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[whitespace] Jill Tracy

Mysteria Woman

Jill Tracy spent years bucking mainstream music trends at the expense of her career; with the release of 'Diabolical Streak,' she may finally be getting her due

By Michelle Goldberg, photographs by Farika

Over a negroni in the elegant art nouveau brasserie The Grand Cafe, singer/songwriter Jill Tracy is recalling more difficult times. While a struggling musician in New York City, she tried shopping a demo tape around to the major labels. A few A&R guys were impressed with her breathy, crystalline croon and moody piano playing, not to mention her model-beautiful looks--ethereal, fine-boned, porcelain-skinned. If she could only write songs that were cheerier, not so depressing, they thought she could be a big star.

"Listen," a man from Virgin told her, "I like Bauhaus as much as the next guy, but I'd like to hear some upbeat tunes from you. Things that make people happy, that they can sing along to. Things that make people feel good."

"I'll have Debbie Gibson give you a call," she replied.


A decade later, Tracy has a brilliant second album out, Diabolical Streak, and a reputation that is finally starting to snowball. To her credit, she's done it with no help at all from the music industry, which constantly tried to steer her away from her own vision. Though her music is spooky and dark, her trajectory as an artist is almost uplifting, a lesson in following one's own muse in the face of a culture eager to obliterate it.

"It's really funny because I've done the same music that I've always done for about 12 years now," Tracy says with a wry laugh. "I've had to constantly listen to different industry people say, 'Well, now this is hot. Let's do a trip-hop record, let's do dance music, let's do a lounge type of thing. I find it amusing how they have these peaks and valleys with all of these trends that have come and gone, and I have continued to do what I do."

What she does is a sly kind of macabre ragtime that has a smoldering torch-song glamour and a Gothic bite. Her debut album, Quintessentially Unreal, was just Tracy and her piano, and it was as spare as Edward Gorey's line drawings. On Diabolical Streak, though, she's added the Malcontent Orchestra--stand-up bass, violin, bassoon and percussion. The result is a rich, elegant sound that conjures many different eras of decadence--some songs suggest haunted Victorian parlors, others turn-of-the-century absinthe bars or smoky film noir supper clubs.

Unlike much of Goth culture, which tends to reek of adolescent melodrama and sublimated rage, Tracy's style has much of the dark cultivated grace that animated Bram Stoker's archetypal evil dandy. "I'll hold your hand while they drag the river," she sings in a snaky-sweet voice laced with acid on "Evil Night Together." "I'll cuddle you in the undertow/ I'll keep my hand on your trigger finger/I'll take you down where the train tracks go."

Jill Tracy "The Proof" is a catalog of suicides, sung in a lugubrious whisper that's piquant with the hint of a smile. Her bleak lyrics and the melancholy strings are constantly tempered with the naughty relish in her voice and her playing, especially on "Doomsday Serenade," a jaunty, ultracatchy ditty about the apocalypse.

As a child, Tracy loathed the piano lessons her mother forced her to take, wishing instead to play drums or guitar. Only when she was allowed to quit--because her mother was sick of her incessant complaints--did she fall in love with it. "I think the way they teach kids piano is horrible," she says. "It seems very stuffy. They're not teaching them how to express themselves on the piano in a modern way. So it was after I quit the lessons that I went back to the instrument and realized how beautiful it is and starting composing."

Though Tracy's music works effortlessly well, it took her years to accept her own aesthetic. "I think deep down I've always fantasized about being a rock musician, but I've had to come to the conclusion that I just don't write that type of music," she says. "I fought that for a long time. When I was in New York, I tried to put together bands that had guitar and were really heavy, and then they had this dissonant piano. It just never worked for me." During rehearsals, she'd find herself cutting out more and more of the guitar parts and dreaming of cellos and bassoons.

But it was the heyday of swirling alternative guitar groups like Jane's Addiction and Curve. Despite her classical inclinations, Tracy, still a neophyte, struggled to get herself in sync with the moment. "When I lived in New York, people would ask me to do solo shows on the piano, and I'd say, "Absolutely not," Tracy recalls. "I had to have a band, and it had to have electric guitar. I always fought a constant battle with myself."

Finally she had an epiphany, realizing, "I need to just surrender to my own muses." They led her to leave New York and come to San Francisco, which she believes is more supportive of its artists. Here, Tracy let go of the obsession with mainstream success that can be overpowering on the East Coast, where fame often seems like it is the holy grail everyone aspires to. "I went through a serious depression, wanting to give up music and not enjoying my life. I went through bad suicidal periods of hating life and hating everyone around me. That's another reason I left New York," she recalls.

Tracy laughs and apologizes in advance for sounding New Agey, then explains that, in San Francisco, she found a kind of peace. "I guess when I moved here, I started everything over again. I thought about why I'm doing this--because of the craft of doing it. It's about just enjoying your life, it's not about acceptance by the mainstream. If you really look at it, acceptance by the mainstream is no validation of what you do."

