"Listening to Dayna's voice was like a drug. It wasn't just her tone or her
range or her power, which, if I knew anything about vocal technique, I could
praise at length. No, it was something emotional. Her voice sounded like
desperation hurled into the world with exquisite control." Steve Almond,
from the essay, “Dayna Kurtz sings the World a Lullabye” in Rock and Roll
Will Save Your Life
"I know they may seem different on the surface,” Dayna Kurtz says of
American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1, the two disparate yet
complementary albums that she's releasing simultaneously. "But they're both
branches coming off the same root, to me."
Over the past decade, the Brooklyn-based vocalist/writer/musician/producer
has built a formidable body of recordings, won an international reputation
as a riveting live performer, amassed an extensive file of rapturous
critical raves, (3rd Coast Music in Austin, TX writes, “Kurtz is the kind of
artist who teaches us ink- stained wretches to be miserly with superlatives,
so we’ll still have a stock of them when she comes around.”) and earned an
equally devoted audience of fans around the world. She's achieved these
distinctions on her own terms, releasing five albums and a live DVD on her
own Kismet label, touring around the world on her own dime, and building a
remarkably loyal fan base one person at a time.
Armed with an uncanny ability to stun audiences into submission, this
musical free spirit has consistently refused to be pinned down by a single
style or genre, building an inspired body of work that draws strength from a
bottomless wellspring of American jazz, pop, blues, folk and country. The
cinematic poetry of her songwriting is matched by the power of her voice, a
rich, distinctly resonant instrument that's capable of immense emotional
Kurtz's iconoclastic approach is underlined by her decision to
simultaneously release American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1.
Individually, each disc offers ample evidence of Kurtz's abundant talent.
Together, they make a deeply compelling case for her status as a deeply
adventurous, one-of-a-kind artist.
"These two records, " she explains, "cover the two dominant strands of
blues-based DNA that wind through my musical body. One of those strands is
American roots music from the traditions of rock 'n' roll and country, and
the other is my lifelong love of smoky mid-century chanteuse records from
the R&B and jazz bins."
American Standard is a typically expansive Kurtz set, from the plaintive
intimacy of "Invocation" to the rockabilly-inflected swing of "Good in '62"
to the languid Mississippi grind of "Billboards for Jesus." She recorded
half of the album with her longtime drummer/co-producer Randy Crafton and
her live band at Crafton's analog studio Kaleidoscope Sound in New Jersey,
before she and Crafton traveled to Memphis' fabled Ardent Studios. At
Ardent, they cut several tracks with Sun Records rockabilly legend Sonny
Burgess and his band, the Legendary Pacers, whose members are all in their
70s and 80s and whose last personnel change occurred in 1961. From there,
they moved to New Orleans, where they recorded the ebullient "Election Day"
with local brass band the Nightcrawlers (recently featured in HBO's Treme).
Along with several bracing Kurtz originals, American Standard spotlights the
artist's uncanny skill as an interpreter of other songwriters' compositions.
She turns Elliott Smith's "Don't Go Down" into a howling, desperate blues
plea, while bringing a haunting warmth to Paul Westerberg's "Here Comes a
Regular," on which Kurtz plays lap steel and French/Israeli chanteuse Keren
Ann provides backing vocals. She also breathes new fire into the '50s
rockabilly nugget "Lou Lou Knows," and tackles Sonny Burgess' "Hangin' Round
My Baby" with an organic passion that's reciprocated by Burgess and the
"I've always been a bit of a genre outlaw. which I guess makes it a little
rough to market me," Kurtz states. "But I'm in love with music, not with
genres. If it's a great song, it's a great song. The songs I wrote for
American Standard, and the songs that I covered for it, were deeply
influenced by my recent obsession with collecting 'lost' songs by forgotten
singers on regional labels."
Secret Canon, Vol. 1, recorded live to tape in New Jersey and New Orleans,
spotlights Kurtz's sublime interpretive abilities, with the artist putting
her stamp on such obscure gems as "Do I Love You," a startlingly intimate
ballad by seminal Texas/L.A. blues-jazz figure Floyd Dixon; "Sweet Lotus
Blossom," a 1930s-vintage ode to addiction; "If Yesterday Could Only Be
Tomorrow" and "Come In Out of the Rain," both originally recorded by a
pre-pop stardom Nat "King" Cole with his jazz-blues combo the King Cole
Trio; and the memorably titled "Don't Fuck Around with Love," originally a
tongue-in-cheek doo wop novelty in 1962 by Boston vocal group the Blenders.
