Goodbye, Cynthia Dall

I only met Cynthia Dall a few years ago, and to be honest, I really didn’t know her that well.

Yet news of her death not only shocked me, it left me feeling indescribably bereft. In a way, I felt as though I’d known the 41-year-old local artist forever. In a way, I had.

Dall died April 5 in her home; the cause of death, according to her family, is still unknown.

I’d first heard of Dall, born in Roseville and raised in Sacramento, in the mid-’90s when she worked with her then-boyfriend Bill Callahan. Callahan played lo-fi moody pop under the name Smog, and Dall appeared on some of his singles and albums, including The Doctor Came at Dawn, the 1996 soundtrack to my life.

That same year, Dall released a solo album on the Chicago-based indie label Drag City Records. The untitled disc didn’t feature Dall’s name anywhere on the packaging—something I would have found pretentious if the resulting album wasn’t so captivating. Songs such as “Christmas (California)” and “Grey and Castles” were at once mysterious and brooding, arty yet accessible.

It’d be several years before Dall released another album—2002’s Sound Restores Young Men—and eventually, I sort of forgot about her, memories of her music tucked away into my subconscious.

Until three years ago when a friendly woman struck up a conversation with me at a Friday Night Concerts in the Park show.

The band Dog Party was playing and, impressed, the woman turned around to ask me—anyone, within earshot really—the name of the band. She had chestnut hair pulled into a girlish ponytail and brown eyes that sparkled with excitement and seemingly relentless enthusiasm. She wanted the band to play a political fundraiser—what could I tell her about them? How could she get in touch with their manager?

We ended up talking for about an hour and eventually, upon exchanging introductions, I tried to hide the slight sense of awestruck foolishness that I felt upon meeting someone who’d contributed, not insignificantly, to the musical backdrop of my 20s.

Not that it mattered to her—Dall was still making music but, these days, it seemed, she was more interested in grassroots organizing. She had come out to Cesar Chavez Plaza, in fact, to register voters—an impressive task considering she lived in Curtis Park and epilepsy prevented her from driving. Indeed, she’d walked miles in the blazing heat, and as the sun finally started its dip behind the trees, she waved off offers for a ride and started on her journey back home.

In time, Cynthia and I became friends of sorts—dinner and beer, email exchanges, texts, Google chats and Facebook posts. At first, I wanted to profile Dall for this paper and although she initially agreed, whenever I broached the subject in future conversations, she’d artfully change the subject.

That was fine. Eventually, I realized, I’d rather be Cynthia’s friend than a neutral observer in her life. Sometimes we discussed politics. Periodically, she talked about a boyfriend whom she missed. Occasionally, she offered details about the epilepsy often left her tired and prone to sudden seizures.

Always, she spoke with an enviable passion and vitality. She was moody and funny, angry and sweet, driven but able to stop and admire the beauty that surrounded her.

Over the last year, our exchanges became less frequent. I was busy, she had stuff going on. Life happens. Recently, however, we briefly chatted online and agreed we needed to get together again. Sometime. Soon.

I didn’t know Cynthia Dall very well, but her death leaves me sorrowful and yet also glad I had the chance to spin, however briefly, through her orbit.

Goodbye, Cynthia—you will be missed.