Through the roof
The transsexual harpist Baby Dee, who has played with Antony & The Johnsons, has deservedly found acclaim with her new album – but it never would have come about had she not demolished a house in her former job as a tree surgeon, she tells Brian Boyd
BABY DEE is working as a tree surgeon in Cleveland, Ohio. She is sawing down a tree when there’s a dramatic change in the wind direction. She watches aghast as the tree falls on a nearby house, smashing through the roof. The occupant of the now roofless house comes rushing out to find Baby Dee sobbing loudly. “Don’t worry honey,” says the very understanding house occupant. “Everything happens for a reason.”
This is just one of many stories the fiftysomething sex-change musician can regale you with. Previously best known as the harpist in Antony and the Johnsons, Baby Dee is now a solo artist of some acclaim. Her current album, the moving, autobiographical Safe Inside the Day, is deservedly picking up rave reviews.
When that tree fell through that house, Baby Dee took it as a sign that her days wielding a chainsaw were over, so she resumed her dormant musical career. “Sure, I laugh about it now,” says the woman who is only ever known as Baby Dee, “but at the time it was really terrible and I had to pay for the roof myself. I sort of refocused on my recording career after that, but I can tell you working as a tree surgeon is a great job.”
Apart from the tree work, Baby Dee boasts an impressively picaresque CV. “Yes, it has been quite interesting. One of my first-ever jobs was me dressed up as a bear and playing the harp in New York’s Central Park. Then I did a whole load of cabaret work in Europe before I was an accordion-playing cat, and then for a while I used to cycle around on a specially built tricycle while playing the harp. I also played the organ in a church for a while and was a dancer in a bar also. The harp has been a bit of a constant in my life, except for the time when I was a circus sideshow act” – where she was billed as the “Bilateral Hermaphrodite”.
Baby Dee doesn’t like talking about her sex change and won’t say if she was the Bilateral Hermaphrodite pre- or post-op. “That was a very difficult job. But after a while I got used to it and I used to interact with the audience who came to see me. I used to confront the people. The more they booed the better. I didn’t really get that much verbal abuse from people. The thing about being a circus sideshow act is that there is great camaraderie between the acts. Everyone is viewed as an outsider, so everyone kind of sticks together.”
Music has always been central to this accomplished harpist’s life. “For a long, long time I was obsessed by early church music. I wouldn’t even listen to something if it came after the 16th century. Contemporary-wise, I’ve always been drawn to people who know how to make an impression. I’m thinking of people such as Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix.”
On Safe Inside the Day, she journeys back to her childhood in Ohio to come up with a series of beguiling songs with atypical titles such as Big Titty Bee Girl and Christmas Jig for a Three-Legged Cat Flowers on the Tracks. The album, which sounds like a weird mix of Tom Waits and Nina Simone, veers from burlesque cabaret-sounding tunes to folky blues numbers.
“There’s no big musical influence on what I do,” Baby Dee says. “I listen to lots of different styles of music, and the only thing that’s present in all the songs is that sense of autobiography. Most of what I sing about on the songs actually happened. People use the word ‘haunting’ a lot about the songs, but I really don’t see it that way.
“One of the songs on the album is called The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities, and it’s about how when I was really young, the neighbours threw out this piano but they had to whack it into bits before the garbage men would take it away. When they were finished all that was left was the harp part of the piano. In the song I sing ‘There’s a harp in that piano/there’s a girl inside that boy’.”
The odd thing is that the album wasn’t supposed to happen. After a few solo releases a few years ago, Baby Dee had given up on music and returned to Cleveland to take up that ill-fated tree surgeon job. “I just didn’t think I had anything to say.” But after she played support to Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy), he persuaded her to record a new bunch of songs.
What’s a happy tree surgeon to do? “The great thing about that job was that, as you can imagine, it’s all these big, burly guys doing it. When I turned up first, I tried to masculine myself up so I could fit in, but these guys saw through it straightaway and were so accepting of who I really am. I’d still be there now if it weren’t for that tree falling through that house . . . ”