After sending unsolicited demo tapes to a handful of record labels a couple of years ago, Edith Frost found herself in a strange situation. A novice songwriter, she attracted the attention of two respected labels that couldn't have been more different: Austin's forward-looking roots-rock Dejadisc imprint and Chicago's indie-rock experimentalist outlet Drag City. On a gut instinct she chose the latter, but openly wonders about what might have transpired with the former. "I don't know how it would've turned out," Frost says, "but I'm sure the recordings would've been slicker and I probably would've moved home to Austin instead of to Chicago." Between her eponymous four-song debut, which Drag City released this summer, and her full album, already recorded and due next April, it's clear Frost would have done well either way: the shy 30-year-old Texan might be the most distinctive and gifted singer-songwriter to surface in the last year or two.
Frost was born in San Antonio and moved sporadically with her mother between there, Austin, and Guadalajara, Mexico. She spent three years as an undeclared fine-arts major at the University of Texas, flunking core courses but devouring a wide variety of music classes, from electronic music to voice to theory. "I was studying just to learn to play, which I still can't do," she explains. "I don't know what I ended up learning from all of those classes, because if you listen to what I'm doing right now it's really basic."
In 1990 she packed her bags for Brooklyn. "I had some money which I was either going to put in the band or do something with," Frost says, "so I moved to New York." She paid her bills doing freelance Internet work, and within a few years she was fronting three different bands. The Holler Sisters reverentially covered old-timey classics, the Marfa Lights dealt in western swing, and Edith & Her Roadhouse Romeos ripped through unadorned rockabilly. But not until 1992, when she broke up with a musician boyfriend of ten years, did she venture out with her own songs. "He was the teacher figure and I was the student-learner figure," Frost says. Not long after they split she began to test her own songs at open-mike nights, and was encouraged by the positive response.
Though she spent most of her money and time on vintage country and rockabilly, she had a peripheral knowledge of the indie-rock scene, and because of her fanaticism for Will Oldham's Palace projects, she sent her tape to Drag City, the label that releases his music, with a note explaining how much she loved the band. Nine months later she got a call at work from the label.
In April Frost separated from her husband of two years, and the subsequent difficulty of living a block away from him in New York sent her packing again; she arrived in Chicago jobless a few weeks ago. "It was really too close for comfort," she says. "I needed to get some space. And I've made more friends here already than I did in a year in New York. It's more like Austin."
The EP Drag City released this summer was culled from her home-recorded demos--primarily vocals and guitar--but the spare settings only make her songs more striking. Frost sings in a clear, ringing voice, opting for folksy gentleness over emotional bombast; her fluid phrasing and subtle accents undergird the uneasy resignation in her words. "Blame Me," which like many of Frost's songs is written in a minor key, effectively paints a scenario of a troubled couple avoiding their problems rather than dealing with them, but it's the gorgeous, insinuating melody that imparts a real emotional substance to the song. As strong as the EP is, though, it's little more than an appetizer for the forthcoming album.
Recorded here in September, the LP was produced by Rian Murphy (a Drag City employee who has drummed with Mantis, Dolomite, and Royal Trux) with beautifully empathetic playing from Gastr del Sol's David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke (on restrained piano, violin, guitar, and pedal steel) and Eleventh Dream Day guitarist Rick Rizzo. For every optimistic glimmer, either lyrically or musically, there's a dose of sobriety, as in "Too Happy," where the narrator admits to fear of contentment: "'Cause it won't feel like home / Without something to hold me back."
Frost is still working on making Chicago feel like home; this Friday's Empty Bottle gig (with the Spinanes' Rebecca Gates) ought to be a good start.
It's been a tough year for the Jesus Lizard: After the release of its major label debut Shot, the group was banned from performing in Seattle because of front man David Yow's tendency to stage dive; a few months ago Dave Sims broke his fibula in a mosh-pit scuffle. Now drummer Mac McNeilly has left because the group's touring schedule allowed him too little time with his wife and two children. His replacement is Jim Kimball, a fierce percussionist who's previously worked with the Laughing Hyenas and Mule and plays with Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison in the Denison-Kimball Trio.
The Lizard isn't the only Chicago band to shed a skinsman recently: Jim Shapiro, the lanky Veruca Salt drummer (and brother of singer-guitarist Nina Gordon) has quit to focus on his own band, Ultra Swiss, in which he sings and plays guitar. He's been replaced by Stacy Jones, formerly of Letters to Cleo.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Edith Frost photo by Katarina Witkamp.