Dayna Kurtz

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Dayna Kurtz – Lost Songs and Spun GoldDayna Kurtz

"Listening to Dayna's voice was like a drug. It wasn't just her tone or her range or her power, which, if I knew anything about vocal technique, I could praise at length. No, it was something emotional. Her voice sounded like desperation hurled into the world with exquisite control." Steve Almond, from the essay, “Dayna Kurtz sings the World a Lullabye” in Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life

"I know they may seem different on the surface,” Dayna Kurtz says of American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1, the two disparate yet complementary albums that she's releasing simultaneously. "But they're both branches coming off the same root, to me."

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn-based vocalist/writer/musician/producer has built a formidable body of recordings, won an international reputation as a riveting live performer, amassed an extensive file of rapturous critical raves, (3rd Coast Music in Austin, TX writes, “Kurtz is the kind of artist who teaches us ink- stained wretches to be miserly with superlatives, so we’ll still have a stock of them when she comes around.”) and earned an equally devoted audience of fans around the world. She's achieved these distinctions on her own terms, releasing five albums and a live DVD on her own Kismet label, touring around the world on her own dime, and building a remarkably loyal fan base one person at a time.

Armed with an uncanny ability to stun audiences into submission, this musical free spirit has consistently refused to be pinned down by a single style or genre, building an inspired body of work that draws strength from a bottomless wellspring of American jazz, pop, blues, folk and country. The cinematic poetry of her songwriting is matched by the power of her voice, a rich, distinctly resonant instrument that's capable of immense emotional depth.

Kurtz's iconoclastic approach is underlined by her decision to simultaneously release American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1. Individually, each disc offers ample evidence of Kurtz's abundant talent. Together, they make a deeply compelling case for her status as a deeply adventurous, one-of-a-kind artist.

"These two records, " she explains, "cover the two dominant strands of blues-based DNA that wind through my musical body. One of those strands is American roots music from the traditions of rock 'n' roll and country, and the other is my lifelong love of smoky mid-century chanteuse records from the R&B and jazz bins."

American Standard is a typically expansive Kurtz set, from the plaintive intimacy of "Invocation" to the rockabilly-inflected swing of "Good in '62" to the languid Mississippi grind of "Billboards for Jesus." She recorded half of the album with her longtime drummer/co-producer Randy Crafton and her live band at Crafton's analog studio Kaleidoscope Sound in New Jersey, before she and Crafton traveled to Memphis' fabled Ardent Studios. At Ardent, they cut several tracks with Sun Records rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess and his band, the Legendary Pacers, whose members are all in their 70s and 80s and whose last personnel change occurred in 1961. From there, they moved to New Orleans, where they recorded the ebullient "Election Day" with local brass band the Nightcrawlers (recently featured in HBO's Treme).

Along with several bracing Kurtz originals, American Standard spotlights the artist's uncanny skill as an interpreter of other songwriters' compositions. She turns Elliott Smith's "Don't Go Down" into a howling, desperate blues plea, while bringing a haunting warmth to Paul Westerberg's "Here Comes a Regular," on which Kurtz plays lap steel and French/Israeli chanteuse Keren Ann provides backing vocals. She also breathes new fire into the '50s rockabilly nugget "Lou Lou Knows," and tackles Sonny Burgess' "Hangin' Round My Baby" with an organic passion that's reciprocated by Burgess and the Pacers.

"I've always been a bit of a genre outlaw. which I guess makes it a little rough to market me," Kurtz states. "But I'm in love with music, not with genres. If it's a great song, it's a great song. The songs I wrote for American Standard, and the songs that I covered for it, were deeply influenced by my recent obsession with collecting 'lost' songs by forgotten singers on regional labels."

Secret Canon, Vol. 1, recorded live to tape in New Jersey and New Orleans, spotlights Kurtz's sublime interpretive abilities, with the artist putting her stamp on such obscure gems as "Do I Love You," a startlingly intimate ballad by seminal Texas/L.A. blues-jazz figure Floyd Dixon; "Sweet Lotus Blossom," a 1930s-vintage ode to addiction; "If Yesterday Could Only Be Tomorrow" and "Come In Out of the Rain," both originally recorded by a pre-pop stardom Nat "King" Cole with his jazz-blues combo the King Cole Trio; and the memorably titled "Don't Fuck Around with Love," originally a tongue-in-cheek doo wop novelty in 1962 by Boston vocal group the Blenders.

