As part of The Old Grey Cat’s ongoing 23rd anniversary shindig, here’s a favorite review/Q&A from 1999.
New England-based singer-songwriter Dana Pomfret came to my attention by way of her husband, guitarist Jeff Pevar (they since split up), who I interviewed in early 1999. I soon checked out her CD, Soul Collage, and was surprised at just how good it was. In fact, I liked it so much that I reached out and asked if she’d answer a few questions; she graciously consented. (Although the album is no longer in print, her 2004 Tracks compilation is available on the usual streaming services. It’s well worth a few dozen listens.)
Soul Collage is the audio equivalent of a powerful, seductive drug: One listen and you’ll be hooked. Dana’s intoxicating vocals weave in and out of the catchy melodies, conjuring comparisons to such singers as Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Laura Nyro and Carly Simon, among others. Soon enough, however, those comparisons fade and you’re left with Dana, who takes you down funky and slow, alternately wooing and cooing you into her soul.
It was toward the end of my interview with CPR’s Jeff Pevar, I’d asked about his work with his wife, the singer-songwriter Dana Pomfret. I’d never heard of her and, as is my wont, admitted my ignorance. “You’d like her,” he assured me. Spoken like a proud husband? You bet. Yet, to be honest, I harbored my doubts. Blame it on my ever-increasing cynicical outlook on life. I mean, what was Jeff going to say? “She’s terrible”?
Imagine my surprise, then, when a few weeks later I plunked Soul Collage into my CD player. “In the ’50s they had the hula hoop” – Dana’s vocals immediately swoop in, and swoop you into the groove from the get-go. The first song, “Buttermilk Highway,” hitches a hook-laden ride into a then-now comparison of the ’50s and the present. A lot’s changed. A lot hasn’t: “Riding high on a buttermilk highway/Keepin’ tight on a jigger of gin/On our way to the pearly skyway/Pass the buck and I know I’m in…” Kids gunned down in Denver, hate crimes on the rise, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo…the list goes on. And rather than doing something about it, we tend to look the other way and pray the problems will disappear on their own. “Buttermilk Highway” makes you think – as well as hum its chorus while walking down the hallway at work.
The rest of the album’s just as potent as that opening track. “Girls In Their Cars” is a mid-tempo gem that comes across–to my ears, at least–as a marriage between early Rickie Lee Jones (minus her hipster lingo) and the Beach Boys. “Girls in their cars sing with the radio….”
Accompanied by a deft backing track (featuring a nice mandolin solo plucked by the omni-present Jeff Pevar), it could very easily be a trip down a foggy nostalgia lane, but it’s not: “And girls on their feet/still raise up their kids alone.” There’s more going on here than the lush, to-die-for vocals, in other words. Rather than hitting the listeners over the head, Dana seduces us into the groove, into the stories she tells, and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Another such moment arises with the album’s gorgeous closing track, “Sally,” which draws us into prepubescent innocence, painting a picture of kids playing kick-the-can. “I’ve been waiting on my change,” she sings. “Sitting here waiting for my change/thinking I would shed my skin/come back new and strange.” But innocence isn’t as innocent as we might like to think: “I see her Dad’s belt buckle out/He ‘really means it this time’/so banged up – she never cried.”
That’s not to say Soul Collage is just about “important” issues. To the contrary, it’s about life large and small–the world around us as well as the world within. For every “Buttermilk Highway” there’s “Trick’s on You”: “When my Grandma calls out to me/I curl up on her breast/she says ‘don’t sweat the b.s. baby and just forget about the rest.'”
Like many of the albums – CPR’s, Stacey Earle’s – reviewed within these pages, this one stands head-and-shoulders above the “product” the major labels and today’s static radio stations routinely push at consumers. As I stated above, I approached this disc with some trepidation–and wound up a convert.
My (Email) Q&A with Dana:
You dedicate the album to Sammie Coleman. Who is she?
Sammie Coleman was a brilliant, poetic, fierce, funny woman. Born and raised in rural Georgia, she came North to try and make a better living for herself after graduating high school. When we moved to NYC, mom went back to school to get her teaching degre–and Sammie came to take care of my little brother and me, Tuesdays and Thursdays. She was my “second mom”–as she put it. We baked, played, danced and sang. Early on, she was one of the people who gave me genuine, unconditional support and love–and she encouraged me to become a singer. “Don’t be a doubtin’ Thomas” and “take what you got and get what you want” were two of her favorite expressions. She taught me to follow my heart and never give up. Sadly, she died in Feb of ’98, so I dedicated the CD to her…
Looking back at when you recorded Soul Collage, is there any moment that crystallizes the process? In other words, what’s the first thing you think of?
Heh…Here are a few:
- Doing vocal takes in between plane landings (we’re in a bucolic spot – but close to the airport).
- Living with ALL the musicians in our little cabin while we recorded the basic tracks nearby at Jim Chapdelaine’s studio – who worked long hours with his screaming cockatiel Dizzy perched on his shoulder.
- Taking the drummer, Franck Ridacker–who’d come all the way from Paris to record–on
- a 2 a.m. tromp through the woods, where we got lost. All he could say was, “where is my bed?”
Where’d the title come from?
I’d written a little poem with that title – just a word list, really. I thought it applied to the record; the cover painting ended up being a collage, the music is an amalgam of styles, all music comes from the soul, and a wonderful mix of people came together (from Paris, NY, CT, past & present) to help make it happen. My whole feeling about life-on-the-planet is that it’s a kind of moving collage – everything all-at-once: choose your vision.
Who are your influences? I hear Laura Nyro in there…
It’s funny – because I never had any of LN’s records – but I heard her on the radio and liked her a lot. My folks were into wonderful jazz – Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, etc. – and classical (courtesy of my dad). And incredible folk stuff – everyone from Odetta to Pete Seeger to Woodie Guthrie to the Weavers (courtesy of my mom). My own picks were Marvin Gaye – his hits as well as the more obscure stuff – the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone, CSNY, The Persuasions, The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha, Jethro Tull, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Sweet Honey in the Rock. ETC! – everything I could get my hands on and especially music that moved and harmonized. Couldn’t get enough.
What comes first – the words or the melody?
It depends on the day, the minute, the mood. Sometimes it’ll be a bass line, sometimes a rhythm, sometimes (and I kiss the floor when this happens) whole songs just seem to spontaneously write themselves. I carry a tape recorder everywhere because inspiration always hits in the weirdest places.
For “Tricks on You,” you credit the novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer…
The book is a big, moving picture about the underbelly of the ‘wild west’. It’s poetry, pornography, love, tragedy, humor. An inspired yarn with a lot of soul and some incredible images.
Crosby & Nash…how’d their contributions come about? Martin Sexton?
I met David & Graham through Jeff – and eventually they each got copies of my first disc. Graham knew I was recording a second CD, and emailed Jeff that he could “sing his ass off” for me if I wanted. WOW! I went through the ceiling, then emailed David and asked if he’d do it as well. He agreed – they are both incredibly generous spirits – and we did the back-ups to “Permanent Bitter Pill” and “Underground World” at Graham’s studio in Los Angeles. It was a lovely rush to work with them; I learned so much about harmony from listening to their records – and there we were doing “aaahhhhhs” together!
And Sexton… I saw Sexton sing his ass off one night at a little coffee shop upstate, so I called him up and asked him to sing on the disc. I was especially interested in his trumpet impersonation. He came down to the cabin with his daughter and just nailed it.