On Parplar, her latest album, Larkin Grimm's unique voice swings from a low, smoky croon to Joanna Newsom-like sprightliness, to a high-pitched baby voice repeating phrases like "mina mina mina minou" over droning strings and percussion. "That's my natural voice," Grimm assures. "I used to take psychedelics and go into this squash court that was in my basement when I was in college, and lie on my back and sing," she recalls. "I just explored the full range of my voice at that point. I love singers like Diamanda Galas and Yma Sumac, who've got these incredible ranges."
While that might be a flagship wild-college-days tale for some 26-year-olds, for Grimm, it's just the start. During her early childhood in Memphis, Tenn., Grimm's folk-musician parents were part of a now-defunct hippie/orthodox cult called The Holy Order of MANS. She was 6 when the family left for Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains -- and a different mindset.
"Suddenly I was surrounded by the most conservative people in the nation, Southern Baptists and the like," Grimm says. "So I experienced both the extreme left and the extreme right wing of religious fanaticism in America. And Americans are really fanatical -- we're founded on that stuff!"
Grimm eventually secured a full scholarship to Yale for art, but instead of reacting to her wild upbringing by going prep, she dropped out in search of adventure -- in Guatemala, Thailand and Alaska, for starters -- before returning to incorporate music into her work at Yale.
"I just started traveling because I wanted to see other places and other worlds, and make my own choices about how I want to live, and not just go along with the current of mainstream culture." And she's still quite prone to counterculture-y sentiments like "trying to get to the source and trying to find something transcendent," and "it doesn't matter how much your parents love you -- if they choose your path for you, it's a trap."
That independence has guided her musical path, which has included stints in The Dirty Projectors and the noise scene in Providence, R.I., and more recently, her own solo music. Her first two records, Harpoon and The Last Tree, were self-recorded affairs released on the Secret Eye label (run by recent transplants to Pittsburgh Jeffrey Alexander and Miriam Goldberg).
"The way I was recording was, I was all alone in my attic -- I didn't have an audience except for myself," she says. "I've always been very intense about being a woman in the world of music -- I don't want any man to do anything for me. I have to prove that I can do it all by myself."
But after her second full-artistic-control record for Secret Eye, she started to think that "if I had a producer, and I'm actually singing to somebody, performing the songs, then they'll be more powerful and more real." So she got in touch with a man whose music she'd considered "the definition of cool" when she was a teen in Georgia, and the first person she'd sent her solo music to, a few years before: Michael Gira.
Gira, who came to prominence in the seminal underground band Swans, now performs under his own name, as well as Angels of Light, and runs the artist-centered small label Young God Records, home to Devendra Banhart, Akron/Family and other unique acts. Gira, known for taking a collaborative approach to artists on the roster, co-produced Parplar with Grimm, recording in what she describes as a "haunted mansion in upstate New York," where they stayed for a few wintry weeks, "communed with ghosts and invited all of our friends to come up and play on the record."
The house proves a palpable force on Parplar, with its spectral acoustics showcasing Grimm's various voices and stark finger-picked guitar and banjo. When she sings the mournful opening song, "They Were Wrong," it sounds like she's wailing for a lost friend in your living room. The album's wide sonic range also features updated spaghetti-Western sounds ("Ride That Cyclone"), bright, bloopy synths and mariachi horns ("Parplar"), and very short bursts of song experiments, with titles like "Anger In Your Liver."
"Be My Host," with its pastoral finger-style guitar and dense vocal harmonies, pairs a sort of CSN brightness with the religious imagery of Grimm's youth.
Little mother Mary, riding on your unicorn
Gettin' kinda hairy, wishing that you'd never been born
Oh mama, I'm a bad spirit, be my host
I'm your holy ghost
When Grimm visits Garfield Artworks this Fri., Feb. 6 (a show organized by CP contributor Manny Theiner), she'll bring with her a band that includes autoharp, violin and a Chinese zither. It's her first real group, she notes, but not an entirely serious one. "Our secret code-word whenever things get too serious is 'sandbox.' We're kids in the sandbox, having a good time. We're playing, we're playing -- they don't call it playing for nothing."
Larkin Grimm with Mike Tamburo. 10 p.m. Fri., Feb. 6. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $6. All ages. 412-361-2262 or www.garfieldartworks.com
- Jim Gavenus
- Haunted house: Larkin Grimm recording Parplar.