Deanna Varagona – Blood of the Lambchop
Having just come in from mowing her lawn, and in a domestic mood, Deanna Varagona puts on R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People. Loud. In many ways Athens represents “home” to Varagona: It’s a place she lived poor but happy among a clan of like-minded Bohemians, who shared poetry and camaraderie over cheap pitchers at a watering hole that by night hosted the best in Athens indie rock.
It was in this setting that she formed a friendship with Vic Chesnutt, which, some time after she later moved to Nashville, would serendipitously provide common ground with Kurt Wagner and help her land a spot in his band, Lambchop. Though she left Nashville for Chicago six years ago, Varagona remains devoted to her role in Lambchop. “I now realize it’s one of the things that gets me through, gives me joy,” she says.
With the release of her first CD, Tangled Messages, on Milwaukee indie Star Star Stereo, Varagona follows fellow Lambchopper Paul Burch in launching a solo career. “When I came to Chicago in ’94 I was poor and I didn’t know anyone, so I started playing for myself, writing stories and conversations and making them songs,” she says.
This was not a sudden inspiration, but a new environment for habits Varagona had begun as a child, entertaining herself on her Saturday neighborhood paper route by mimicking pop radio hits. “I discovered that I needed music to keep myself together at a very early age,” she says. “It’s the one thing I can count on. That, and my own relationship with what I think of as God.”
On Wagner’s advice, she began recording her songs. “I got in this habit that Kurt encouraged which was if you’ve got stuff you want to record, record it, right then,” she explains. “I think of them as snapshots of where I am right at that time.”
Among the fellow Chicagoans who helped out on the record were members of experimental outfits Pinetop Seven and the Boxhead Ensemble. Troubadour Chris Mills sings with Varagona on “Goodbye Kiss”, their second such duet this year (following a rendition of Alejandro Escovedo’s “The Last To Know” on the recent Bloodshot fifth-anniversary sampler). On some tracks, she traveled elsewhere to get specific sounds, such as the singing saw of Julian Koster from Athens’ Neutral Milk Hotel. All in all, Tangled Messages was recorded over three and a half years in a variety of formats in several cities.
Varagona played most of the instruments herself, including marimba, banjitar, lap steel, mandolin, organs, guitar and baritone sax. “I’m still fascinated by the different ways you deal with different instruments, what their voice capabilities are, the different way you hold your hands, what part of the sound spectrum they satisfy, which ones sound good together,” she says. “A lot of the recordings I do are an experiment of that — ‘Oh wow! This instrument would sound really cool.'”
Varagona is equally intrigued with the possibilities of sound in the human voice. On Tangled Messages, her gentle drawl ranges from softly melodic laments, as on “Days Pass Anyway”, to brassy hard contemptuousness, as on “Naked”. Her cross between a Bessie Smith growl and Tuvan throat-singing on her folk-punk-blues ballad “Take My Shovel” may be the only human sound capable of conveying the anguish of happening upon the self-slain body of a friend.
Varagona says she didn’t find her voice until she lived in Athens. “When I discovered the blues,” she says, “it felt like there was this part inside of me that had always been missing and I didn’t know was there. It allowed me to have that kind of passionate emotion in my singing that I felt but hadn’t figured out how to say.”
Varagona has since learned to translate that passionate emotion into the spare, lucid imagery of her poetry and stories set in lo-fi, country-and-blues-tinged indie rock. “I know that it’s not for everybody,” she says. “It’s just these things that I like to do.”