Whether crafting the thematic arc of an album or collaborating on a multidisciplinary project, Odessa Chen isn't afraid to be vulnerable. She embraces the creative process with an open heart, giving listeners an intimate experience, as if we're sharing in her act of self-discovery.
On her last album, 2007's The Ballad of Paper Ships, the Bay Area singer-songwriter explored the sorrow of lost love with a longing that startled in unexpected ways. On "Made Up My Mind," she sang, "There's no one can save us." Then she hammered home the desolation of a failed relationship with existential resignation — "The Lord hasn't made us, after all" — which could also be interpreted as a statement of defiant independence.
Ambiguity and surprising connections in Chen's lyrics keep listeners riveted. On "Harm," a "cupful of tears" leads to a desire "to sleep beneath the surface of the water." On the title track, lovers part like oyster shells and clouds, or rock "like boats, anchored/to go, to sail with abandon," while memories are "bits of paper/blown around the streets at night" and "ghosts casting nets." A student of poetry, Chen gets the most out of her literary images, finding unity in unusual places. Combined with spare instrumentation and a haunting voice — part Hope Sandoval–narcotic, part sensitive-strong Shannon Wright — her dreamscapes evoke a complex depth of feeling.
The same may be said for The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories, Chen's collaboration with San Francisco choreographers Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton and musical director Jonathan Russell. After a well-received, sold-out stint at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last spring, they present an encore performance with six shows Thursday through Sunday.
Though Garrett and Moulton have very different dance styles, they coalesce into a convincing whole. Garrett's movement is passionate, energetic, and muscular, while Moulton's relies more on geometric precision and conspicuous points and counterpoints. In Stories, which benefits from a heady cast of two dozen dancers (including an 18-strong "Movement Choir"), those divergent aesthetics complement one another, conveying a wide range of expression that may not have arisen from a single vision.
Russell's soundtrack operates on a similar level. Both instrumental and vocal-driven, the work is fundamentally derived from The Ballad of Paper Ships, rearranged for string quartet, drums, piano, and bass clarinet, with Chen guest-performing on guitar and vocals. But there are also parts written exclusively by Russell alongside snatches from classical composers, including Igor Stravinsky and David Lang. Such breadth gives the composite music a multilayered aspect that respects Chen's original recording while expanding the character of her songs.
At the outset of this gig, the players agreed to give each other autonomy in terms of individual contributions. Even though her album was the springboard, Chen had no idea how the project would turn out. But she embraced the unknown and drew inspiration from her collaborators. In the end, she admits that the collective performance is better than anything she could have imagined. Her openness is the audience's reward.