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Five questions with Faun Fables' Dawn McCarthy

February 27, 2009 |  5:51 pm

As the lead coyote-woman of Faun Fables, Dawn McCarthy is possessed with a voice that's part goddess, part animal, rooted in the deepest parts of the forest where hypnotizing rituals occur by moonlight. She's sometimes gone by the name "Dawn the Faun" but the gentleness of that creature belies her vocal force.

Faun Fables' breakthrough record, "Family Album," landed with surefooted timing in 2004, unwittingly capitalizing on the earthy New Weird America scene that was cresting with seminal releases from Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver.

For the bulk of Faun's four albums and her latest EP, "The Table Forgotten," which explores the idea of "women's work," McCarthy has collaborated with Nils Frykdahl, her romantic partner and band member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Formerly based in Oakland, the couple recently moved 90 miles north of the Bay Area, in order to raise their newborn daughter, Edda, in a more natural environment.

McCarthy's interests show up in every aspect of Faun Fables, from the hand-drawn album art to the theatrically charged performances, which L.A. will witness firsthand when she performs with Frykdahl on Saturday at Spaceland. She studied illustration at New York's School of Visual Arts, and got an eclectic education with various New York theater troupes as well as Polish theater director Wlodziemierz Staniewski and Action Theater artist Cassie Terman.

Pop & Hiss talked with McCarthy while she held Edda in her RV in Arizona, where she just finished attending Winter Count, a naturalist workshop where she learned how to weave a basket from sweetgrass. "I've spent a good deal of my time pursuing the countryside, taking hikes, visiting botanical gardens wherever I go," McCarthy said. "I've always been a nature geek."

McCarthy on motherhood, working with Will Oldham and singing beyond herself after the jump.

You’ve said that being a singer for you means being a storyteller, a shape shifter. Can you explain more about that?

It’s all about where the singing is coming from. When I get a song, sometimes it feels like it’s not just me. Maybe I seek that out a bit in the writing and try to explore things beyond me. Maybe it’s also a matter of being haunted by a transience and an existentialism of life, seeing that I’m only a piece of it. Singing, for me, is a matter of feeling these different voices and different places. I don’t know if I believe in actual past lives, but you could say it’s almost that kind of sensation. I feel a story come to me and I let myself transform with it. I’m really searching for something that’s beyond my own particular identity, and maybe it goes into a musicality that I would say all of nature possesses. There are all kinds of sounds, a larger orchestration than what you can hear within yourself, within one person.

Is there a particular album when you felt like you were really in that mode of connecting with different people and places?

“Family Album,” listening to it now, I don’t quite recognize all of who I hear as me. It goes to some different places. My eyebrows raise and I think, "Well, that’s interesting!" I remember that time as a lean and hungry time, just being really driven, really hungry to be singing. I turned my life inside out. It was an all-consuming kind of force.

How has having a baby changed the way you approach your art or your career?

I feel like I’ll have some new voices and inspirations to draw upon for sure. In another way, in terms of worldly ambition, it’s not as important to keep up the pace I had before. I’m excited about that because it’s easy to go too fast. She’s definitely made me have to slow down a bit -- whenever I don’t fight it, it’s pretty nice, but when I try to fight it, then I get frustrated. Before I had a child, I was very protective of myself, my lifestyle and what I wanted to do. I would think, I’m going to make that child fit into my life. Now that there’s an actual child here, I’m more concerned with how it’s going to affect her and what will work for her. I’m thinking more about her than myself.

Can you take me through the process of building the song, “A Table Forgotten”?

I knew I wanted to write a song about the modern dilemma of people not eating together, not eating at home, usually because they’re too busy. I had the line, "No one sits down," as a chant for awhile, just a mundane line that was running through my head. And then I went to do a residency at Idylwild, this was not quite two years ago, and I led a performance workshop for high school kids. I wrote down “By the light of this kitchen table…” and asked everyone to write something after that. I told them not to think about it too much. They wrote some very haunting things, in these very simple ways that only young people can say. One of the lines was, “I see me not eating much in a place forgotten and moved around,” and that one in particular really inspired me. So part of it was inspired by writing assignments with them. I also wanted it to have some kind of soulful form, something that could be enjoyed, something that could have a nice pulse to it. I wanted to do something bluesy but with chords that moved around more.

You worked with Bonnie "Prince" Billy on “The Letting Go.” How did you adjust your singing voice, if at all, to fit his songs?

In Will’s singing, there’s this subtlety, a delicateness and an intricacy. I didn’t want to stomp all over it, so I found myself having to really sing more delicate and subtle as well. [His voice] makes me think of glass, this kind of beautiful glass that’s being blown -- you don’t want to shatter the glass. That was probably the main challenge of it, to try to not step on that… when I listen back to that record, it’s an all-around good memory. There’s an experience that only the musicians know of, before it’s put out into the world. If you get into reading the press, and knowing how people are receiving it, it can be so detrimental... The band had a whole experience making that record, eating together, living together a bit. All the press people and listeners and all these people on the Internet, having an opinion, they just don’t know at all what this first experience was. It was a neat thing. Looking back on it brings back the very personal and sacred experience of making something.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo courtesy of Drag City

Faun Fables at Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd. 8:30 p.m. Saturday. $10.