Out of the shadows
Album covers don’t always say much about the music inside. But Danielle French, who moved to Reno from Canada this month, was very deliberate in everything she chose for Shadows, her newly released album. A black-and-white pinhole photograph of French standing before a whirling disc covers the front. It looks like a UFO, but the shot is actually of an amusement park swing ride, taken with a very slow exposure. Smudges lurk around the corner where people were walking by—shadows and ghosts. A negative of the same image is on the back. So there you have it, black and white, positive and negative, spirit world and human one—all elements of the lyrics and music inside.
Just a few days after her arrival in town, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter sits in a bright floral polyester dress and sips iced coffee. “The album deals with the shadow self, or the psyche, and the higher self, that’s your spirit,” she says. “Those things both kept coming out.”
French describes her music as “Tori Amos meets Tom Waits.” Her soft, soothing voice has nothing to do with the latter. But the freak show carnival world so often inhabited by Waits has a strong presence here, as does Waits’ proclivity to throw a microphone on things like the sound of a creaking chair. But French’s music is her own, and with Shadows, her ethereal voice mixes with the grungy, confusing elements of earthly living. The album seems to be about someone lost in an unknown land, where madness lurks around each corner, tugging at her, yet she’s still being led to her own path, where things will begin to make sense. It’s like a story—one in which the characters dance drunken waltzes and play drinking glasses, singing saws, musette accordions and violas.
French actually made a short film to the music of one of the album’s best tracks, “Avalon,” and she hopes to do the same with all the songs. “Avalon” opens with an almost industrial sound, like she’s singing inside a clock that’s ticking with stomps and handclaps. “Time to Kill” is also a lot of fun. With its pumping tuba, accordion and “drunken babbling” (listed as such on the liner notes), it’s like something you’d hear in a Tim Burton film. French bemoans the fact that she can’t boast much to Americans about the addition of guitarist Martin Tielli of the Rheostatics on her album, but she assures us he’s one of the most highly respected musicians in Canada.
While several musicians play on Shadows, French’s live shows are generally just her and her guitar. It will be interesting to hear how these layered songs sound in their simpler form. “I wish I could have a band more often,” says French. “It’s nice to have that energy flow. But there’s something to be said about stripping it down to the bone.”
French grew up in Calgary but has been touring in Reno since 1998. She says people were incredibly welcoming to her here, and Reno became the “home in her heart.” Going mostly on faith and intuition, she decided to move here. Recently, she’s been having dreams about death and birth, closing one part of her life and opening another. “But I feel like I’m doing my purpose,” she says. “I can’t say where I’m supposed to go; that’s up to the universe. But life’s too short not to do what your heart wants to do.”