Violinist and musical polymath Dina Maccabee balances a world of projects
Published: August 10, 2010
“I did a lot of things backward,” Dina Maccabee laughs while talking about her evolution from classically trained violist, violinist, and vocalist into the consistently working musician, improvisor, and songwriter she is today, with a debut album coming out this fall and a tour hitting Baltimore this week. Speaking by phone from her San Francisco home a day before she heads out on a week-long jaunt with her backing quartet, Maccabee—a Bay Area native and 2002 history/music graduate of the University of Michigan—is instantly friendly, casually witty, and unabashedly sincere. She’s already talked about how she jumped into improv at Ann Arbor before she felt like she knew that much about its theory or had much of a jazz background. She’s already mentioned that she didn’t start writing songs for herself to sing until about six or eight years ago, during a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. And even after she started writing songs, she confesses, she’s only recently started fully integrating her own instrument into her work.
“That’s another thing I think I sort have done backward a little bit, which is I don’t tend to write on violin,” she says. “You know, if you picture someone who plays guitar, they might sit down with a guitar and strum a couple of chords and then have a melody to go with. I go really from the words and melody. And then I think, Oh yeah. I play violin. I should probably use that. But I haven’t quite gotten there yet. It’s a little bit reverse engineering to get those string parts in.”
Creative results, however, don’t really care how you got there as long as they work. And during the nine-track, just over 37 minutes that fill Maccabee’s Who Do You Suppose You Are? (Antephonic, due in October), Maccabee’s creative process has hatched a beguiling set of songs that flit through a variety of charming genres without settling in any one camp. Backed by composer/improvisor/guitarist Tobin Summerfield, a longtime friend and musical collaborator based in Chicago, and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Erik Kuhn, Who caresses the ears with an ethereal dusting of indie-pop.
“In Your Galaxy” begins in a gentle hum of low, slowly strummed strings before blooming into a lithe melody draping Maccabee’s voice into an arpeggio guitar line and gentle percussive push. “Far Away” takes a seesawing violin line as its rhythmic template. The country-folkish “Like Dew in the Sun” sways along at a late-afternoon-front-porch pace. And “Why Did You Have to Go and Do That?” puts a treble-kicking guitar line and punchy beat behind Maccabee’s sing-speak deadpans—“why did you have to go and do that/ why did you walk into the room looking so damn fine?/ why did you have to go and say that?/ you were talking like a rich bitch lawyer with a face-lift”—that pitches an almost textbook ’90s indie change-up gem.
Throughout, Maccabee’s voice, which can climb into the upper registers but which she delivers in an almost hesitant hush, establishes and maintains a sort of waking-life limbo, equal parts Hope Sandoval/Kendra Smith dreamy and Lori Carson/Frida Hyvönen not of this planet. The overall impression is consistently appealing but completely outside genre niches. Like Theresa Andersson, another ridiculously talented singing violinist, Maccabee has carved out her own idiosyncratic pocket from her own omnivorous music experiences. In Andersson’s case that’s informed by New Orleans’ piquant musical gumbo; in Maccabee’s case that’s informed by, well, the rest.
Like many working musicians these days, Maccabee does a little bit of everything: film and theater scores, hired string (she’s played in Carla Bozulich and Vienna Teng’s touring bands), improvisor, teacher, and nearly 10 ongoing band projects, from the café folk duo Ramon and Jessica to what she calls a “Brazilian psychedelic tropicalia cover band” to the frequently stunning Real Vocal String Quartet, led by San Francisco-based Peabody alumnus Irene Sazer, that takes an all-female vocal/strings take on just about any musical idiom on the planet. Maccabee can hang with abstract improv (see her duets with Atsuko Hatano on YouTube) or contemporary composition (in December, she hopes to travel to the country Georgia with composer/clarinetist Beth Custer, who has scored the 1929 silent surrealist Soviet movie My Grandmother by director Kote Mikaberidze), and almost anywhere in between.
And sometimes these sounds and ideas resurface in her own work. “I think some part of my musical brain is kind of this blender or coin sorter or something,” she says. “So, well, with some new stuff that I’m working on, I have this melody, and then I kind of want to be, OK, what other parts go with this? And I started hearing a bass line. And then after I heard it, I thought, Oh, that bass line I totally ripped off from Tom Zé.
“And I don’t always identify them,” she continues. “I rarely sit down and say, ‘Oh, this is in tribute to so and so.’ And usually I leave it there because it’s fun, and it’s like a little message from the subconscious of what music has really seeped into a deeper level. And you never know who it’s going to be. It could be some Madonna cover that I arranged for my café band or it could Bartok.”
Being such a busy musician, however, isn’t as constantly intellectually and creatively stimulating as it might sound. “The sad thing is, what that mostly amounts to is spending a lot of hours on e-mail trying to sort everything together,” she says. “It’s a lot of administrative stuff. But keep in mind, a lot of things that I do are maybe three or four gigs a year or something. It’s an ongoing project that isn’t actively gigging but when something comes up we’ll do it, so then we’ll have a rehearsal and then a show and that’s that. So, honestly, it’s kind of antithetical to the classic band aesthetic of constantly playing and constantly honing things down. That’s kind of a dream, that’s kind of opposite of how I operate and it sounds really great.
“As somebody who does it for a living, it’s pretty tough, you gotta take paid stuff that comes along,” she continues. “But I’m also really interested in all the stuff that I’m doing, and I think it keeps me open to new musical ideas.”
Dina Maccabee plays the Copycat Annex Aug. 13.
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