Dao Strom – Down by the old mainstream
It is the central paradox of rivers that the same body of water can as easily carry one away from home as toward it. Rivers can take a voyager into strange circumstances, or they may return the same journeyer as a stranger in his own home country.
In the old southern Methodist hymn, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, the singer, a wayward sinner, is making his way over the River Jordan toward a home beyond earthly toils.
“Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is the only song on her debut album that Dao Strom did not write. But it dovetails neatly with the balance of the music on Send Me Home, Strom’s new self-released disc. Those songs, too, are replete with displaced travelers and seekers, and many of them find themselves wandering by moving bodies of water that are by turn succoring and sinister.
Dao Strom, you might say, knows from rivers. The 31-year-old Austin resident was born in Saigon, amidst a landscape she evokes in “Perfume River” (“For those whose souls run deep as your dark green waters/No place is home”). What she calls “orphan songs” and “exile songs” form the backbone of her repertoire.
She fled Vietnam in her mother’s arms in 1975, just about the time the wheels were coming off in North Vietnam. Her mother, a writer and journalist, settled in northern California and remarried. (Her birth father, also a writer, later immigrated to the U.S. and settled near Washington, D.C.)
Dao grew up a California girl in Placerville, in the gold rush country near the banks of the American River. She circumnavigated the U.S., moving from San Francisco to New York (where a boyfriend bought her a guitar and taught her some chords), pausing long enough to graduate from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She landed in Austin in 1999 and published her first novel, Grass Roof, Tin Roof, an account of a Vietnamese family caught between two cultures, as told through the eyes of a young girl.
But music had also begun to assert itself in her life in Austin, a city with plenty of creative ferment in both the literary and musical realms. She first stepped on a Texas stage as a member of a female alt-country group, All Night Lincoln, and then segued into fronting her own band.
Perhaps as a reaction to the sensory overload of living in New York City, she had originally found herself drawn to Appalachian mountain music and old-time country. “I liked those really slow, dark songs…the rawness and honesty of it,” she says, citing the Louvin Brothers, Hazel Dickens and Hank Williams. “In traditional music and old gospel music, that sense of displacement really resonates.”
Of course, she says with a smile and a shrug, she went through her Smiths-and-Morrissey ’80s phase. Today, her influences are more along the lines of Gillian Welch, Freakwater and Bonnie Prince Billy. But the music she performs with her small ensemble at Austin venues such as Threadgill’s, Flipnotics and Cafe Mundi, and the songs that flesh out Send Me Home, are redolent of string-band music filtered through the mind’s eye, untainted by the retroactive sentimentality of memory.
In the album’s title track, which is drawn in part from a Buddhist parable, the narrator finds herself ejected from her lover’s bed and walking home by herself in the dead of night: “If you hadn’t drove me out/I would have missed the moon/Slipping down behind the concrete divide along the freeway…I would not have woke up today feeling so beautiful and blue.”
Produced by Brian Beattie (formerly of the avant garde Austin band Glass Eye), Send Me Home was recorded on a 1950s-era two-track machine, lending further antique patina to the banjo, mandolin, Dobro, pump organ and upright bass that flesh out Strom’s guitar strums and elastic, plaintive vocals.
“I feel like there’s a reason why I’m here,” she says of her Austin tenure, which is “the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere.” As to the payoff of the collaborative musical process vs. the solitary novelist’s life, music “makes me happier,” she says. “You learn a lot about working with other people, which is kind of a really great thing because I work so much in isolation. I like being a part of something.” Perhaps all of the rivers in her life have finally brought Dao Strom home.