On Nina Simone and noir: A chat with The Duchess and The Fox

This is a story of the chance encounter behind the seductively stormy ballads of The Duchess and The Fox.

On a balmy summer night, Andrea Diaz (of Superhuman Happiness) wends her way home from rehearsal and stops by Manhattan Inn. Joe McGinty, former keyboardist for Psychedelic Furs and session musician for the Ramones and Ryan Adams (among others), is hosting live piano karaoke.

Andrea requests a Nina Simone song. Joe plays; Andrea sings. Then she slips out without a word, leaving only a scrap of paper with her contact information.

That exchange was the genesis of The Duchess and The Fox. From the midsummer meeting came a collection of modern noir ballads, with inspirations ranging from Burt Bacharach and Lee Hazlewood to the aforementioned Nina Simone and Scott Walker.

Last night, The Duchess and The Fox hosted a record release party in the most fitting of spaces — the dim, speakeasy-invoking Red Room in downtown Manhattan.

In one corner sits a copper bathtub; in another, a bookcase lined with Soviet-era ephemera. A tall mirror is framed by large brass sconces from an old Detroit theater. Booths line the narrow room, leading up to a stage set with an upright piano and a Shure 55 (switched out after soundcheck for a 58).

DF01After opening sets by Julia Joseph and Grey McMurray, Joe and Andrea took the stage along with Clara Kennedy (cello) and Mike McGinnis (woodwinds). The room was so packed that latecomers stood with winter coats on, having no room to remove their jackets.

The foursome played debut EP Every Night straight through (Every Night / Half Face Man / St. Vitus / Blue River / Vice and Virtue). The songs radiated a sensual warmth as we were swept along in stories of two-faced lovers and half-remembered evenings.

The dark intrigue in the give-and-take between Andrea’s vocals and Joe’s keys is enhanced with moody woodwinds and modernized with touches of electronics. The result is a spellbinding set of songs suspended in time, somewhere between a bygone Casablanca and a present-day East Village.

The evening’s set also included a rendition of “Secreto de Amor” (which Andrea introduced as an homage to her native Mexico), and concluded where the collaboration began — with Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You.”

Before the release show, Joe and Andrea answered a few questions about the origin of The Duchess and The Fox, favorite noir films, and their art gallery and live music haunts in the city.

DF05Let’s start at the beginning. Joe, I know you host Live Piano Karaoke at the Manhattan Inn. What was it about Andrea’s voice/presence/etc. that caught your ear? And Andrea, what brought you to the Inn that fabled summer night? What planted the seed for this collaboration?

JM: As you can imagine, when I host Live Piano Karaoke (BTW not at Manhattan Inn anymore, at my own piano bar, Sid Gold’s Request Room), I hear a LOT of singers. Andrea asked for Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You.” I tend to play it more like the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins version. Somehow, we met in the middle. Her voice was very distinctive and there was an air of mystery about her. No words were spoken, just a slip of paper with her contact info. I was certainly intrigued! Soon after, I asked her to sing at Loser’s Lounge [the ongoing music tribute project]. We did a very stripped down, heartbreaking version of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” with just vocal and piano. The audience was spellbound. It was suggested that we record our version, which we did. But I felt it would be more interesting to start writing together.

AD: That night I had just finished a rehearsal, and on the way back to my house, I decided to pop into the Manhattan Inn with my bandmate and his brother. It was the first time I had ever set foot in there, so I really feel like my collaboration with Joe was fated in some strange way. Nina Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” was the only song I knew on his list and again, coincidentally, years later, Joe’s wife produced the movie What Happened Miss Simone, and we attended its premiere at Sundance. So there was definitely some magic in our encounter.

How did you arrive at the name “The Duchess and The Fox”?

JM: I have a faint memory of a movie with that name. I suggested it and Andrea went along with it!

AD: When Joe suggested it, I thought it sounded mysterious and glamorous, and I thought it suited our sound.

DF08I’d love to hear a bit more about the songwriting process — do you trade lyrics and melodies back and forth, or did you develop these songs together in studio?

JM: I give Andrea piano pieces that I think would click for her. Sometimes there’s a suggestion of melody and sometimes Andrea comes up with the melody. I leave the lyrics to her! A few pieces grew out of improvs from when we were doing our residency at the Manhattan Inn.

AD: Yeah, our process is very natural. I feel very lucky to get to write words for the beautiful piano parts Joe creates.

Given the noir feel of the songs, I would be remiss if I did not ask — do you have favorite filmmakers, favorite films of that genre?

JM: Too many to list! Double Indemnity, D.O.A., Touch Of Evil, Shoot The Piano Player, The Third Man.

AD: I love Godard’s films and David Lynch . . . not sure if he counts exactly, but his films definitely have an unsettling, noir feeling to them.

DF06What artists/albums are you listening to these days?

JM: Listening to a lot of David Bowie (preparing for Loser’s Lounge). Blackstar is amazing and ranks up there with his best work.

AD: Blackstar is incredible. It’s funny too because for the last three days, every time I enter a bar, songs from Blackstar are playing and I feel like he’s haunting me (in the best way). I have also been listening a lot to Kendrick Lamar and some of my friend’s bands.

Andrea, I read that you moved from California to NYC to pursue painting. Was there a particular show or encounter that spurred your immersion in the music scene here (I know that apart from this project with Joe, you perform with Superhuman Happiness and have your solo project, Dia Luna)?

AD: I had actually been performing since I was younger. While I was in high school, I fell in love with a New York based band called Elysian Fields. I thought they were really unique, and they were one of the first bands I saw perform in New York City. I saw them at Tonic, when it was still open, and it was so riveting to see the lead singer, Jennifer Charles, step onstage in front of that big, red velvet curtain. I’ve seen a lot of transcendent shows here, and eventually I decided that the immediacy and the ethereal nature of performance suited my particular goals more than becoming a fine artist. I still paint for myself though, and definitely use my aesthetic skills in my musical projects.

DF07And finally (I know you’re busy preparing for tonight’s show) — do you have favorite art galleries in the city? What about favorite venues for live music?

JM: I sadly don’t spend a lot of time in galleries, but I like the Momenta gallery. They have an amazing raffle every year where you enter a lottery and can end up with something great by an up and coming artist. For live music, of course I have to plug Sid Gold’s Request Room. Though we have live piano karaoke every night at 9, we have some very cool shows earlier in the evening. And Joe’s Pub.

AD: Yes! Sid Gold’s is amazing! There’s nothing better than singing a tune with a whole raucous room of people singing back ups for you! Personally, I love going to Bizarre Bar in Bushwick to see live music (and performances in general) — they really live up to their name! I’ve seen some wild  performances there! The Manhattan Inn has really great mix of performances too. For bigger venues, Brooklyn Bowl is always a great time. As far as galleries go, some of my favorites are On Stellar Rays in the Lower East Side, Matthew Marks Gallery and Luhring Augustine in Chelsea, and Team Gallery in Soho.

***

Pick up a copy of the album on Bandcamp or Amazon. And follow The Duchess and The Fox on Facebook and their website to stay up to date on upcoming shows.

Thank you again to Andrea & Joe for taking the time to answer these questions — I really appreciate it! x VW

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Author: District Consonance

A gal with a camera and a penchant for deconstructing lyrics. Know of a band I should be listening to? Need press or concert shots? Let's chat: district.consonance [at] gmail [dot] com.

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