Singer, lyricist, dancer and artist Vanessa Daou was one of the many women in music breaking all the rules in the 1990s. The Barnard college graduate was already a decorated underground musician before landing an impressive recording contract with Columbia Records in 1992. Ultimately, Daou’s vision was too broad to be contained by Columbia’s constraints and she would go the independent route to create Zipless.
The ten-track song cycle inspired by the written works of feminist poet Erica Jong created enough buzz to bring Daou to the notice of an established music industry heavyweight: Bob Krasnow. Krasnow was so moved by Daou and her project, he signed her almost immediately to his own imprint which was distributed via MCA Records. From there, Zipless went on to further acclaim and became one of the seminal soundtracks of the period.
Since then, Daou hasn’t stopped making music. A string of accomplished long players emerged in the wake of her debut that have criss-crossed through jazz, electronica, dance music and more. All of them have kept Daou visible to discerning listeners and critics. Still, Zipless has retained its own unique charisma that has made it singular in Daou’s canon.
As such, the singer and writer rightfully seized the opportunity to honor the record’s 25th anniversary with a luxe vinyl issuance—its first—in December 2018. Daou took the time during her busy holiday season to sit down with me to discuss the Zipless project and its continued prominence, her overall career trajectory and what it means to be a bold female artist in today’s fickle climate.
Quentin Harrison: Congratulations on Zipless making its way to the vinyl format! Can you talk about why this medium serves your album so well?
Vanessa Daou: Thank you! I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time, so here it is! I suppose more than other formats, vinyl is rooted in the history of rock & roll and jazz. It’s a physically beautiful object as well. And it’s the format that I first became enamored with through my father’s jazz collection and my mom’s collection; she had very eclectic tastes from Gregorian chants to Carole King. So, vinyl really was my first foray into discovering myself through music and then, of course, through radio.
QH: With the likely success of Zipless on vinyl assured, is it a sure bet your other albums will make their way on to vinyl as well?
VD: Oh, definitely. Vinyl has become the most important medium for music and its resurgence has shocked everyone except for vinyl lovers. Amazingly enough, I got the vinyl rights to all my music because at the time the labels didn’t care about vinyl. They gave it away, so I said “Great! I’ll take it!” [laughs]
QH: You chose the incomparable Erica Jong as your muse for Zipless. Why?
VD: It kind of started with going into my mother’s books even though she was always squirreling them away; (Jong’s 1973 novel) Fear of Flying was very popular then. My mother was very ahead of her time, she was really into empowered female music and literature, it reflected her story which was very complex. She and a lot of other women of her time had a fierce independent spirit but didn’t necessarily have the tools to act on their need for independence. That was kind of my mom’s story, she didn’t have the tools and she didn’t have the discipline.
So, fast forward, when I met Erica and started reading more of her poems and I was brought back to the center of myself. Her voice and her message brought me back to what was important to me and Zipless became my statement or declaration of independence in a way. I had just left Columbia Records and had started my own record label and was free to do whatever I wanted. And I came up with this really quirky idea; it was a project because I wanted to absorb her poetry and explore music in a free-spirited way. I just wanted to express myself totally unfettered and just for fun.
QH: Subsequently, Zipless led you back to your second major label deal with MCA Records?
VD: Yeah. The legendary Bob Krasnow, who has since unfortunately passed away, was an absolute genius of a music man. He had tracked me down and wanted to sign me to his imprint Krasnow Entertainment under the MCA umbrella. So that is how that started!
QH: Were there ever any other muses considered for Zipless or was Erica Jong always your first choice?
VD: I knew right away when I was diving into her poetry that I connected to it powerfully.
There are other poets I have connected with powerfully, but with Erica I could hear the songs in my head. Erica’s poems just spoke to me, her language, her syntax, her imagery. I could feel myself in her work. Erica has that way of taking you to a moment with her language, she’s a brilliant wordsmith and I never really considered doing that project with anyone else’s work.
QH: Can you describe Zipless sonically, in your own words?
VD: Gosh, I remember at the time thinking what my favorite music and movies were and what they had in common. What they had in common was this “future past” idea, from Star Wars to Mad Max; sort of cobbling together the sounds of the past with new technology—looping, samples, keyboards—to make sounds that have never been heard before. I was also listening to a lot of hip-hop and loving what they were doing with jazz samples, basslines and that minimal production. I was putting all of that together to come up with the sound for Zipless.
QH: Were the pronounced feminist and sexual themes of Zipless purposeful or incidental? Can you talk about that?
VD: It’s never even occurred to me to think about it like that. [laughs] It really was a project that I set out to do to just take a leap into the dark and try it. Erica’s poetry, by nature, is very erotic. I didn’t censor anything and I just sang the words that felt right to sing. I didn’t think about anyone judging it.
QH: Describe the creative relationship between you and Peter Daou and how it impacted the writing and recording of Zipless.
VD: We were really a team. I’d say that the division of labor was that I would find the sounds, the basslines and other parts—I’m drawn to really good hooks, I just love a good hook. If something can excite me, then I know it’s good because it takes a lot to excite me musically.
My idea was just to make a solid record, nothing gratuitous, just solid basslines and sensuous grooves. There were certain qualities I wanted each song to have and Peter was the person behind the production in regards to putting the sounds together to create the structure basically. Technically, I should have gotten a co-production credit. At the time, I didn’t think about it that way, so it’s okay. I realize that would matter to me now, but it didn’t then.
