Jamie Stewart speaks in prayers and tongues. These two contrasting forms of speech define the Xiu Xiu singer’s style, the way he can pour his entire being into hushed, contemplative near-whispers or howling shrieks. The power of Stewart’s quavering, raw voice is that it simultaneously possesses the intimacy of a confession and the anguished rage of someone calling out from the bottom of a dark pit.
Stewart has been making his harsh, uncompromising, and often beautiful music since 2002. He’s that rarest of creatures, an avant-garde artist who doesn’t need to hold down a day job.
“By some miracle, I’ve been able to make a living out of this,” Stewart says over the phone. “I don’t really know how I pulled this off.”
Fusing gamelan percussion, violent synths, tremulous autoharps, and gothy guitars, Xiu Xiu’s music is a powerful mixture of beautiful and brutal sounds. And while the music Stewart and his rotating pool of collaborators (including Angela Seo, the band’s only other official permanent member, and former Swans drummer Thor Harris) make is anything but poppy, they’ve been able to build a steady following on the backs of records like 2004’s essential Fabulous Muscles, 2006’s The Air Force, and their fantastic Nina Simone and Twin Peaks cover albums.
The most recent Xiu Xiu album, Girl With Basket of Fruit, adds Haitian drums and other exotic instruments to give the record a discordant, driving energy. Named after a Caravaggio painting, it’s a record whose chaotic sound and violent textures is miles away from that painter’s ordered, exacting style.
While Stewart is the band’s principal songwriter, he credits Seo’s producing and musicianship as a key part of the record’s development.
“I’ll get to a crossroads with a particular set of decisions to make — should we use these chords, should we use this sound or this sound or these sets of lyrics — and she will, without hesitation, single the right one out,” Stewart says. “I think she has a real good understanding of what the roadblocks I tend to set up for myself are, and she’s able to subvert them. So when I have no perspective on what to do next, I’ll turn to her and she’ll help me find a direction.”
Stewart says that the band often like to set up specific parameters and rules for their records, giving them creative constraints to work around and spur inspiration.
“It depends on the record — for some, the rule was that there would absolutely be no rules. And some of them were set up with incredibly specific rules, like Angel Guts: Red Classroom. That one was probably the most restrictive … It can be incredibly inspiring when you’re given seven or eight tools to work with rather than having 10 million tools to work with. It forces you to be a little bit more creative. We’re in the midst of discussing what parameters there’ll be for the next record right now.”
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Girl With Basket of Fruit has its moments of beauty and grace, like the understated ballad “Normal Love.” But it also has the harrowing “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” which sounds like a field recording of a nightmare. Based on the brutal lynching and murder of Mary Turner and her unborn child in May 1918, it’s an eerily prescient song. Turner and her baby, cut out of her body after she was lit on fire, were murdered in Georgia by white men who went unpunished for their monstrous actions. It’s almost impossible to listen to it and not to think of the anti-abortion legislation being pushed in Alabama and other states by men seeking control over women’s bodies. Stewart says a similar fear motivated the song.
“That was the main reason for doing it,” he says. “It was the 100th anniversary of her and her child’s murders. It occurred to me that nothing happened to the people who committed the murder. It seemed like something that could very easily happen now. That over 100 years later, although a lot of things have clearly changed, it would not be impossible for it happen again.”
Stewart closes out that song, a churning soundscape of historical terrors and empathy for its victims, with a soft voice, the demonic giving way to a prayer. “Fuck your guns,” Stewart whispers, issuing a much-needed litany of prayers you won’t hear in any American church. “Fuck your war, fuck your truck, fuck your flag.”