Tucson-based singer/songwriter Marianne Dissard didn't set out to make a dark album when she teamed with bandleader/arranger Sergio Mendoza to craft her new record, The Cat. Not Me, but looking back, she's not surprised. When she returned to Tucson after touring in Berlin last year, she was "spiritually and emotionally exhausted and lost."
Then her cat started piling up dead lizards, birds, and other assorted desert creatures in her home. It was un signe.
"All summer long, my cat kept bringing inside the house dead lizards and birds," she laughs, her native French accent coloring each word. "Pretty gory stuff. I took hundreds of photos of those things, because to me -- being cooped up in Tucson, in the summer, with the album in mind -- it seemed like what the cat was bringing from the outside into my world was a good representation of what the album was about: death and gore coming in from the outside. But, they are gifts. You have to take them for what they are, and face them."
A working knowledge of French isn't required to hear the melancholy in the songs: Opener "Am Letzen" is as spooky as it is sultry; "La Partie De Puzzle Du Jardin A La Francaise" grooves over a skeletal, pulpy noir backdrop; "Je Ne La Savais Pas" explodes, surging with menace. Dissard employing a low growl over cresting crescendos by Mendoza and the crack spaghetti-indie unit he assembled to play on the record.
Dissard says she welcomed Mendoza's touches. "He can't help but be jolly," she says of the conflicting resonance between the album's happiest sounding moments, like the mutant beat pop of "Election," and the album's dreary themes.
"What I think is essential to life -- and, by extension, the music I'm trying to make -- is that war between light and dark," she says. "I mean, we're human, and we have to go through darkness, but the pull of life -- the force of life -- is always there trying to balance whatever hard times we have. The lyrics may be dark, but they are also full of humor."
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For the fans who can't speak French? She laughs: "I'm at peace with the fact that not many of the people that listen to it will necessarily get that. But that pull between light and dark is very vital. It's the source of lots of energy."
In addition to surveying her emotional wreckage, The Cat. Not Me serves as both a goodbye letter and love note to Tucson, the city she's called home since 1989. Feeling the yearn for a change, she found herself seeking new collaborators, quickly falling in line with avant hip-hopper Budo, of the Rhymesayers collective. She met the producer through a past collaborator, BK-One, and when she met Budo in Paris, it became clear that they'd soon work together.
"Within five minutes of sitting across from each other, we knew we were going to be touring and working together," she says. "I knew I was ready to take a completely different path, to move away from Tucson, be somewhere else, and I didn't want to keep working with the Tucson guys. Not that I don't thoroughly enjoy that; it's been brilliant, but it was a time where I needed a huge change."
That desire for change will find her headed to Palermo, Italy, but not before a trip to SXSW and a performance at the Trunk Space on Wednesday, March 20. Budo and Dissard perform as a duo, breaking down and resembling songs from The Cat. Not Me, remaking them entirely. A remix album is in the works, and the rhythmic pulses of the record indicate that the progression to a more hip-hop-oriented territory will sound natural. (Listen to the last few seconds of "Mouton Bercail" and try not to imagine a pitched-down synth bass wobbling underneath it.)
"It's been absolutely the kind of collaboration I've been searching for," she says.
She sees plenty of ties between her French pop ancestry -- Jaques Brel, Édith Piaf -- and the electronic/hip-hop artists that inspire her approach now, like Gaslamp Killer, Gonjasufi, and Brother Ali. Plus, like past collaborators Joey Burns of Calexico and Mendoza, the Rhymesayers crew is dominated by serious music nerds.
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"We're talking about guys who are multi-instrumentalists, who have a wide range of all kinds of music," she says. "World music, jazz music, anything. Those guys amaze me."
Marianne Dissard is scheduled to perform Wednesday, March 20, at the Trunk Space.