Dayna Kurtz: Dig Yourself

Dayna Kurtz. Photo by Merri Cyr.

Dayna Kurtz. Photo by Merri Cyr.

“I was supposed to move here.”

Singer Dayna Kurtz first visited New Orleans 20 years ago, when she stayed in a Bed and Breakfast on Elysian Fields for a few days in the middle of a tour. “I didn’t know any better and spent all my time in the French Quarter,” she says. She was so in love with the city that she made plans to move to New Orleans from New Jersey, but a bad car accident delayed them, and while she recovered she met her future husband, and he’s rooted to New York. That ended talk of relocating, but not her affection for the city. “Moving to New Orleans is the thing I’ve felt like I was supposed to do from the first minute I was here.”

Kurtz will play a series of shows in New Orleans during the Jazz Fest week, including a performance Thursday at 3:35 p.m. on the Lagniappe Stage at the festival. She’s touring in support of not one but two album—American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1.

“It mostly happened because I’m an idiot,” she says, laughing.

“I started Secret Canon accidentally while I was making American Standard.” The latter is a collection of largely original material while the former is an album of obscure R&B and jazz covers. “I was recording everything I hadn’t recorded yet, and I’m always finding obscure tunes that I sock away to record or play live. We were in a session and I’d just blown out my voice in a cool way—I’d done a screamer, “Lou Lou Knows”—and we had a couple of hours left. When your voice is in a really good combination of worn out and warmed up, it’s a really great time to sing blues and jazz. It’s really supple but it’s got a lot of texture. So I pulled out ‘Do I Love You,’ talked the band through the changes and we did it in a second. It was so easy and so great that they said, ‘Do you have any more of these?’ I made another session just for that and we did nine in one day.”

The Secret Canon sessions were live, cutting everything in two takes or less—“the way it should be,” Kurtz says. “It was beautiful; it was effortless.” She only thought about re-cutting the vocals on one song. “‘Take Me in Your Arms’ was 2:30 in the morning and I’d had a lot of bourbon. I can hear it. I’m a little flat, but it’s such a sad song and I sound really beat down. It works.”

The two albums came out at the same time as an economic decision—Kurtz would only need a publicist once—but she has since realized that the added manufacturing and mailing costs likely offset any savings. “On release day in New York, I did two shows in two different clubs with two different bands,” she says, laughing. “I’m feeling like an idiot now. I’m exhausted.” She came to New Orleans a week and a half before Jazz Fest officially to practice with the band, but much of that time has been spent recharging her batteries and the rest has been spent putting together a band that includes Simon Lott, David Torkanowsky, Matt Perrine and Robert Mache. She performed with Lott the last time she was in New Orleans, and she recorded “Not the Only Fool in Town” on Secret Canon Vol. 1 with Torkanowsky, George Porter, Jr. and Terrence Houston.

“I wanted it to sound like a New Orleans tune,” she says. “I could get a New York band to fake that, or I could go to New Orleans and have that.”

American Standard and Secret Canon Vol. 1 represent a change for Kurtz, who started her career as a confessional singer/songwriter. She’d played covers for tourists in bars on the Jersey Shore (“You get bored so you learn a lot of material. It teaches you a lot about writing if you want it to.”), and she’d danced with the music industry on the strength of her voice (They wanted to make her over as Anita Baker), but at her core, she was a mellow girl, she says.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is a new thing for me,” Kurtz says. “I started off as a jazz fan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder. The older I get, the more elemental, I—I listen to Motörhead now. I hated that shit in high school; I’d listen to Bowie, Queen, theatrical rock ‘n’ roll. Now it’s about Eddie Bo and Little Richard. Early rock ‘n’ roll makes me really happy. I didn’t go through the phase of playing in a rock band; I was a solo singer from right out of the gates.”

She was tiring of the singer/songwriter’s confessional mode, though. “Once you leave your 20s, you don’t want to talk about yourself that much anymore,” she says. “I don’t have as much to say. I decided to start writing more like a writer and less like a songwriter.”

Her approach to music started changing as well, largely due to the Ponderosa Stomp. “My head got blown off,” Kurtz says. It opened up a new world to her, one populated with little labels and artists who made dynamic music that for one reason or another flew under the popular music radar. She started collecting records, connecting online with collectors, and connecting to people who were already friends in a whole new way. “Paul Cebar is a batshit collector. He turned me on to some shit for the record.” She’s become a cratedigger, as both of her new albums demonstrate. Secret Canon Vol. 1 is all covers, but American Standard includes a slow, lonely version of the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular” and Fonda Wallace’s revved-up rockabilly track from 1957, “Lou Lou Knows.”

“There are a lot of those little labels that had house writers that were great writers that never made it. If I can find a lost writer, or even a writer who wasn’t that great but wrote one perfect song, I love that.”

Since the music business has rarely thrown its arms open wide for artists with eclectic tastes, Kurtz has her own label—Kismet Records—which means she has to find her own financing for her projects. Like so many artists, she has turned to her audience for funding.

“One of my favorite outcomes of how heinous the music business has become is fan fundraising,” she says. She’s used Kickstarter but found its all-or-nothing model too nerve-wracking. Instead, she has dedicated part of her website to fundraising. “At a time when people are less connected than ever to more shit, people feel connected to the people who make the music in a way that they hadn’t before.” She gets fans writing and telling her what her music has meant to them and the occasions when it’s been played–at weddings, birthdays, even births.

“It’s a thing that you think would make your head get big, but it’s actually really humbling. You feel like when you’re a musician, it’s a very selfish thing to do. You get applauded every day at work. Then you have people tell you that you’re part of these important moments in their lives and I feel like I’m of use, like I serve a purpose in the community. It made me feel more responsible.”

Her goals are similarly sensible. She wants to make people dance (“I think it’s the height of public service as a musician if you make people dance. The first time I saw people dance to my music I wanted to cry, I felt so good”) and she wants to play with great musicians. “One person in the band elevates everything,” Kurtz says. She recalls playing a gig in New York with the great drummer Bernard Purdie. “It felt like I was flying. I didn’t have to think about anything at all. It was utterly effortless.” Playing on a session with George Porter, Jr.? “George made it like that. That’s the dream. It’s not becoming a millionaire or having a hit record. It’s making enough so that I can play with great musicians whenever I want.”


Dayna Kurtz plays Jazz Fest on Friday, May 4 at 3:35 p.m. on the Lagniappe Stage. She will also play the Hi-Ho Lounge Monday, April 30, and Carrollton Station with Shannon McNally Tuesday, May 1.