A Spirit in the Ethereal World

By John Koenig

Nan Vernon once took a leap of faith to leave her home in Los Angeles and join the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart in his band The Spiritual Cowboys in England. Five years later, she returned home to share her own talents on her own marvelous CD Manta Ray, a collection of songs brimming with creative music and imagery. Manta Ray seduces with melancholy, rocks with conviction and charms with the rhythm of an old fashioned waltz. Mix a 1920's chanteuse with a 1950's Beat Poet, and add '60's psychedelia to the most eclectic contemporary alternative music, and you have some idea of Nan's unique talent.

Raised in Toronto, Canada to the age of eight, young Nancy Vernon was transplanted to Los Angeles where her father worked as an actor. Having decided on a singing career at the age of five after hearing the Petula Clark classic "Downtown," Nan eventually left school and joined a coffee-house band called Babushka, a band that started out with a keyboard and a drum machine and eventually included two drummers, three bass players, and four guitarists; all on stage at once! After taking six months off from Babushka to tour with former Police guitarist Andy Summers, lightning struck upon her return to L.A. when she was asked to audition for The Spiritual Cowboys. In her time off from the Cowboys, Nan was encouraged to develop her own songwriting talents in Dave Stewart's recording studio, where the songs that became the album Manta Ray took shape.

Live and on record, Nan is an effortless musical time traveller, whether visiting a 1920's German cabaret in the Brechtian "Johnny's Birthday" a song that never fails to charm and seduce audiences; whether rocking in the salty whiskey-bars of the "Port of Amsterdam" or creating an aural and lyrical world right out of Blade Runner in the atmospheric "Big Picture" and finally travelling farther into the future to a Kurt Vonnegut inspired Paris in the land of "Manta Ray." Her exquisite live reworkings of songs from the '60's, like John Lennon's "Nowhere Man" and Jim Morrison's "Crystal Ship" give insight into her appreciation for rock music's classic poet/lyricists.

The Muse Interview
With Nan Vernon

MUSE: How did your relationship with Dave Stewart begin?

Nan Vernon: Well, the story we used to tell was that I found Dave and Bob Dylan drunk and lost at a train station in Tijuana and that I gave them a ride home, but that wasn't how I met him. It was a call out of the blue from a friend of a friend who suggested that I might be someone Dave would like as a member of his band.
Dave is the kind of person who encourages people. He comes from a different place than a lot of the musicians I've known. It's more important to him that his bandmembers get along and have fun and be musical than to be slick and have an attitude. I could never do that, so we got along great.

Muse: Was the opportunity to go to England as magical is it seems, or was it the payoff for your past career moves?

Nan: Oh, no, I've never made career moves! (laughs) I mean, maybe I have, but... Everybody's process is so different. I fell into this. It was a miracle, because I would never have had the confidence to get people to come to shows and get record companies interested on my own. My album evolved from Dave having a studio in London where I could try things out. It progressed in a very natural way, and Dave offered me a deal on his record label. But I couldn't dare start phoning people asking, "Will you give me a record deal?"

Muse: Do you remember your first meeting?

Nan: I met Dave at a little guest house full of studio gear where he was writing a song. Dave said, "You sing the chorus and I'll write the verses," and we had it written and recorded in about twenty minutes. At one point the phone rang; it was Leonard Cohen and he offered a title for the song. It was a crazy, chaotic twenty minutes. When I first went to meet Dave, he and his drummer from the Eurythmics got all dressed up with jewels and glasses, like a bunch of ridiculous kids. It was like that from the start.

Muse: Did you ever meet Leonard Cohen?

Nan: I did. I met him last year. Dave invited me to the concert, because he knows Leonard. When we met backstage, Dave explained that I'm originally from Toronto, and Leonard responded in a most charming manner, "Ahhh, a Canadian girl!"
I sent him a package once when I was recording, because I was hoping he would write a song with me (laughs). That's my fantasy, so I sent him something. You never know, he might say yes. But I don't know if he ever got it.

Muse: Does the song "Manta Ray" have a particular importance to you?

Nan: Yeah, I think it does. Manta Ray is a sort of archetype of an ideal world. Manta Ray is a place... it looks something like Paris although I'm imagining it in sort of a science fiction, Kurt Vonnegut way. It has to do with romance and with the romance of surviving in this apocalyptic world we're in. It's about a band of people uniting together and forging through. In this world, it's the romance that keeps you going. It's a place on this planet where I imagine there are magical, invisible creatures that we don't know about. In Paris, there are these incredible round buildings that look like weird caves, sort of like bat caves; like manta ray caves. And the manta rays go flying into these caves at night. The tops of the buildings there are domes that have round windows. It's bizarre. It made me think, this isn't just Paris, it's a past and future world in one. It's possible to live in two worlds. It's possible and it's important for our psyches that our imaginations flourish. If you go into South American, Eastern European and Mexican cultures, there's such a sense of that mystical world. It allows for more variety and passion in your life if you have it. That's my idea.

Muse: On one or two songs on the album, you show a real flair for that Marlene Dietrich style...

Nan: ...drama (laughs). Yeah.

Muse: But it's still very contemporary sounding.

Nan: Yeah, I love that.

Muse: Before your work with Dave Stewart, did you already have an affinity for a European sound and style of songwriting?

Nan: Yeah, it's always been my area, my world. I really like theatrical music, like Brecht and that era. I love Eastern European music, the music of the Twenties and Thirties, Cole Porter. I love Elvis Presley. I love lyrical storytelling. One day, I'd love to marry it into a theatrical presentation and create an entire stage show.

Muse: What kinds of music do you listen to?

Nan: I love Tom Waits and Billie Holiday. Velvet Underground. Of the newer bands, I like Belly and Bettie Serveert. I guess my favorite songwriters are John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits

Muse: Its funny, a lot of your songs are very sad, but you seem to have fun making music like a child at play. Some artists, myself included, find it difficult to let go and let inspiration take its course.

Nan: I understand. It is that way. But if you were taken out of L.A. and placed somewhere else with different people to work with... That's what happened with me with Dave Stewart, getting transported and making albums in a different environment.
Dave's encouragement helped me realize my goals and who I am, and to follow through and express them. I've struggled with that. I think it took a certain time in my life to move to the next stage and go a step further. Up until then, I was learning and absorbing music and deepening my love and appreciation for it. I think if you love music and play music, no matter what kind of a musician you are, eventually it will come out. Even if you are completely intuitive and don't know anything about music, it becomes part of your emotional expression. It can and it will, even though it's hard to have faith sometimes.

Making music, writing words, can be a very painful experience. At least for me, because I'm having to deal with the unknown. If I assume that I know what I'm doing, I can't express myself, because I feel self-conscious. But if I have an inner discussion with myself, I can encourage the music to come out. It's like dealing with an incredibly insecure child, and it's hard for anyone. But it's so helpful to have the encouragement of someone who has learned to overcome their insecurity, and to see that they're not afraid to fall flat on their face.
You can approach the creative process with the attitude of having fun, and we've got nothing to lose because we've got nothing. You know? It's all doomed anyway, so we might as well just enjoy, and approach it in a more clownlike way.

1995 Muse Magazine