"I don't really think I'm morbid," Larissa Dalle says as she sips her second Guinness. She's wearing an old Fleetwood Mac tour T-shirt, sitting in a booth at the Delmar Lounge. "I think it goes beyond morbid; it's just human nature. Not everybody's cheery. I've just always been attracted to sad, tragic songs, all my life. As a kid, I listened to a lot of Billie Holiday, and my mom would say, 'Maybe you shouldn't listen to that so much!'" Dalle laughs. "But she has a Finnish background, and then she found out that the Finns love those kinds of songs."
Dalle has just released a new CD of seven such songs (eight, if you count the "Theme Song" reprise), That's What We're Here For, which she recorded with Chris Deckard at Radio Penny Studios. Although her band's musical lineup has shifted somewhat since she started recording last summer, the core remains: Dalle on vocals and rhythm guitar, Stephanie Recht on percussion, Ed Rook on bass. James Weber, of the Julia Sets, contributes some strangely beautiful lead guitar and overdubs to all but two tracks on the CD, but he no longer has time to play with them live. Neither do Chuck Hestand and Kevin Buckley, whose electric-guitar work also pops up on several cuts. These days, Jason Rook (Ed's brother and Dalle's boyfriend) is playing lead guitar and mandolin. The personnel change has led to a new stylistic focus for Dalle. "James was more on the rock side, psychedelic kind of stuff," Dalle explains. "Once I knew he wouldn't be playing with me anymore, I just kind of had to pick a direction. I'd been fighting it for so long, this traditional-country thing. But I just like it, and all the musicians I'm working with now came to the decision that we'd focus on one style."
This means Dalle won't be performing the moody rock dirges "Glitter Girls" and "Geronimo" much anymore, unfortunately. Of "Glitter Girls," a song she wrote for her little sister as a Christmas present, Dalle says, "I'm really proud of it; I just don't think it fits in well with the songs I'm doing now live. But if my sister ever comes to a show, we'll probably play it. She's 20 years younger than me, but I'd never had any siblings. We can be girls together."
Dalle's new emphasis on traditional country music stems from her own childhood memories: "I went back to the stuff I'd been listening to as a kid, and it seemed to fit right in," she explains. "Bobbie Gentry was probably the biggest influence on me when I was little, and I think we're going to do one of her songs. Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells ... it felt really good to get back to my roots. I can play songs in my set now and my mom will hear them and go, 'Oh my God, I remember she listened to that in fifth grade!' And not being embarrassed about influences and stuff -- I think Linda Ronstadt has such an amazing voice. If I could, I'd probably do a whole set of Linda Ronstadt songs, but maybe I'll wait till I'm older and doing some lounge act," Dalle says, laughing self-deprecatingly.
"It's really taken me a long time to find my own voice, to not be afraid of sounding like me," she continues. "Stevie Nicks was a huge vocal influence. Dolly Parton, Billie Holiday -- I loved Billie Holiday, but I knew I could never sound like her. I went to U. City High, and all these girls in choir had these huge gospel voices. I wanted to be that so bad, but I knew deep down that I'd never sound like them. It's taken a long time for me to say that this is what I sound like, for better or for worse."
Judging from her lovely, strange new CD and her too-rare live performances, it's definitely for the better. Dalle has a sweet, raspy vibrato that occasionally hurtles into a surprisingly powerful yodel; a writerly gift for detail; and a way of twisting a love song until it's more than a little disturbing. One of the CD's most moving tracks is a love song to Helen Keller, sung from the point of view of a child who's obsessed with books featuring "cripples" and "crooks": "Mama always said, Don't stare at the sky/Girl, you look there long enough, you're bound to go blind/But at Sunday school one day, we saw a lovely film/Patty Duke and a water pump, and I fell.... Her wild hair, her dead-doll eyes/Her silent world, her crooked smile/I set my sights too high, and I left my mind alone/If I couldn't be a star, why then a-maiming I would go." Another song, the poignant, delicately observed "Far From Lonely," is sung from the perspective of a melancholy doll who dreams of waking up under someone's Christmas tree. Dalle wrote "Far From Lonely" for last year's local-music Christmas compilation Better Than Fruitcake.
"We really only had two weeks to come up with a song, and I didn't want to cover a Christmas song," she says. "I have this book from the '50s called The Lonely Doll -- I really love children's books, especially spooky children's books. It's photographs of this doll and a stuffed bear; they almost look real. The creepy thing about that book is that I was told it was kind of autobiographical, that the author's mom kind of treated her like a doll, kept her locked away and wouldn't let her see any friends. That was kind of a coffee-table book at my house. Anyway, that was the first song where I remember being in the studio during the final mix and thinking, 'Wow, that sounds like a real song!'"
Asked whether she really believes she's here to make people depressed, as her "Theme Song" chorus proclaims, Dalle demurs: "Once, I really felt like that was my role. Not so much now. I think somehow I'm getting beyond that." So should we prepare ourselves for a new, perkier Larissa Dalle? She laughs: "I don't know if it's so much perkier -- maybe just less self-abusive. I think there's still room for sad songs, but not necessarily all about me. The bottom line used to be trying to make the other person feel what I felt. I felt pretty crappy for a long time, and I don't know if it's such a good idea, ethically, to have that as a motivation."
Lately Dalle has been spending a lot of time in the country, on the Rook family farm in Potosi, where beagles abound. "Mostly my big hobby is beagle attention and awareness," she says. "On the Rook estate, there are beagles and pigs -- that's a pig on the CD cover, behind the beagle. I really thought I'd like pigs, but they're kind of stinky, and there are always, like, 500 flies. The country really isn't as romantic as it sounds. But there's always something new -- you never know what you're going to find out there." The same might be said of Dalle's take on country music: not exactly romantic, maybe, but always surprising.