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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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 . . . ”

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