“How do you feel about U2?” Somehow I choose to make that the question that kicks off my conversation with Jenny Moule, better known by her stage moniker Damsel Talk. And I’m not just asking because “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is blaring through the speakers of the Palermo café where we’re meeting for this chat. Yes, that’s what prompts the question, but it also points to a thought I’d had while listening to her upcoming album Darling Darling and Other Stories, as well as seeing her live a couple of times: a big part of what makes her act so compelling is how it represents the marriage of two distinct schools of music.
Since the advent of the singer-songwriter era, there’s been a pervasive notion in pop music that songwriting should be personally revelatory and confessional, an exercise in earnestness and soul-baring intimacy. After sometime in the early seventies, a pop song was no longer merely a pop song, but a scrambled enigma to decode in order to find scattered details of the songwriter’s life. This stood in sharp contrast to the universality of show-tunes, jazz, and early pop. Gone were the days of Cole Porter writing something as wide-reaching as “Night and Day”s or Jerome Kern composing something like “They Didn’t Believe Me”; now, thanks in large part to seminal records like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the measure of authenticity was the constrainedly autobiographical. This is how you end up with extremely earnest albums that are perceived to “matter” precisely because of how earnest they sound. Like U2’s The Joshua Tree.
And just as many other musical tropes established in the early 70s, this concept has largely stayed with us. Even in the grand bells-and-whistles spectacle of pop music, it all somehow feels contrived and hokey if it is perceived to lack this intimately confessional nature, or it’s seen as nothing more than a farcical distraction, devoid of any real emotional poignancy; like a regular bar band covering all your favorite singalongs with sterile accuracy. It is rare to see a performance of other people’s songs, delivered with all the histrionics and gusto of a theatrical performer, that still feels like it is coming straight from that performer’s heart and soul and carries a great deal of emotional weight.
Damsel Talk’s live act — which we’ve reviewed in detail before — is markedly theatrical, playing up tropes derived from vaudeville and the big-band era. But in the midst of all its grand, at times campy theatricality, Moule also delivers stream-of-consciousness improvisations which let the audience into her psyche: obsessions, neuroses, and various quirks are conveyed in a way that feels unfiltered and also intensely personal. Her new album — which we got to listen to an advance copy of, but hasn’t actually been released yet– is a snapshot of that live act, accompanied by rich and vibrant performances by an ensemble of incredibly talented musicians.
Damsel Talk will be performing songs from Darling Darling and Other Stories at CAFF on Saturday October 5th (tickets are on sale now). We talked about the album, her upcoming show, and her creative process as a whole.
Congratulations on the album. I really love it. I’ve listened to it several times.
Aw, thank you! You’re the only person who’s listened to it! Even I haven’t listened to it. I don’t like listening to it… I just get cringed out sometimes. We recorded everything in January this year. We did it all in the same room at the same time, unlike my previous work. We did it all together.
While your style incorporates all these avant-garde and experimental elements, the arrangements here seem to lean more into a jazz traditionalism. Was that a conscious choice? Or just a result of playing with these musicians?
A bit of a mix. Every now and then, Thelonious very kindly invites me to perform, and so I started writing music for that space. So those songs were tested and written for a jazz audience. Plus Nicolás Boccanera, who is the pianist, did some great jazzy arrangements. They’re all insane jazz cats, the people I’ve got playing. You’d be insane not to highlight hat.
The album flows so well.
Does it? I’m a bit worried that “Tarzan” might put people off. Starting off with a monologue is maybe a little risky. But I guess audiobooks are all the rage nowadays, so perhaps people will be into the spoken aspect. And it’s long, right? It’s like 13 songs. Then again, there’s like 3 or 4 totally improvised tracks, and the one at the end just lasts a minute. Everyone plays F and then an alarm goes off. So that doesn’t really count.
Tell me about those improvisational numbers. How do you work it out with the band?
I just give them some general direction, like say “okay, you’re going to start with a drum intro…” and then there are particular speeches that I wanted to say. I try to avoid it when a song becomes boxed in. When you open things up, you don’t know where things are going to go. And that’s what you want.
I think it’s so great that you’ve been able to finesse the live act into an album. It’s like a snapshot of this specific moment of your creative life.
Yes! Nicolás really pushed me to do it. He was like “we need to record!” And that was the impetus to get things together. Otherwise, you might move on to a different style and lose it forever. And maybe that’s the point of an album, right? To stamp it down. To say “this is the sound right now,” before things change.
Do you see yourself pursuing this sound further?
I think I’ve already decided that the next collection of songs will be a bit less elaborate, less jazzy, maybe more folky. Maybe I’ll go back to a simpler style.
You still rocking your ukulele?
