing Passover as a story of exodus applicable “to all people searching for freedom.”

Here, I’m afraid, the similarities somewhat tail off. I did not (like Dayna) spend my youth listening to Broadway show tunes. Nor did I go through what she describes as “a very embarrassing musical theater phase in high school.” Nor did I go on to make music (though I harbored that desperate wish in silence).

Still, in its broad contours, Kurtz has led the kind of double life familiar to modern Jewish artists: she’s chosen to embrace her cultural legacy without assuming the burden of religious baggage. As she puts it, “I live in New York, so I don’t have to think about my Jewishness. We’re everywhere. Even my Episcopalian friends talk like us and I think secretly want to be more like us, with our rude opinions, our funny stories about our loud colorful families, our mothers who love us too much instead of not enough.”

I was curious about whether Judaism affected her songwriting. “I think my music is sentimental,” she observed. “Not in a schmaltzy kind of way. But there’s a kind of nostalgia and longing and melancholy there when I’m writing, that seems Jewish and certainly Russian.”

I wondered if this overt emotionalism might not be a vestige of the years she spent listening to show tunes. But, according to Dayna, the Jewish tradition and Broadway tradition are, in fact, inextricably linked.

Here’s how she knows: about a decade ago, while wandering a yard sale, she picked up a bunch of records by a cantor named Yossele Rosenblatt. She’d never heard of the guy, but the recordings were old, and they had cool covers, one of which listed Enrico Caruso as a huge fan. Sold. When Dayna played the records at home, she couldn’t believe how much of Rosenblatt wound up on Broadway.

“Somewhere in my head, I kind of thought that the great Broadway composers were influenced only by jazz, that they were in essence mass marketing it for a white audience. But I realized”with a bit of pride”that there was as much Yiddish theater and Jewish liturgical music in there as there is jazz. The dramatic nature of our music mixed with jazz chord systems and sensibilities gave birth to something pretty beautiful.”

* * *

I love that story, what it says about the unexpected reclamations of our past. And what it says about Dayna’s refusal to turn away from her own instincts. I love her songs precisely because they are unabashedly emotional, full of the ruthless, tender wailing associated with a considered life.

Honestly, I get depressed when I think about artistic injustice. Dayna Kurtz should be twice as famous as Norah Jones, and a hundred times more so than the various pop tarts of our age. But fame isn’t her thing”truth is, and that’s a much tougher sell.

All that said, I will shut up and exhort you to listen to your next freak.