Fans of Jarboe and Swans, mark your calendars. There’s a Record Store Day reissue of Skin’s Blood, Women, Roses (1987) coming as skin blood women roses.
In 1986, the intensely creative and incomparable Jarboe joined Swans, a band that’s often labelled with terms like experimental and no-wave, but is in fact almost impossible to define through words alone. During the Swans years, Jarboe created beautifully disquieting and anthemic music through the project Skin, a collaboration with Swans founder Michael Gira. In more recent years, Jarboe has recorded more than a dozen solo albums, collaborated with various artists, and created striking visual art. For Record Store Day 2022, she’s releasing the first Skin album (Blood, Women, Roses) as skin blood women roses. While it’s a reissue, Jarboe’s plans for the record are making it new again. Long-time fans, and well as those just coming to her work in Swans and Skin, should be lining up for the RSD release. There’s even a new music video for the track Red Rose.
I spoke with Jarboe about the exciting new Skin reissue for this year’s Record Store Day, finding divergent paths for creativity during the pandemic, making collectable music and art from Swans box sets, and the beauty of performing and recording in centuries-old English churches.
So I’ve heard there’s going to be a reissue of Blood, Women, Roses for Record Store Day this year?
Yes, and I’ve incorporated the original project name, Skin, into the title of the album because I’m putting it out on my own and using my artist name. So it’s entitled skin blood women roses [intentionally lowercase]. It’s the original album, and then the various singles that were released in England — they were never available in the US. There was a kind of selective quilt put together called The World of Skin (1988), which was from Michael’s version, but the album as it was originally intended was not released. The World of Skin, that compilation, was a bundle with [Swans’s] Children of God for awhile, but then Children of God was released without it. I asked what was up with it, The World of Skin, because it looked like the material was getting dropped. I was happy to put it out on my own.
Which record label will be releasing it?
I turned to the label Consouling Sounds, who I worked with for my last album Illusory, and they’re wonderful. They’re a record store and family label in Ghent, Belgium. I enjoy their energy. They actually wrote me and asked if I had anything, and I said I’d love it if you did this reissue of Blood, Women, Roses.
I bet record collectors will be thrilled to see it in the Record Store Day lineup! What made you decide to do the RSD release?
Since the thing was recorded in 1986 before Children of God, it made sense to put it out on Record Store Day since it’s a historical thing, as it were [laughs]. It’ll be out on a remastered vinyl edition. I worked with Phil Puleo, who I worked with in Swans. He and I came up with ideas for how to change the artwork, to reflect this particular reissue of it. The cover is made to look a bit aged, a bit tin-type looking, and then we change the lettering of it. We also used a layering of a digital graphic of textured skin. That’s a subliminal thing that’s layered over the artwork, reflecting the name of the reissue. On the back, I decided to make it a lot more illustrative of the theme of the record — a woman’s hands with blood on them and roses. On the vinyl, the songs are exactly as on the original release. The CD has all of the bonus tracks, so it’ll include the dub version of Come Out that became a club hit in London for awhile. Those are completely remastered for today’s digital environment. I also worked with the engineer to make the sound warmer.
This sounds amazing. Are there any plans in the works for future reissues?
We’ll see how this goes! Another label approached me, The Circle Music, and they’re reissuing Sacrificial Cake (1995) on vinyl. They do very luxe packaging. That’ll have lavender vinyl for the song Lavender Girl. Their vision as a label is to continuously reissue back catalogue work. I’m excited because Lavender Girl continues to be the number one song that people love, and the streaming numbers are huge.
Working on the reissue must have brought back memories of originally recording Blood, Women, Roses. What recollections from that time are still prominent in your mind?
