The main reason I want to take out Nedelle (who eschews the use of her nice Sicilian last name, Torrisi) is her debut CD, Republic of Two. Not since the days of Joni Mitchell's Blue has a collection so thoroughly and honestly wallowed in the relationship mire. On its 11 pithy tunes, the disc recounts need, desire, isolation, distrust, jealousy, fear, and forgiveness, all sung in a voice that's as sweet as a river of strawberries, with music that's complex and sultry. Listening to it makes you want to be in one of these songs. Hence, the date.
Nedelle shows up 10 minutes late. Of course, she doesn't know this is a date; she thinks we're just doing an interview. Perhaps that's why she's wearing her black T-shirt inside out. She's short, young (23 this month), and sporting one of those layered bowl haircuts that all the kids are wearing.
This being a first date, I wanted to take her somewhere interactive, so we're at MOMA. I figure we can make witty remarks about the art and maybe get chased around by the security guards. It'll be like A Hard Day's Night, only without the British accents.
Unfortunately, the Chagall exhibit seems to be bringing in more participants than a gubernatorial recall. By the time we reach the fourth floor, there are too many rubberneckers for us to get crazy. We settle for a few bad puns -- viewing Chagall's cubist work, Nedelle says, "He sees things from all angles" -- and head downstairs to the Philip Guston display.
Guston's work seems to strike more of a chord with the diminutive singer anyway, especially the artist's genitally minded Nixon caricatures. Nedelle admits she likes humor in her art, which seems a tad out of whack with her earnest work on Republic of Two. I expected to see her crying over Guston's abstract blobs, brooding before Chagall's circus freakouts. Was I wrong about her deep-seated angst? Are her heart-rending lyrics and tear-inducing delivery pure invention? No, Nedelle has scars. It just takes a while for her to show them.
Growing up, Nedelle was a step above band geek -- she was an orchestra geek. "I was always the anomaly, because I was a classical violinist," she says, now seated at the Cha'am Thai restaurant. "I didn't really even like the sound of distorted guitars until I was 20."
Her father was a jazz drummer, and according to Nedelle the only records in his collection were jazz, bossa nova, and "some Stevie Wonder." Living in Vacaville, she was a bit of an outcast. She tells a story about a boy she liked finally asking her to a junior high dance, only to ignore her the whole time. "I've been cynical ever since," she laughs ruefully.
Things weren't much better at Boston's Berklee College of Music, which Nedelle began attending in 1999. She hated the white-bread vibe of the city and the pretentious nature of her classmates. Also, she was growing weary of playing the violin. "It's an instrument that you can't be mediocre at," she says. "I was better than mediocre, but I wasn't going to be Itzhak Perlman."
Dropping out and relocating to Oakland in 2000, she began singing jazz standards with a trio at supper clubs and cafes. Before too long, however, she lost interest in playing other people's tunes, so she took a handful of guitar lessons and began writing her own material. "I was really into the earnest, straightforward lyrics of soul and jazz standards -- nothing too clever or ironic, which is very prevalent in indie rock," Nedelle says.
Her boyfriend at the time provided plenty of lyrical fodder. "It was very complicated in that he was very supportive of my songwriting, but he was also stabbing me in my back," she relates. "[Eventually] I found out everything he'd said was a lie."
Republic of Two sounds like the narrative arc of that coupling. There's the yearning of "Too Late," the sexy solitude of the title tune, the love-triangle torpor of "Let Me Explain," and the painful self-disclosure of "I Lied." And even though Nedelle says she was shooting for straightforward lyrics, she achieves a wonderful complexity throughout. In "My Tendency," she sings, "I don't need you," only to follow up with, "But it might be nice to have you by my side" -- an attempt to stay strong in the face of rejection, while still leaving the door open for her beau's return.
Released by Boston's Kimchee Records this May, Republic sounds like a Curtis Mayfield album recorded on a waitress' budget. While some reviewers have compared Nedelle to Norah Jones, the former's songs are far more elaborate, combining pretty bossa nova guitar with swinging girl-group harmonies, sad soulful organ, and plaintive violin parts, buoyed by a voice that's fragile and willful. All this from a girl who was only 21 -- and suffering from a debilitating ailment -- when the CD was recorded in early 2002.
It seems that Nedelle had begun having severe muscle pain and fatigue in the midst of finishing her initial demos (which would become her debut). Doctors soon diagnosed her as having fibromyalgia, a disease with no known cause or cure, which affects the muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The condition made playing guitar and piano -- or even typing on a computer -- increasingly difficult.
Still, over the course of the next year, Nedelle finished Republic and co-wrote and recorded a second album with her new boyfriend, Thom Moore (who's released several acclaimed discs with his brother Greg, as the Moore Brothers). The new material -- which is scheduled to be released by Kimchee next February and which the duo is playing live currently -- is less jazz and more pop, influenced by Nedelle's present fascination with Burt Bacharach. Recorded in Boston with the rhythm section from indie rockers Karate, the songs are more stripped down, with catchy guitar hooks and bouncy rhythms. The lyrics, too, are sunnier, as befits her new relationship. "It's a good challenge," Nedelle says, about singing happy tunes. "There are too many songs about heartbreak and not enough about joy."
As she finishes her veggie plate, I think over our first date. It seemed to go well. But I think a second date is out of the question. She's a Libra, and I just don't get along with Libras. And then there's her explanation of her publishing company, Nedelle's Blindfold Songs. "At the time I wrote Republic of Two, I was thinking love was the greatest blindfold, because at the moment everything is blissful -- until the reality surfaces, and you become cynical."
On second thought, maybe I don't want to end up in one of her tunes. I'll just settle for listening from afar.