Jarboe is a woman on a quest -- if not several at once. An integral member of New York City avant-rockers Swans for 14 years, lately she's trying to establish her own clear identity as a composer, musician and performer, rather than merely as that legendary group's female singer.
While her ex-partner in Swans, Michael Gira (now of Angels of Light), visualized the group as a rock band, she considered it an art project. "Based on hearing [the Swans album] Filth, I saw it as clear as day -- the ambiguity of the lyrics, the Barbara Krueger-esque style," she recalls. "Over the years, Michael would express his disdain for the term 'artist' -- he would say, 'you're a singer.' Yet he was the one with the art school degree!"
Jarboe's appearance at Carnegie Mellon University this Friday offers a career retrospective. The bare-bones acoustic set will feature material from Swans and World of Skin as well as newer solo works such as the Magick for Prudence and Magick for Mischiefs EPs, written, played and recorded entirely by Jarboe at her Mothercrow studio in Atlanta.
Her goal is an amazing degree of DIY self-sufficiency. "I want to be self-contained, not only as a writer and composer, but also as an engineer," she says. "Whereas some people might be putting in a patio or a swimming pool, I'm continually upgrading my studio gear. It's important to release the idea that I'm a child of Swans, to advocate for my own career and history, proving that level of commitment and musicianship once and for all."
Over the past few years, her releases have been a torrent. There's The Men, a compilation she curated with male energies from underground icons such as Bauhaus' David J; The End, a spoken word/ambient album with Cedric Victor-DeSouza; and Atavistic Records' reissues of crucial solo works such as Anhedoniac and 13 Masks. Meanwhile, her collaboration with A Perfect Circle and Neurosis has brought her to the attention of a new generation of avant-metal and post-rock fans.
It's perhaps no surprise that Jarboe appeared as the cover feature in the Angry Women of Rock book written in the '90s by Andrea Juno (of Re/Search Publications). Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch figured prominently in the first edition of Angry Women, and Jarboe sees an affinity between herself and the other two priestesses of darkness.
"Lydia and I are good friends," she says. "I was hanging with her in Barcelona, where she lives now, and we discussed a concept we wanted to do called The Unholy Trinity." Though a certain Greek-American diva nixed the supergroup idea, it highlighted a similarity in their leanings toward performance art, a pursuit which Jarboe has seen herself in since 1984, when an Atlanta college station rotated her cathartic primal-scream piece "Walls Are Bleeding."
"I see myself as a total performer who goes beyond just singing songs," she says, "so I have no problem with the term 'performance artist.' In fact, I'd love to reclaim the dignity of that expression from the parody it's been subjected to -- like on Saturday Night Live -- and open people's minds to what it really can be."
Jarboe. 8 p.m. Fri., Apr. 27. Doherty Hall 2315, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. $7 ($5 CMU students). 412-268-2107
- Swans and screams: Jarboe