"I love finding Great Lost Songs and Great Lost Singers, and I'm drawn to
artists and songs that fall through the cracks," Kurtz notes. "My favorite
period for that is the mid-late '50s and early '60s, because the lines
between genres hadn't really been drawn yet. There were so many wonderful
storefront record labels during that period, and so many regional artists
and writers released so many brilliant songs that were only heard by a
handful of people. And they're still out there, for those who are willing to
Most of Secret Canon, Vol. 1 was recorded with Kurtz's longstanding live
band, i.e. co-producer Crafton on drums, Dave Richards on upright bass and
Peter Vitalone on piano and organ. Kurtz recorded the album's lone original,
the Brill Building-inspired "Not the Only Fool In Town," in New Orleans with
George Porter Jr., legendary bassist of the seminal funk combo The Meters,
and Crescent City piano master David Torkanowsky.
"When I was putting together Secret Canon, I was listening to Sam Cooke's
Nightbeat an awful lot, and in many ways that was my model for this album,"
she continues. "We started by recording nine songs in one marathon session,
from about four in the afternoon until three in the morning. We'd talk
through the changes, the endings, the feel. Then we'd roll tape, do one or
two takes of each song, and then move on to the next one. When I listened to
them the next day, they were all keepers. We did two more sessions like
that, then one in New Orleans and then another one back in New Jersey. But
six of the songs on the record were from that first marathon session."
Dayna Kurtz's propensity for musical rule-breaking was forged early in life,
and she was still in her teens when she began performing her compositions in
public. After releasing the low-key live disc Otherwise Luscious Life, she
won considerable acclaim for her impressively accomplished studio efforts
Postcards from Downtown and Beautiful Yesterday. The former put Kurtz on the
map in Europe and was particularly successful in Holland, where it became a
Top 20 seller, culminating in sold-out headlining shows at Amsterdam's
fabled Paradiso (one of which became Kurtz's first DVD, Postcards from
Along the way, Kurtz was named Female Songwriter of the Year by the National
Academy of Songwriters. Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt have raved about her in
interviews, and she's performed on such high-profile radio shows as World
Cafe, Mountain Stage and NPR's Morning Edition. She's toured with and/or
opened for the likes of Elvis Costello, Antony and the Johnsons, Richard
Thompson, Rufus Wainwright, B.B. King, Dr. John, Richie Havens, Keren Ann,
Joe Henry, Olu Dara, Chris Whitley, Richard Buckner, Ladysmith Black Mambazo
and the Blind Boys of Alabama. And best-selling author Steve Almond spends
an entire chapter singing her praises in his book about music obsession,
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. ("Listening to Dayna's voice was like a
drug. It wasn't just her tone or her range or her power, which, if I knew
anything about vocal technique, I could praise at length. No, it was
something emotional. Her voice sounded like desperation hurled into the
world with exquisite control.")
Perhaps the strongest evidence of the enduring rapport between Kurtz and her
audience is the fact that American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1 were
financed almost entirely through the donations of fans who contributed via
the artist's website (www.daynakurtz.com) in order to facilitate the
creation and dissemination of her new music.
Although it's been three years since her last release, Kurtz has hardly been
idle. She spent much of 2011 touring through North America, South America,
Europe and Australia. She and longtime collaborator Randy Crafton produced a
Top Five record for the Dutch band Room Eleven. She also produced a 10-inch
vinyl tribute to the great folk singer Hazel Dickens in collaboration fellow
Brooklynite Mamie Minch, as well as a pair of 7" vinyl singles with Keren
Ann and My Brightest Diamond. She also took some Masters-level poetry
classes at the New School in New York, and took her first-ever guitar
lessons in order to beef up her rockabilly chops.
"I'd rather risk being called a dilettante than be stuck just using just two
crayons out of the big box," Kurtz states, adding, "The lyrics sing
themselves to me and tell me what they want. Some of them want a brass band.
Some of them want a rockabilly combo. Some of them want a Cajun waltz. Some
of them want a searing lap steel guitar. And some of them, like most of
Secret Canon, Vol. 1, want long late-night sessions with great jazz and
blues players, played live to tape. I'm always just trying to do the best I
can to serve the song."