Talented, Down to Her Toes
Friday, September 26, 2008
Some musicians are admired for the agility of their fingers, but Theresa Andersson is admired for the agility of her toes.
In the video for her song "Na Na Na," the singer-songwriter stands barefoot and alone on the green-diamond linoleum of her New Orleans kitchen. She strums the mountain dulcimer sitting on two green barstools by the refrigerator and with her toes, she twists and taps the foot pedals that record those strums as a repeating loop. She bounces over to a drum set, handling the sticks with her hands and the recording controls with her feet. She loops harmony vocals and classical guitar, her dexterous toes grabbing the right knob from the 14 possibilities each time.
With her reddish bangs falling in her face, Andersson sings a compelling lead vocal while her busy feet trigger certain tracks and mute others.
The video, filmed in a single take in real time, has become a sensation on YouTube with more than 700,000 hits. It's also an illuminating visual explanation of how she performs her live show, which comes to DC9 on Tuesday.
"Using my toes is a new skill set I had to learn," she says. "Sometimes I have to leap from one pedal to another, or from the drums to the dulcimer, while playing an instrument, without losing my balance. I actually took a ballet class from my friend, because I couldn't always keep my balance. My toes do a lot of work these days, so I take very good care of them, I make them pretty. I carry a white shag rug with me when I tour."
Andersson recorded her new album, "Hummingbird Go!," in much the same fashion. She even recorded it in the same kitchen where she shot the video. When she was making the album, she didn't dance around from instrument to instrument, trying to sync up everything in real time, but she did play almost all the instruments and sing almost all the parts herself, just as she does in her live show. The result is the most personal album of her career.
"I'm 36 now," she says, "I'd never written an entire album by myself, nor had I recorded an album by myself. I thought it was important to make a record that was really about me and the incredible journey I've been on."
Andersson spent half her life in New Orleans and half in Sweden, and influences from both can be heard in her music. "I'm still inspired by New Orleans music -- you can hear it in the rhythms on this record -- but I feel the record also ties back into Sweden, where I was born and raised. New Orleans music is sunny and happy, but Swedish music is more cloudy, more sad and floating. Combining the two is the perfect meltdown; it's all very much me."
She played Swedish folk music on violin in school but later switched to jazz singing under the influence of her mother's Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald records. Then Andersson met a fellow Swedish musician, Anders Osborne, who introduced her to New Orleans R&B. She loved the rhythms, joined Osborne's band and moved with the band to New Orleans. There she fell in love with a New Orleans native, Arthur Mintz, and married him; they bought a house on the city's West Bank, and it was in that kitchen that she filmed her famous v ideo.
"My husband does a lot of puppetry," Andersson says, "and he drags me along to a lot of puppet shows. At one show in Chicago, this guy had three stations set up on stage: He'd do puppetry, sing and play drums all at the same time. It sparked my imagination and made me think that was something I'd like to do. When I went to Sweden last year, the budget didn't allow for a band, so I thought, 'Here's my chance to try a one-person show.' I bought a loop pedal and taught myself how to run it with my toes. It was a really fun, amazing discovery for me."
Her one-woman musicmaking would be a mere gimmick if Andersson didn't have a knack for linking her catchy chorus melodies to the street-parade beats of her adopted city. She jokingly calls her multi-tracked vocals the "Kitchenettes," but when those harmonies grab hold of a hook as appealing as that for "Na Na Na," "Birds Fly Away," "Hi-Low" or "Locusts are Gossiping" (all on the new disc), they recall the New Orleans girl-group sound of the Dixie Cups.
"On this record, I wanted to explore what the voice could do," she says, "even forming chords like a doo-wop thing."
Andersson and her husband recently evacuated their home during Hurricane Gustav and returned to find that the house had escaped serious damage. It was an entirely different story during Katrina.
"My Katrina experience was terrifying," she recalls. "The night before I had a show with George Porter at the Maple Leaf. New Orleans is always looking for a reason to party, so the Maple Leaf created this midsummer Mardi Gras; they have their own king and queen and everything. I called the club, sure that they would cancel, but, no, the show was on. It was strange. You had all these people dressed in costumes dancing around; you felt like you were on the Titanic."
Andersson and her husband left town right after the show, beneath the darkening skies, first for Baton Rouge, where they had family, and then to Austin, where she could get gigs. It took three months before they got back to New Orleans. Their house had wind damage; some equipment and a vehicle got flooded, but it was nothing to the serious losses suffered by so many of their friends.
"The parts of the city you would visit as a tourist are back to normal," she says. "That's where the city has put its effort to show the world that we're back. The other parts of the city, where most people live, have been much slower to heal. . . . The city is like a dog that's trying to run on three legs rather than four."
Theresa Andersson Appearing Tuesday at DC9 (1940 Ninth St. NW). Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets:$10, 202-483-5000. The Download: For a sampling of Andersson's music, check out: From "Hummingbird, Go":· "Na Na Na" From "Shine":· "Shine" From "No Regrets":· "No Regrets"