For someone whose music is so suffused with angst, she seems remarkably calm and self-possessed ... almost happy. She has the sparkle-eyed grace of a Lauren Bacall, and when she laughs--which is surprisingly often--it's deep and full-throated, never a nervous giggle. Meeting her outside of a show, one realizes just how natural her persona is--for a simple midafternoon drink, she's dressed in a fur-edged leather coat and an intricate silver choker that she wears easily.

Jill Tracy Once Tracy grew comfortable with herself, she found a community of like-minded souls, similarly fascinated with the dark side of turn-of-the-century culture. She once took me to a party at the home of a wine importer, gourmet and absinthe aficionado, where the illegal chartreuse elixir was served in skinny antique glasses with expensive century-old silver absinthe spoons. The affair was intimate and elegant--perhaps more so than any other party I've been to on the West Coast. Alienated from most of the culture, she and her friends have created one of their own.

Still, she deadpans, "I don't like the word happy. I don't like the word complacent--complacent is a terrible word. I don't know if it's with growing up and maturing, but I've come to a place where I really know myself, and I've accepted that and I can relax and just be myself. I don't know if it's being happy as much as just being comfortable and confident."

Here in San Francisco, Tracy stopped striving for mainstream success and focused on carving her own niche, eventually becoming one of the founders of the now-thriving--and influential--local cabaret scene, modern-day vaudeville and burlesques often performed in underground clubs. When she first started playing in town, clubs were reluctant to book her because it was hard to find other bands to put on the bill with her. "People would say, 'We really like your music, but there's no one to book you with.' Well, why does it have to be another band? Why can't we just have an evening that devotes itself to creating a mood and allows the audience to savor that mood?" she recalls.

Rather than try to find a roster she could squeeze into, she created a whole club night, Jill Tracy's Mysteria, one of the city's first underground cabarets. "I created Mysteria and went out and befriended a lot of the local carnival acts and circus people and started putting that on." Soon so many people were asking where they could buy her songs that she recorded her first CD, Quintessentially Unreal, an album full of exactly the type of music she used to refuse to perform.

Now, after years of forging her own sound, cultural forces seem to be on her side for the first time. A new interest in cabaret and in torch songs, the mania for female singer/ songwriters and the mainstream hunger for the macabre (as demonstrated by the recent success of The Blair Witch Project, among other things) all make 1999 seem like a uniquely auspicious year for Tracy. And while she still feels like a bit of a loner musically, a scene of sorts is coalescing, with neo-cabaret acts like England's the Tiger Lilies reaping critical accolades and bands like L.A.'s the dêvics and the local Slow Poisoners working in a similar vein.

Beyond the fact that the market may be primed for her music, her art fills a hunger that's been growing in audiences--for a more teasing, restrained kind of indulgence, for old-fashioned showmanship, burlesque and narrative. "People are bored," Tracy says. "I think people are getting back to wanting to sit down and be entertained."

Like the cabaret scene she created, Tracy's music implies a wholesale rejection of many of the more crass, mass-marketed aspects of contemporary culture: a desire to get away from the flash and bombast of modern life. Her music demands that you be still and pay attention to it--unlike bar bands or DJs, it doesn't work simply as the soundtrack to other adventures. It's music for people who want to escape the dance floor for the drawing room, even if just for a night.

Jill Tracy After Quintessentially Unreal was played on college radio nationwide, Tracy developed a passionately devoted fan base--recently, she got an email from someone in Tennessee who told her that, having heard her music once, he'd been trying to find her for the last three years.

"It's become a very personal relationship between myself and my fans. I'm constantly getting letters and little gifts," she says. "They know that I collect stray playing cards that I find on the street, which I've done for probably a dozen years--there's a divination in finding stray playing cards. So fans would send me these. I got a tattered old 10 of diamonds the other day that someone found on the street in some other city, and I love that. There's this great energy that's passed with my music and my fans, and I wouldn't trade that for anything."

When Tracy performs, she seems to float above the everyday fray. She usually wears something black and elegant, a choker around her long, pale neck, lips dark against almost translucent skin. There's something otherworldly about her. "Part of the inspiration for my music has come from my feeling a connection to the old magicians of the turn of the century," she says. "They performed in an intimate setting, and it was all about that moment where people wanted to believe in something that isn't real.

"Whether it's believing in a ghost or the supernatural, there's that moment of suspended disbelief that everyone holds inside. There's that glimmer of hope that maybe he is actually making something disappear, maybe the dove is really appearing in his hand. There's that part of everyone that wants to trust their imagination, to trust that all is not always what it seems. There's part of everyone that longs for some magic."

Jill Tracy plays with Toledo on Sept. 16 at 9pm at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St.; $8; 415.885.0750. On Oct. 29-31, Jill Tracy and her Malcontent Orchestra perform a live original score to the silent horror classic Nosferatu at Foreign Cinema, 2548 Mission St.; 415.648.7600. For information on CDs and upcoming shows, see www.jilltracy.com.

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From the September 13, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.