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Aha, the Richard Thompson defense! "Wow, is that what Richard would say? I definitely don't evade the truth, but I also really don't spell it out. I feel that I allude to truthful things."
The truthful thing inside the last seven years--artistically at least--is that Straw has spent much of the time woodshedding, growing from singer to something more like a complete artist. On Surprise, all of her originals were co-written, but War and Peace finds Straw writing 11 of 14 tunes herself, in addition to playing rhythm guitar and producing. While Surprise was recorded all over the map, Straw cut War and Peace in Springfield, Missouri, of all places, known as "The Recording Capital of Greene County" to those who make the pilgrimage there to work with Lou Whitney and the Skeletons, the NRBQ of the Midwest, ergo one of America's greatest relatively unknown rock 'n' roll bands.
"The thing about the way I worked back then was I was all over the place. And it was great--I have no regrets, coyote," she says, quoting Joni Mitchell (another allusion, perhaps, that indicates something about Straw's talents and her unusual subject matter). "But this way, I just plain wanted to make a 'be here now' record. Let's see what we can do right here, right now, with what we've got. It was really fun.
"You're hanging around with Lou Whitney, you're going to have some serious fun," she assures. "It's a guarantee. I wish Lou had time to hang around with everyone. You know, if I ever get my variety show--[the one] that I've had in my dreams for about 15 years--up and running, definitely Lou is going to be my Ed McMahon times 10. In my head, it's really great."
Whitney and the Skeletons are also her road band, hitting the highway themselves for the first time in years. As a live unit, it's an explosive match of singer and band. Until Straw gets her talk show on the air, she still has her ongoing soap opera, a.k.a., her songs. From the album's highly allusional name and witty song titles like "Love, and the Lack of It," "Water, Please," "The Toughest Girl in the World," and, of course, "CBGB's" (the name of New York's original punk-rock mecca), you can get an idea of her unique brand of (seemingly) nonfiction confessional. Whatever truth may or may not be in the lyrics, Straw does admit that she is something of a drama queen in both her life and her art.
"I always wanted to fall in love until I decided that it was really cutting into my songwriting time, and I thought I would like to be a priestess for a while," she says. "But that just didn't work out because of my libido. Well, you know, rock music is a fairly sexually driven medium."
She nonetheless cautions her listeners to never read too much into her tragic tales. "I would say, Don't assume you know me intimately," she whispers with an intimate chuckle.
So how many dates would it take to get to know her intimately? "When I was 20, I would definitely not sleep with anyone until the first date," she says with a laugh. "Now I'm a whole lot harder to get...'cause I'm a one-man guy." Once again, it's an allusion, this time to a Loudon Wainwright III song.
That's just Straw's way as she roams through the (musical) world, soaking up ideas and experiences like some kind of unquenchable sponge, then wringing it all back out with her own off-kilter reconstructive skills.
"I feel very open to and inspired by lots of things, lots of nouns," she concludes. "Fun with words, that's what I'm here for!"
Syd Straw and The Skeletons perform at Sons of Hermann Hall July 6.