I was doing DIY, mail-order cassette and art gallery performances before Swans, so I was stepping into the world of New York City from Atlanta, and then later stepping into the world of big studios with control rooms and vocal booths. I started out doing some vocals on the Swans dollar sign series, like Time is Money (1986) and Holy Money (1986), and that was really wonderful — I enjoyed it so much. When we were over in London, we learned Daniel Miller at Mute was starting his own label under the umbrella of Mute, called Product Inc. It was determined that we were going to do a new kind of recording on that label, and the
whole point of it was ‘the singer and the song’ as opposed to the kind of barrage of sound that Swans was doing.
That was the start of Skin, and it was determined that I was going to be the singer. I already had some songs I’d been working on with keyboard, so to play grand piano and work in The Kinks’s studio, which was called Konk Studios . . . it was incredible. It was like Spinal Tap! [laughs] You’d ascend these steps to a glass room with a grand piano. It couldn’t have been more . . . well, more! The Kinks were also there at the studio one day, and so that was cool. We also worked at Blackwing Studios.
Blackwing is legendary! Depeche Mode, Ride, Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies . . .
Yes, and notable for doing the This Mortal Coil recordings. We did that recording with John Fryer. That was just an incredible studio. You know, it’s in an old church. We went around London doing different recordings. What was interesting about the vocals for One Thousand Years was that they were recorded in the control room holding the mic, testing levels and seeing what was happening technically. That ended up getting used! It was just a casual thing and wasn’t intended as a performance, but everybody liked it, so it became the performance.
We had an apartment near Highgate Cemetery for awhile, and it was neat living there and enjoying what it felt like to be a rock star. But it was also very intense because in those days, I was very passionate and adamant about song structure and what I wanted to achieve on an album . . . there was a lot of fighting, arguing [laughs]. A lot of intense moments.
We were working on the fly with some of the songs since they weren’t written before we arrived in London, so there was a lot of adjusting and tweaking. In the song We’ll Fall Apart, for example, I was insisting there be a structure with something like a refrain, and the song wouldn’t just be this linear thing. That made sense to me, to keep it in a structured songwriting environment. We finally compromised on song structure [laughs]. But there was an argument with one engineer for the We’ll Fall Apart vocals. I was being really passionate and assertive behind the mic, and he deemed that was an ‘ugly’ version and that we needed to use a more placid version. I said no, and I insisted that we use the raw version. I was standing my ground and wasn’t backing down from the vision I had for the way the song should sound. This was something I had to fight for, but that’s how I am. I felt very strongly about the way things should come out.
The cover of The Man I Love [the George and Ira Gershwin song], that was deliberately meant to be these Swans-like heavy chords, morphed into cocktail piano.
I never realised Blood, Skin, Roses was such a ‘London’ album. It’s fascinating to think about how the city space made its way into the record.
One of the things I liked about working in Swans was that we’d go to different cities and record, like San Francisco, Chicago. In New York City, I got to go to all the different studios, so that was valuable and important. The thing is that now, recording has completely changed. Now it’s primarily computer, a lot of artists work at home. They may need to record a drum kit someplace else, but that’s about it. In the days of recording Blood, Women Roses, and in the Swans years, it was all big studios (and of course very expensive). We’d have to raise all this money just to do an album. I think Michael still operates that way, as far as I understand it, whereas I’ve moved onto teaching myself how to do everything on my own. So I don’t really need anybody at all [laughs].
Beyond the reissue, what are you working on now?
I finished A Tulpa (2020), but it’s been very hard to work in the pandemic. It has been extremely difficult to find the normal enthusiasm and motivation. I think I turned to painting because that was more immediate, whereas music is so reflective, so internal, that it can actually be kind of painful.
The thing I found myself doing was just buying enormous amounts of books from Amazon [laughs]. I was trying to lose myself in those words as a kind of portal. I got into verse portals, reading history books like The Swerve, The Bookseller of Florence, and then going back to travel books, like My Journey to Lhasa, and other texts that take you out of where you are and into another place. For my health, I can’t do the Kindle thing. I’ve gotta have the actual, physical book. So now I’ve started collecting physical books again, and I feel more relaxed when I’m holding a physical book than when I’m looking at words on the screen. Buying just one book started this whole trajectory [laughs].
