So, who is Amy X Neuburg, and why HAVE I caricatured her?
For viewers already acquainted with Ms. Neuburg, you know her as a vocalist, musician, composer and performance artist extraordinaire, based in Oakland, California. For everyone else reading this blog, she’s well worth getting to know.
Like many cartoonists who freelance for a living, and manage to find enough work, I spend a lot of hours alone in my studio. I sometimes joke that being a cartoonist and “getting a life” are mutually exclusive.
Ah, but I have my escapes! Muttering to myself or the cats (9 to 9:30 in the morning). Bickering with the news on the radio or TV. Schlepping bickering children to this or that practice or event. Observing birds and feeding caterpillars. AND listening to music.
My musical tastes are wide-ranging, but I won’t bore you with a detailed list of favorite genres, groups or soloists. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to favor a particular instrument -- the human voice itself. And I’m always looking for something new and exciting to my ears, whether the music was composed last month or is a thousand years old.
I’ll pull the car to the side of the road when I hear a compelling and beautiful voice, and jot down the name of the singer inside the auto manual in the glovebox. In the few bookstores that still have listening posts in their dwindling CD sections, I’ll hunt and peck for something I’m willing to take a chance on. Doesn’t matter whether the singer is from Brooklyn or Burundi -- the more variety, the merrier, as long as the melodies are lovely and innovative, and the rhythms intriguing. I’ll use iTunes to confirm the name of a singer, or whether I like a particular song. However, I don’t download songs or own an iPod. I’ve never liked poor, tinny fidelity, dating back to transistor radios in the 1960s.
Enter Ms. Neuburg -- with a bang! Or was it a chime? Not long ago, my wife was listening to a program of “new” music on NPR late one night while in the kitchen. Mostly, her tastes run to Southern rock from the 70s, Rubber Soul-era Beatles, Queen and, above all, Brian Setzer. But she likes this particular radio program.
When I walked into the kitchen, I heard an unusual and breathtaking combination of voice and cellos. Ellen and I were supposedly chatting, but I wasn’t paying attention -- an annoying habit of mine. The moment the announcer went through the names of the recording artists for the past 20 minutes, I waited for a clue as to who this “cello-singer” was.
Well, thank God for those cellos! I thought I heard the announcer say, “Amy X. Newborn and the Cello...Chicken?” Or something like that. But I distinctly remembered him saying the letter, "x," and that was the key. I bolted up to my studio and googled “Amy X. Newborn,” but the flashing scroll of names corrected my mistake, directing me to Amy X Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet.
I watched several YouTube videos of Ms. Neuburg’s performances. I checked the 30-second snippets on each of her five albums listed on iTunes. I was stunned by the magic in her voice. And, by magic, I mean a grab bag of vocal magic tricks. Thoroughly intrigued, I bought her CDs, one after the other. Yep, I still purchase those irridescent little disks -- I’m THAT old!
Whether performing with the Cello ChiXtet on “The Secret Language of Subways,” her latest recording, or her solo album, “Residue,” or with her wryly inventive and comical rock band from the 1990’s, Amy X Neuburg & Men, this listener found himself in for a genuine thrill ride -- with surprises galore on each album.
So, why hadn’t I heard of Amy X Neuburg until 2010? As with many cartoonists, my studio is like a darkened, mildewed cave. I navigate by running my hands along the walls, keeping my ears and nose open for sounds and smells that will direct me toward the distant light, if there is any. In other words, I don’t get out much. I wasn’t hip in my late 20s. Thirty years on, I’m not even “tragically hip.”
But it’s not entirely my fault. Amy X Neuburg defies convention. She and her collaborators, be they cellists, the Men, or the many voices in her own head, won’t be confined to any one box, and joyously so. It might make Neuburg’s music tough to market to a mass audience -- though I’m not sure that’s the audience she seeks. Rather, I believe she is deeply committed to her art, while not taking herself too seriously.
How would I describe Ms. Neuburg’s music? It’s Dawn Upshaw spending a weekend with Frank Zappa, but with Dawn being outrageous and Frank being polite. It’s Anonymous 4 in a skit with the Firesign Theater. It’s twisted tangos and warped country, and campy cabaret doubling as art songs. It’s also some of the sharpest alternative rock of the 1990s. Amy X Neuburg can sing in all these styles, both soaringly and seductively, and laced with off-the-wall, often hilarious lyrics. How she manages to perform the vocal and compositional gymnastics, yet stick the landings, I haven’t a clue.
But be prepared. Ms. Neuburg plays a fierce game of musical chairs. She challenges the listener. Performing with Herb Heinz and his fellow Men, and even the ChiXtet, it sometimes seems as though she’s bent on sabotaging her own work, mid-tune -- but with mischief, not malice, in mind. And the endings are always tidy. In fact, ridding one’s house of dust and dirt appears to be an oddly recurrent theme in her lyrics.
Amy X Neuburg was born in Cheltenham, England, and some people think she was raised on a farm in Maryland. Others believe she was raised by wolves. Or maybe otters. But I’ll leave the genuine biographical information to those interested in checking out her website.
However, I will quote contemporary American composer John Adams (“Nixon in China;” “Doctor Atomic”), who calls Ms. Neuburg the “best thing to come out of Oakland since Jack London.” In addition, she plays electronic drums, and employs an instrument called a “looper,” which allows Ms. Neuburg to construct a chorus of her own voices while performing live. Then there’s the “Blippoo Box.” This contraption, looking like a high school science project, circa 1955, adds weird, sci-fi sounds to her concerts. Rather like performing a duet with Robby the Robot.
As for the caricature at the top of this page, it’s filled with assorted props which may or may not have meaning in Ms. Neuburg’s life. You’ll have to check out her music and decide for yourself. But the impetus to caricature Amy occurred when I saw certain portrait photos on her website, and elsewhere online, where she strikes goofy poses reminiscent of what Imogen Coca might have done as publicity shots for “The Sid Caesar Show.” One portrait is titled, “MSG Headache.” This is not just an artist, I thought, this is a polished comedienne. I HAVE to draw this person!
Regarding the “X” in Amy’s name (there is no period), I figure she is following in the footsteps of our 33rd president, Harry S. Truman. Her X, like Harry’s S, means absolutely nothing.
Amy X Neuburg’s music is gorgeous, brilliant and, occasionally, interplanetary. But there's never a dull moment -- she won't allow it.