"I love finding Great Lost Songs and Great Lost Singers, and I'm drawn to artists and songs that fall through the cracks," Kurtz notes. "My favorite period for that is the mid-late '50s and early '60s, because the lines between genres hadn't really been drawn yet. There were so many wonderful storefront record labels during that period, and so many regional artists and writers released so many brilliant songs that were only heard by a handful of people. And they're still out there, for those who are willing to dig."

Most of Secret Canon, Vol. 1 was recorded with Kurtz's longstanding live band, i.e. co-producer Crafton on drums, Dave Richards on upright bass and Peter Vitalone on piano and organ. Kurtz recorded the album's lone original, the Brill Building-inspired "Not the Only Fool In Town," in New Orleans with George Porter Jr., legendary bassist of the seminal funk combo The Meters, and Crescent City piano master David Torkanowsky.

"When I was putting together Secret Canon, I was listening to Sam Cooke's Nightbeat an awful lot, and in many ways that was my model for this album," she continues. "We started by recording nine songs in one marathon session, from about four in the afternoon until three in the morning. We'd talk through the changes, the endings, the feel. Then we'd roll tape, do one or two takes of each song, and then move on to the next one. When I listened to them the next day, they were all keepers. We did two more sessions like that, then one in New Orleans and then another one back in New Jersey. But six of the songs on the record were from that first marathon session."

Dayna Kurtz's propensity for musical rule-breaking was forged early in life, and she was still in her teens when she began performing her compositions in public. After releasing the low-key live disc Otherwise Luscious Life, she won considerable acclaim for her impressively accomplished studio efforts Postcards from Downtown and Beautiful Yesterday. The former put Kurtz on the map in Europe and was particularly successful in Holland, where it became a Top 20 seller, culminating in sold-out headlining shows at Amsterdam's fabled Paradiso (one of which became Kurtz's first DVD, Postcards from Amsterdam).

Along the way, Kurtz was named Female Songwriter of the Year by the National Academy of Songwriters. Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt have raved about her in interviews, and she's performed on such high-profile radio shows as World Cafe, Mountain Stage and NPR's Morning Edition. She's toured with and/or opened for the likes of Elvis Costello, Antony and the Johnsons, Richard Thompson, Rufus Wainwright, B.B. King, Dr. John, Richie Havens, Keren Ann, Joe Henry, Olu Dara, Chris Whitley, Richard Buckner, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Blind Boys of Alabama. And best-selling author Steve Almond spends an entire chapter singing her praises in his book about music obsession, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. ("Listening to Dayna's voice was like a drug. It wasn't just her tone or her range or her power, which, if I knew anything about vocal technique, I could praise at length. No, it was something emotional. Her voice sounded like desperation hurled into the world with exquisite control.")

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the enduring rapport between Kurtz and her audience is the fact that American Standard and Secret Canon, Vol. 1 were financed almost entirely through the donations of fans who contributed via the artist's website ( in order to facilitate the creation and dissemination of her new music.

Although it's been three years since her last release, Kurtz has hardly been idle. She spent much of 2011 touring through North America, South America, Europe and Australia. She and longtime collaborator Randy Crafton produced a Top Five record for the Dutch band Room Eleven. She also produced a 10-inch vinyl tribute to the great folk singer Hazel Dickens in collaboration fellow Brooklynite Mamie Minch, as well as a pair of 7" vinyl singles with Keren Ann and My Brightest Diamond. She also took some Masters-level poetry classes at the New School in New York, and took her first-ever guitar lessons in order to beef up her rockabilly chops.

"I'd rather risk being called a dilettante than be stuck just using just two crayons out of the big box," Kurtz states, adding, "The lyrics sing themselves to me and tell me what they want. Some of them want a brass band. Some of them want a rockabilly combo. Some of them want a Cajun waltz. Some of them want a searing lap steel guitar. And some of them, like most of Secret Canon, Vol. 1, want long late-night sessions with great jazz and blues players, played live to tape. I'm always just trying to do the best I can to serve the song."

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