Does reading inspire your songwriting, especially pieces that may have been written first as lyrics with the sonic elements to come later?
It goes both ways for me. Sometimes a song will come out in a flurry. I remember my song Dear 666, which is about being trapped in an abusive, suffocating environment . . . . I remember I woke up, went to the kitchen to make toast or something, and it came to me like BOOM! Like it was writing itself. It was completely spontaneous. The song Honey was also completely spontaneous. But then you go to Illusory, and that started with melodies and actual textures and sounds. The sounds of the melody wrote the words there. So it goes both ways. Sometimes the songs you’re intuitively writing are speaking to you, are giving you language. You have to listen and hear that language.
Coming back to painting during the pandemic, did that grow out of the artwork you were doing on those Swans reissues?
I’m not involved at all in the official Swans reissues. But when Soundtracks For The Blind — which had the voice of my mother on it — came out in the box set [in 2018], I just asked, hey can I have 40 copies of this thing? I didn’t think I should have to buy them from the label, although I’ve done that many times. When I got them, I realised the matte texture would be perfect to paint on. So that’s what gave me the idea to start doing these ‘art editions’ and that took off wildly with Swans fans all over the globe. This was of course pre-pandemic, so there was no issue with shipping all over the world then. I got better and better at it. It started out rather simplistically, in a kind of decorative mode, but they became works of art. It would take weeks to finish one. That consumed much of my life for awhile. After the comp sets were used up, I started buying them up from the label until they completely sold out and there weren’t any left. If I’m reselling Swans reissues, I want to make them special, so that’s why I paint them. I don’t want to be just buying and selling them as they are. I want to add something to them that makes them more collectable.
It seems like a lot of tours postponed during the pandemic have been rescheduled now, and many are happening. Have you been able to reschedule the tour you’d planned for 2020?
Before the pandemic, I got into this pattern of creating something and then going on tour. I’ve always toured Europe because that’s where I feel my audience is. I had that wonderful tour postponed in 2020 to promote Illusory . . . we rehearsed and had a multimedia performance ready to go, so it was heartbreaking. We tried to reschedule for last fall, but that fell through. Now, we’re supposed to do something starting this November in Europe, but the war in Ukraine has broken out . . . . I see other artists are performing, but I like performing in Eastern Europe and I don’t know what it’s going to be like to perform in Poland, Slovenia, and many other places where I enjoy being. Things have been in such turmoil in so many ways.
The booking agent says the tour is confirmed for this coming fall, for the whole month of November into December, but I think they don’t want to publicly announce it until it’s definitely going to happen. It’s supposed to be a co-tour with Jozef van Wissem, a composer and lutist. He and I know each other virtually because I got asked to do a list of favourite albums for a thing, and that’s an impossible task [laughs]. So I said, here’s a random selection of recent things that come to mind, and one of them was the soundtrack to Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch of course. I love that album. So I mentioned that soundtrack, and Jozef had won an award for it. He saw that I’d mentioned that album and approached me about doing vocals on his new album. So I did, and then the next thing I knew, the agent was planning a tour with him. I’m a huge fan of his work.
What kinds of venues are planned for the tour?
My only directive for touring is that it stays out of rock venues and goes into art galleries and alternative spaces. I’ve seen the insides of enough rock clubs to last several lifetimes [laughs].
More recently, I did some wonderful venues with Father Murphy, the duo from Italy, and they’re incredible. They’re like a two-person band, and they do everything. Touring with them was beyond spectacular, and we did a lot of art venues and churches. That’s one of my favourite things — to perform in old churches. The St Pancras Old Church in London is incredible. There’s so much atmosphere and great acoustics, so you can’t help doing a great show in a place like that.
*Interview edited for length and clarity.
Follow Jarboe on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Buy skin blood women roses on Record Store Day 2022, and learn more about Jarboe’s upcoming releases from The Living Jarboe, Consouling Sounds, and The Circle Music.