"Glemmer Du," the first song on J. Graf's new album, The Future Is a Faded Song, features Graf's mother singing in Danish over oddly swelling drones. "It is one of the most well-known Danish popular songs from maybe the late '30s, because my mom was named after the woman who sang it," Graf explains outside a Mount Vernon coffee shop. Graf's mother was Danish and immigrated to America when she was 21, and Graf, who is studying Danish now, is in some ways returning to her roots by using the song to open the album. But it also hints at her avant-garde approach. "Maybe that's why I am more in tune to sound in a more ambient, generalist way, because I had to navigate the world without knowing a whole language when we went to Denmark."
Her mother had been taking voice lessons and they decided to record the song, just to see how it sounded. "Then I said, 'Let's see what it's like with music,' and I just dragged it over and I just happened to like the way the notes landed," Graf says.
This approach, "dragging it over" and liking the "the way the notes landed," is somewhat indicative of Graf's work. A performance artist (in which role she is more likely to use the name Jenny Gräf Sheppard) and longtime member of the band Metalux and the originator of the Guitars Project, which worked with Alzheimer's patients and guitars, Graf is an experimentalist in the best sense of the word: where it does not simply describe a "far out" genre, but instead actually seeks to discover something new about the self and the world.
"I have these songs, they are comprised of different samples, guitar parts, and vocals, and they have different order depending on how I feel," she says. "I never feel I can agree on one way of performing a song."
The album, which also features cellist Kate Porter, can almost be heard as a record of Graf's disagreements with herself about how a song should sound. Some of the songs are extremely melodic and beautiful, perhaps not pop, but more obvious in structure; while others are dense and thick, played on an analog synthesizer-type instrument called a tranoe (made by local instrument-maker Peter Blasser).
"I struggled with how to combine my voice-actual words and melody, which is very concrete and you think of an actual body in space," she says, "And how to combine that with where people go in very abstract space-creating, which is the other kind of sound I have done where you're not thinking of a subjectivity."
The combination of these two modes is what makes The Future Is a Faded Song such a thrilling album. At moments, such as on "Old Stones," it possesses the feel of Patti Smith's more apocalyptic narratives over swirling chaos, while at others, as at points of "Mottled Emigrant" or "nature-nurture," it is defined by an aggressive, almost metal-like roughness. There is also an operatic quality to the whole thing, if opera were filtered through Sun Ra's brain. And ultimately, much of it, as evidenced by "when the grass was high," goes back to the mixture of composition and improvisation found in blues and some traditional Middle Eastern music. "That snake is always crawling, where the grass is really high," she sings over a modal-sounding series of abstract plucks and the explosions and rumblings of electronics.
"I was attracted to the blues when I was a child," she says. "And I was obsessed with these blues songs, and at an early age I was interested in song structure that extrapolates from the core, so I've always been interested in playing with sound; in a way maybe it's improvising, but I think it's just that you don't always have to play the melody to imply the melody-like negative space."
J. Graf will play a record-release show at the Fifth Dimension in the H&H Building Oct. 25 at 9:30 P.M. with Kate Porter, Nathan Bell, and Bobby Donnie. To hear the record please visit http://jennygraf.bandcamp.com/album/j-graf-the-future-is-a-faded-song