Barbara Adler and Jake Klar have never met, but there’s plenty to suggest that their upcoming Chutzpah Festival performance will bring together two people who see the world in the same way.
In Adler we get a multidisciplined Vancouverite noted for her poetry, various musical endeavours, spoken-word performances, and dalliances in dance and visual arts. Her willingness to tackle anything is conveyed by the fact she’s chosen Ten Thousand Wolves as an umbrella moniker for her various projects.
Klar, from America’s East Coast, is equally comfortable pushing himself. He’s perhaps best-known as a singer-songwriter whose style suggests Jack Johnson and Ben Harper if they’d come up in the Texas troubadour tradition. A passion for photography and visual arts is traceable to a childhood obsession with skateboarding culture. A love of storytelling steered him toward not just observational songwriting but also poetry.
Tellingly, the two artists aren’t worried about their Chutzpah Fox Cabaret double bill, where they’ll perform separately before collaborating at the end of the night. Adler and Klar share a fascination with what makes their fellow human beings tick. The fact that neither sticks to one discipline in their quest to make sense of the world is a bonus.
Reached at home in Pelham, Massachusetts, Klar quickly cites a deep admiration for Just Kids, a memoir by iconic poet, musician, and visual artist Patti Smith.
“She’s someone that I’ve always really respected in that she’s an artist in the holistic sense,” he marvels. “It’s not about being specialized, or dressed up as one thing. Some people are—musicians, I guess. But I know I could never do just one thing.”
Adler is also a fan of coming at things through multiple media.
“I’m really interested in the way that artifacts and performances and the visual stuff that people put together all try and get to something real,” she says, on the line from East Vancouver.
Fittingly then, Adler’s part of the Fox showcase will revolve around a piece called Decoy, which incorporates storytelling, visuals, props, and original music performed with an eight-piece band. Many of the songs Ten Thousand Wolves will perform are from Adler’s weekly writing sessions with highly respected Vancouver musician and composer Ron Samworth. Adler, whose past music projects have included Fugitives and Proud Animal, gushingly credits her musical foil with teaching her to be unafraid of embarrassing herself and, at the same time, willing to take chances.
“Writing with him has made me try to incorporate some of the things that he does in my own writing,” Adler says. “He takes so much care when arranging things like harmonies, and I don’t have the same musical knowledge to be able to do that.”
Pushed to label their collaborative songs, she worries that she’s going to sound glib, and then takes a stab at things anyway, starting with “meticulously crafted folk songs”.
“I dunno—you could also call them glum parks-and-rec songs, with occasional rhythmic sections and odd time signatures,” she adds with a laugh. “Come for the glumness—stay for the odd time signatures.”
Decoy has its roots in last year’s Accordion Noir Festival in Vancouver, where, after taking part, Adler was given a beaten-up, painted plastic owl destined for the landfill. A promo-shoot photo of the owl—usually used for scaring away pigeons—on the web led a friend to note similarities to a series of repainted duck decoys created by a Winnipeg artist.
“So I got really into the idea of how cool it could be to transform these plastic nature objects and make them even more absurdly artificial,” Adler says. “I found, by total luck, that somebody was selling their huge collection of plastic decoys for pretty cheap on Craigslist. So I snapped them up, and when I got them the bag had the name of the person who had owned the decoys on it.
“I also had a little bit of information from the person who had bought them—basically that someone had died, given the decoy collection to his son, and his son hadn’t wanted them and sold them,” she continues. “So there was a fragment of a narrative already in the objects. I don’t hunt, so the whole thing was going through these bags and seeing random goose heads and duck parts. There was this morbid story already in the objects and it spiralled out into something bigger.”
Decoy touches on everything from humanity’s complex relationship with nature to the fetishization of vintage objects to the way people interact with each other.
“What Decoy is,” she says, “is a series of songs and stories about a father who hunts and a son who doesn’t, and about 70 duck decoys. The decoys are in the show both in projection form and a bunch of them are going to be used as props. It’s not a musical—there are no songs about duck hunting, although no judgment about such a musical if it does exist. The songs are more poetic explorations of the setting and the scene, with a narrative element about a father and a son and plastic ducks.”
Expect Klar’s part of the show to draw heavily on his latest album, Until the Wild Fire Becomes Paradise. Klar has dabbled in street photography over the years, loving the way that it captures average people in unstaged situations. Like Decoy, his record is in many ways inspired by the everyday, namely interactions between the singer and people he encountered during an extended trip across North America.
“Human beings are what interest me,” Klar says. “Street photographers wander around doing hip shots, where they grab these moments of someone who doesn’t know they are being witnessed. You get these amazing expressions—a woman walking down the street maybe in fancy furs and a hat, maybe with a bum on the side of the street. They are very genuine moments.”
Until the Wild Fire aims to capture such moments. The record’s beginning can be traced to the tiny community of Sointula on British Columbia’s Malcolm Island; Klar ended up in the town for his brother’s wedding, that leading to a weeklong stay in Vancouver and then a two-month trip on the road across the line. After working his way down the West Coast, he eventually made his way to Austin and Brooklyn.
“I’d started writing songs for the record, but I realized that it was characters that I was looking for, and that I had to go out and travel on sort of a solo mission,” Klar says. “It was a good excuse that I was going to be out there to go to his wedding. Now I realize that I was going for the street-photographer mentality. But instead of a camera, I was using a notebook and pen, trying to observe and mull over these characters that came from meeting all these different kinds of people on the road. I didn’t have a car—I was travelling by bus and train the entire time so that I would have to interact with people and learn their stories.”
That eventually led to a record that dips into everything from reverb-bathed country (“Over & Over”) to breezy pop (“Rosy”) to laid-back, country-tinged soul (“Oo La La”). Klar wants relatable snapshots of everyday people to shine through—a mission he accomplishes with lines like “She hit the floor like a bottle broken over the bar/She had a mouth like the front end of a moving car,” from the paisley-kissed grunge-pop standout “Eleanor”.
“In my head I was trying to kind of see what America is like right now, and where I fit into it,” he says. “I wanted to look at the different ways that people live and what they go through.”
During the travels that became part of the writing process, people would invite Klar into their homes for short stays, and the singer would thank them by hauling out the guitar.
“What I started to see when I’d hang out with folks was sort of the same thing,” Klar says. “Everyone’s confused and just trying to make ends meet.”
And that, one might argue, suggests that making new friends is more important than ever. It’s not lost on either Adler or Klar that art helps people connect at a time when an increasingly divided world seems content to interact on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Indeed, Adler has in the past been vocal about her disdain for living out one’s life online.
“I’m not that interested in myself,” she says, laughing, “so having another person to bounce off of usually leads to a really great spark.”
It should be noted being teamed for Chutzpah was neither artist’s idea—it was proposed by festival organizer Mary Louise Albert, who has long had a knack for matching up performers in her programming. Given their similarities, the two figure it won’t take long to make a valuable connection.
“We were put on the bill together because we’re both poets and songwriters and visual artists,” Klar says. “I’ve never met Barbara, but we’re going to get together two days before the show and work something out. Collaboration has always been important to me—it teaches me about the craft that I’m doing, but also learning the way that other people approach things. It’s all about letting go of what you might be comfortable with.”
Ten Thousand Wolves and Jake Klar play the Fox Cabaret next Saturday (February 24) as part of the Chutzpah Festival.