I’m having one made at the moment! So I’m excited about that. I just find that the ones I’ve got are very industrial-sounding. They sound very “factory”. I hope this one sounds a bit more soulful.
How was your UK tour?
It was so fun! I went home and then my friend got us a few dates, just very simple, in a pub type context. I used to live in Liverpool, where I was a secondary school teacher. I played at this boxy space to a small crowd, with this insanely good trumpet player, Martin Smith. It was an amazing experience.
Would you say there’s a big difference between how Argentine and English crowds react to your work?
Well, they can understand all my English banter a bit better. It just comes across better. The audience grasps everything. But, of course, some of it still resonates here, just maybe some things get lost in translation. You know that monologue “Do You Have a Cat”, from the new album? I just started translating it at the same time so everyone gets it. But I think it sounds better in English.
You speak very Argentine-sounding Spanish. How’d that happen?
It’s just the ear, I think. Although I went somewhere yesterday and some guy started responding to me in French. I don’t think I sound French…
How long have you been here?
Oh, so not that long!
Well, I got here in 2007, I was here for a year, and then I left. I returned in 2016. So a total of 4 years. I missed the kilombo. But the kilombo in terms of the amount of independent theater, and the gatherings… I’d been here two weeks and immediately someone was like “hey, you should go to this workshop, train with this person”. It’s a very artistically rich place. A lot of our lot left about two years ago. It’s a difficult time in Argentina. But I’m sticking around. For the love of art!
So you have strong ties to the independent theater scene?
I do! The reason for my return was that I wanted to become more involved in theater. Down here in the independent theater circuit, you say “I’ll be performing here for six weeks”, whereas in England it’s just Friday, Saturday, Sunday, that’s it. Very short runs. I love that people really become involved down here, they make flyers, there’s a sense of ownership and identity to the space. People know where you are and they can go see you, and your piece can develop. I put on my show at No Avestruz, which was great. I wanted to put something on there after seeing one of the best clown shows I’ve ever seen. My show was a one-hour one-woman show that involved puppetry, shadows, theater… I just wanted to throw all these things at the audience for an hour. I had this Coco Chanel character with white tights and a mask…
You like playing with masks.
Masks, props, costumes, anything I can use. If you come to the CAFF show on October 5th, you’ll see me wearing more masks.
Is it creepy, like the one you wore at Thelonious last time?
It is incredibly creepy. Well, I don’t think of them as creepy, but people tend to react that way. I’m really attracted to puppets and masks and what have you. I find it’s great because they’re not seeing you yet, so you’re already offering some kind of surprise. And you can get into it physically.
Do you get nervous at all? Because you seem so confident up there, and you go to some weird places. But you own it. You seem like someone who doesn’t experience any kind of trepidation.
I’m nervous all day. I worry about audience numbers, and that puts me on edge. Then I start panicking about whether I’m gonna pull it off. But by the time I’m onstage it’s like “okay, attack mode. Attack!” And it’s good to have a talented ensemble of musicians to fall back on. And you have to be very awake, to use what’s happening in the room.
How was opening for Rod Stewart? Must’ve been surreal.
That was mental. That was ridiculous. Rod Stewart to me is just… huge. I thought it wasn’t gonna happen until the day it happened. My mom flew in the day before. She’s a massive Rod Stewart fan, like me. And the space was huge! It’s a stadium! And I was out there with a major hoop skirt and a rubber chicken. I tried to make it as extravagant as normal. I had to make it grand and operatic. I put the doves on my head as always… it was amazing. Also, you can’t see anyone, so you don’t really have a sense of the audience. It’s bonkers. I really think these things only happen in Buenos Aires. It wouldn’t happen to me in England.
This year you also released an EP with Jose Bale. You guys have been playing together for a while.
Yes! For like two years. He is an amazing percussionist and I love performing with him. We were rehearsing today. We just meet up once a week and improvise, and from those improvisations we’ve made some songs. We have good fun. He’s crazy, in a great way. So many kinds of rhythms. He’s like a magician. He works with little bells, big drums, all kinds of things. Improvising over percussion is incredibly liberating because there’s no harmony, so you can just go anywhere with it. You can go wherever. You don’t have to be tied to a note.
Tell me about your show at CAFF on October 5th.
I wanted to feature songs from the new album in a space like this. Have you ever been? It’s the most wonderful place. It’s one of the best spaces in Buenos Aires. CAFF is a place that I’ve always loved. I went to see Orquesta Fernandez Fierro. You have to see Julia Lazzo, the singer of the Fernandez Fierro orchestra. She has this crazy intense voice, and this crazy dark energy. So they have this orchestra, and they’re like gothic tango. So I’ve loved this space for a long time. I’m so excited to play there and to show off these new songs.