QH: Prior to the creation of Zipless, you were in a group (The Daou). What can you recall about that experience and how did it differ from being an individual recording artist?
VD: So, being in a group, for me, was wonderful. I loved singing with a band. But, it’s not the thing I was naturally drawn to, I’m drawn to the stage in a much more private way. I think it has to do with a certain kind of individualism and certain things that gets expressed. Some artists differ. Some artists are drawn to that universal or group expression. It’s hard to describe, but when you’re up there in a band, you’re all up there together and I love that. But, it’s really night and day between that and being a solo act.
QH: What is your favorite song from Zipless?
VD: Oooh, that’s a great question, but a hard question. Um, I would say “Dear Anne Sexton.”
VD: Now, going back to what we were discussing about women and empowerment, Anne Sexton was caught in that vortex of not yet being free enough to be as liberated as she wanted to be. A lot of women suffered from not having enough emotional support and some of that remains the same today.
So, that song is such an intimate song for me because Erica wrote the poem to Anne—who sadly committed suicide—and then there’s me singing the song to Anne and I’m reaching across the void to her. “Dear Anne Sexton” is just a great gesture of women reaching across the void to lift each other up. You know, women for women and that is what excites me about this generation of women today. And this record carries that baton that Erica passed onto me and then I passed it on to others.
QH: Can you talk about Zipless and its timeliness in the era of the “Me Too” movement?
VD: This is where my partner and manager, Craig Roseberry, and I felt that now is the time to put this record out (on vinyl) and it speaks to the moment, now! Zipless is a philosophical act couched as a sexual one, it is a statement of creative independence. Why should I—or anyone—be compromised as an artist, especially as a woman?
QH: You were very much immersed in a remarkable era in popular music history. What was it like operating in the 1990s as a singer and songwriter?
VD: It was so exciting to me, from Sonic Youth to PJ Harvey. Oh my God! Dry?! Jane’s Addiction, Tori Amos, Neneh Cherry, you can go on and on. And all the hip-hop that was creating this new language. The acid jazz coming out of the U.K. and all of the underground music I was involved with, it was just a big melting pot of sounds.
It was such an exciting time because, just…anything goes and everybody was exploring for the sake of exploring. There were no pretentions, no one was aiming, we were just exploring. There was no self-consciousness, no “going for the gold” or “let’s make a hit.” It was just let’s make the craziest, wildest music we can possibly make.
And then, of course, there was New York in the ‘90s, which never slept. It’s a different story now.
QH: You’ve traveled the independent and mainstream roads of the music industry. What have you learned from that journey?
VD: You know, I started my own independent label, called Lotus Records, and put out Zipless on that after my time at Columbia Records. It got featured at Barnes & Noble, Wired Magazine picked up on it and all this great stuff started happening; and then Bob Krasnow discovered it. It was a record that made noise in its own way. But, it has all taught me many things.
Being a woman in the music industry, my gender has affected the way people treated me, as well as the pigment of my skin and if you get down to it, my body type. I have had experiences where meetings were canceled because I wouldn’t show up alone or things of that nature. I won’t mention names, but it happened too many times for it to be coincidental. I never played into any of those games. It’s a very lawless and lopsided industry. However, I feel that music that comes from a certain place of truth will reach its audience eventually.
QH: Out of the many albums you’ve released after Zipless, which one do you hold the most affection for today?
VD: Oh gosh, that’s a really tough one! How can I put it, I wouldn’t say favorite, it’s like trying to decide who your favorite child is! [laughs] And it might be different on any given day, so today, that would be Dear John Coltrane (1999). At that time, I really felt that I had broken through into some deeper understanding into Coltrane’s music and this record was part of my investigating of what that meant and what he meant to me. The whole record was my open letter to Coltrane and it really taught me so much about the importance of time—taking your time—to get to know a subject. I spent six months reading about Coltrane, listening to his music, thinking about him and I wrote the album over the course of that time.
QH: What’s next for Vanessa Daou?
VD: Well, you know my enduring interest is in synthesis and this idea of bringing all the arts together. I started in dance, I studied drawing, painting and sculpture; I also studied poetry with Kenneth Koch. So, with all of that, I’ve always wanted to create something which encompassed as many of the arts as possible, so that’s what I’m working on. I do have a new album and will have it ready in the spring. I’m not sure what shape or form it’s going to take. I know that it will involve vinyl.
I’m also working on a one-woman show and I really want to play with the idea of video and improvisational performance, something for the stage. I’ve written this show in the form of haiku; I have 122 haikus I’ve written telling my life story and haiku has been my chosen form for some time now. It’s all about the idea of synthesis and improvisation, so we’ll see what happens! But, for me, it all comes down to the music and everything stems from that, it’s always about the music first.
QH: Alright Ms. Daou, what are your five favorite albums of all-time?
VD: Oh! Okay, I get five?
VD: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, PJ Harvey’s Dry, Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room, Billie Holiday’s The Essential Billie Holiday: Carnegie Hall Concert Recorded Live, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
BUY Vanessa Daou’s Zipless 180-gram vinyl LP via PledgeMusic here