Noe Venable, a wildly original singer-songwriter from the Bay Area, does not make “pussy music”
Live! It’s easy to pigeonhole Noe Venable as a purveyor of “nu-folk” music. The diminutive singer-songwriter, a 25-year-old San Francisco native named after that city’s Noe Valley neighborhood who now lives across the Bay in Richmond, sings in the kind of overcast-afternoon soprano that should be quite familiar to anyone who’s ever waited in line at Starbuck’s for a latte.
Any similarity stops there, however, because Venable—unlike the “I gave my love a cherry”-singing character in Animal House who gets el-kabong’d by John Belushi as Bluto—kicks ass.
“The thing that’s ‘folkish,’ I guess, about me,” she admits, “is just that I picked up an acoustic guitar, ’cause that was what I had, and started playing. But I never came so much as feeling myself as part of a tradition.”
In past interviews, Venable has gone so far as to refer to folk as “pussy music,” although she disavows any unintentional vitriol today. “At the time that I said that,” she confesses, “I was probably coming from a place of having been going to just the whole open-mike scene—everything is so careful and so staid.
“And it’s always bad when you go into a scene,” she adds, laughing, “and it makes you just want to throw things.”
Of course, to cut your teeth in that milieu, you can’t get around haunting those open mikes. It isn’t a path Venable intentionally chose; she’d set out to become a playwright, went to college to do just that, and reached a creative dead end after a conflict with a teacher prompted her to turn inward. “I realized I wasn’t mature enough to write plays,” she admits.
Then, while convalescing from a bout of mononucleosis at age 19 at her dad’s house, she picked up his guitar. Out of extreme boredom, she started fingering it—and out came a torrent of songs. “My life just totally changed the first day that I started fiddling around with the guitar,” Venable says. “It was like, ‘Whoa—this is crazy shit!’ ”
She started unleashing these discoveries at open mikes, which led to oohs and ahhs and a nascent career as, well, a singer-songwriter. The fruit of which is collected on four albums—You Talkin’ to Me? (1996, out of print), No Curses Here (Intuition, 1998, produced by jazz record executive Lee Townsend), and the live Down Easy (on her own Petridish label, 2000), and Boots. In addition, two of Venable’s originals and her cover of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” are featured in the new Finn Taylor film Cherish, which Fine Line Features will release in June. And Venable spent late winter and early spring opening for Ani DiFranco, the model for guitar-slinging DIY women, on tour, which raised her profile measurably.
Venable’s most recent album, Boots, was released this year on Petridish. It’s a fully realized ensemble piece, masterfully produced by bassist/keyboard player Todd Sickafoose. On the disc, Venable is accompanied by Sickafoose and violinist Alan Lin, both of whom will back her at her Harlow’s show, along with several other Bay Area musicians.
On Boots Venable is, musically speaking, all over the map, from jazzy coffeehouse chanteuse (“Boots”) to intense Attractions-era Elvis Costello (“My Insomnia”). In fact, Venable is similar to Costello, both in prolific nature—she’s penned over 500 songs—and in her intensity and her poet’s eye for a sharply turned phrase: “At times I think of goddesses pissing love on everyone,” she sings on “Julia.” “Goddess piss is sunny and full of tears like Julia.”
“I was probably drawn to playwriting for similar reasons that I was drawn to songwriting,” Venable explains. “I think I started out writing songs as just pure catharsis. That’s pretty common; when you start out, you’re just working out your own demons. And then, once you work that stuff out, either you just stop or it changes for you.”
In that case, you become a full-fledged artist. From the evidence, Noe Venable clearly has made that transition.