Fuck Off Grizzly Bear
"All of these songs address this idea of the dangers that come with the obsessions with being plugged in all the time, most of them pretty explicitly political"
Stephanie Nilles Fuck Off, Grizzly Bear
It starts with some piano chords reminiscent of Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks", followed by a female singing voice: "Myspace is the place where disaffected folks go to make themselves seem happy / And Facebook is just the gateway drug to stalking". Omnipresent "social media" as signifiers of the absurdity of the digital age and a substitute for reality? Stephanie Nilles is certainly not holding back when it comes to practising free speech. With the title track of her fourth album standing not as a dissing of colleagues but a (non-anonymous) skit for countless (anonymous) bloggers and internet commentators. But the many musical experts on the web have been mostly friendly so far when it comes to Stephanie Nilles and her music. She's even been dubbed as "the most compelling jazz piano / lounge punk artist since Tom Waits". There is praise about her expressive individualism, her musical passion and her strong sense of artistic freedom. To some she even comes across like Mose Allison reincarnated, a jazz intellectual with an entertaining streak, playing jazz/punk/folk with a twist. "Fuck Off Grizzly Bear" is Stephanie Nilles' fourth album and her first for Tradition & Moderne. But who is this woman and where does she come from?
Singer, pianist and songwriter Stephanie Nilles' story up to now takes place in four major (music) cities: Chicago Cleveland New York City New Orleans. She was born twenty-eight years ago in Wheaton, Illinois, part of the Chicago metropolitan area and a town of many churches. Not a guiding factor for Stephanie's course in life, however. But she recorded her new album back home, at a lovely Steinway grand, in a room she jokingly named "Hell House Studio" for the endeavour. Music has played a major part in her family history, especially live music making, as an extended part of basic education.
A lot of diverse music is consumed in the Nilles family from Pete Seeger to The Beatles, from Pink Floyd to Mozart. At age five she takes up piano lessons, adding the cello later on. With an abundance of talent and determination, Stephanie becomes a classically trained musician and later on graduates from the Cleveland Institute Of Music with a degree in piano performance. "I was performing in international competitions... and I was practicing in a room by myself for seven or eight hours a day. It started to occur to me that I was unhappy", she says today. "I started to feel like the music I was playing didn't relate to the world around me....I was also looking at an eternal vocation of unemployment.... and I was frustrated with spending 80 of my time arduously preparing music that was written 200 years ago." Consequently, Stephanie Nilles decides to get out of the classical music world and quits.
She moves to New York City, working a variety of jobs, delving deep into the East Village alternative scene. She listens to a lot of "anti folk" and meets many a young jazz musician who used to be a classical music student. The varying degrees of musical quality she encounters encourages her to finally put some music to original texts she occasionally performs as slam poetry. Stephanie is re-inventing herself: "Finally I got over my fear of composing which was instilled in me by decades of practicing masterful classical works of art that I know I can never reproduce." She starts presenting her new music at open mics and is soon gigging regularly, hitting the road with a vengeance. In this fashion, the jazz poet/singer/songwriter/musician Stephanie Nilles is born. Today she spends about ten months of the year touring the States in her car. Driving to bars, clubs, living-rooms and coffee houses for gigs. A one-woman-enterprise who made her German debut in January 2011 with a number of very well-received gigs at T & M's long-standing "Women In (E)motion" festival.
"Fuck Off Grizzly Bear" presents the pure essence of Stephanie Nilles, with voice and piano plus the nimble double-bass playing of Matt Wigton, a musical cohort from New York City. Most of her poignant song repertoire is original and speaks of real-life issues: a vivid character study of a wall street frat boy ("For A High Life Commercial"), the 2008 presidential election ("America America"). Racism and integration in the public school system in the 1950s and today ("Fables Of Faubus"), the BP oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico ("These Parts"). Stephanie also re-visits the ancient jazz world of New Orleans ("St. James Infirmary"), a time and place that is re-ackownledged by today's hipsters in the Crescent City. There are almost no love songs to be found, a dark blues ballad by the legendary Mike Bloomfield being the sole exception ("Love Me Or I'll Kill You"). At the close of the album there's the beautiful "This Road", a loving homage to New Orleans... followed by a slice of fun hidden away at the very end. You leave Stephanie Nilles' musical world with the desire to return.
New Orleans is home to Stephanie these days. When she is not touring and she is almost constantly she enjoys the city's openness, the diversity of its characters, the vibrancy of the nightlife: "Whatever I happen to be thinking about or reading about or talking about with people is what I sing about", she says. And while you can literally enjoy her songs line by line, it's also possible to appreciate them impressionistically as a whole. There is a lot of musical nuance, intellectual complexity, a river of words and sounds that flows organically. The displinced artistry of the classically trained pianist Stephanie Nilles may be gone, but it has been replaced by a jazz performer's energy and a reckless attitude. Stephanie Nilles' music is exceptional, with a range of expression going from sultry soul to fierce jazz/punk intensity. All the while you hear a poet with no pretensions and a curiosity that is addictive. She may be political, but she does not preach. Stephanie Nilles entertains by laying out some individual suggestions for life in the 21th century. Making something fresh out of things apparently lost.
To remain authentic, emotional and independent is one of Stephanie Nilles' main objectives. She does not consider herself to be part of the pop world, where young artists are packaged and sold for fast and maximum profit. "All of that is imploding", she says of this business model and points out that there is a lot of wonderful music out there, being made by musicians who usually work for less than they are worth. All of them ready to be discovered. In this grassroots world of musicians, it's possible to skirt the music industry and to make a living on your own terms. Consequently, Stephanie thinks of an album not so much as a sacred artistic entity, but cares about what you can bring to it in the moment. A lot of D.I.Y., a lot of intensity.
And so to listen to Stephanie Nilles is to listen to a fresh voice from America, a bold and fearless maverick. Someone like Rickie Lee Jones thirty years ago, or Ani DiFranco a decade further on, for that matter. And while Stephanie's private listening habits may include James Brown next to PJ Harvey and Nina Simone next to Chavela Vargas, there is no mistaking this young artist for a copycat. She is truly unique and one of a kind. "Engage yourself in your craft as best you can... and people will come looking for you" her statement of intent. Stephanie Nilles is a free spirit, a rebel, an iconoclast and a great talent. That's what you hear on this album.