Sometimes the best thing about leaving home is the opportunity to return years later and remember the good times, rather than the trials and tribulations. Though musician and author Dana Kletter grew up in Manhattan, the Triangle became the first home she could call her own in the early '90s. Here she forged several musical identities that nearly made her famous, but the record industry devoured them all, and she returned north to pursue a different muse.
Both she and her twin sister, Karen, went to school and eventually settled in the area. Though both loved music and literature, there was an unspoken "non-compete clause," as Dana describes it: She became the musician, her sister the academic. Dana stumbled into a music career almost by chance, though, thanks to her run in the challenging, female chamber-folk trio blackgirls.
"I went into the music business in a tiny incremental way. I didn't suddenly decide I want to be famous—like Ryan Adams," Kletter chuckles, digressing momentarily into a recent, more-or-less positive airport encounter with a bleached-blond Adams and new wife, Mandy Moore. "It wasn't this striving thing. It didn't feel like I was endangering myself spiritually, emotionally or psychologically to do that."
Essentially, BBC DJ John Peel loved the blackgirls' very obscure EP, 1986's Speechless, and spun it on his show. Joe Boyd, who'd produced records by Nick Drake and Fairport Convention, heard it and signed blackgirls to his English label, Hannibal Records. They signed an American deal with Mammoth Records, whose little offices were just a few blocks from Kletter's Boylan Heights home. Boyd produced two blackgirls albums—1990's Procedure and 1991's more polished Happy. Despite Boyd's patronage, neither found much of an audience before the band broke up in 1992.
Dana moved on, beginning the alt-rock quartet Dish with Motocaster guitarist Bo Taylor, drummer Jerry Kee and bassist Sara Bell. They recorded their 1993 debut EP, Mabel Sagittarius, with Mitch Easter before Interscope called, tipped off by Jesus Lizard and mutual friend Simon Bob Sinister of The Ugly Americans. Kee seemed to sense "no good can come from this," but the band was broke. Interscope threw gobs of money around in the wake of grunge, so a million-dollar deal seemed like a good idea.
In 1995, $350,000 paid not only for the recording of Boneyard Beach, but also for the quartet's living expenses for the next two years. But, in a familiar story of major-label woes, things soured quickly.
"Living out a cliché is really tedious," says Kletter, who turned 50 last month. "Your self-esteem gets put on the line, no matter how seriously or not seriously you take it. We lost control of our lives, and we also lost control of this thing we really cared about, which was our band together ... At the end of things, I just felt real bad because I thought it was my fault. I should've been more ambitious and more willing to play the game, like Ryan."
Essentially, people that worked for Dish ripped the band off. The label leaned on them, demanding something that "sounded like a hit." It wasn't pleasant, and it turned everyone against each other. Interscope barely even bothered to release the album, pressing just 3,000 copies, burying it without even giving a chance. Of course, that didn't stop them from harassing the band with their concerns about how well the album was charting.
But Dana wasn't ready to give up on music yet. Boyd returned to the picture, and after extricating herself from her Interscope deal, she signed to Rykodisc, which had purchased Hannibal around the time of the first blackgirls album. At Boyd's insistence, she started recording with her sister, Karen.
Together they produced 1998's Dear Enemy. The album's intense, personal lyrics relate familial stories from their father's time with organized crime and the pressures put on them by their Holocaust survivor mother. Boyd frames these tales and the sisters' haunting harmonies with spare folk arrangements that often rely on little more than piano, mandolin, banjo and strings. The evocative album earned fine notices, but again Dana found herself dealing with a not entirely supportive label, which was, among other things, embroiled in a conflict with the sometimes difficult, idiosyncratic Boyd. And, again, the intra-band dynamics were tough, even if it was a family.
"I was with my sister, and that was also odd because my sister is a scholar. I took her out of the library, where she'd been for 15 years," recalls Dana. "I was like, 'Get in the van. We're going on tour.' Well, medieval scholars don't thrive on tour. She's like, 'It's raining.' You're like, 'Yeah, I know, we still have to drive through it.'
"It was hard on both of us, and I don't think I was ready to get back out there. I was really sad [about Dish], so it was harder. I was a trooper, but I was too sad to keep being the trooper after a while. And my sister and I fought all the time. She punched me in a rest stop in Connecticut. We fought like that the whole way. We were like a pair of 10-year-olds driving in giant Econoline van."
You might say music broke Kletter, but she couldn't abandon it completely. She released a children's album of poems turned into lullabies, titled Mrs. Moon, in 2003, and performed on albums by Dinosaur Jr.'s Mike Johnson, Damon & Naomi and The Hold Steady. She slowly tried to put it in the rear view, though, moving to Boston with her husband, another former Triangle musician, Neal Fisher. She wrote freelance book reviews for the local alt-weekly, Kirkus Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. A few years ago, they moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., where Kletter received a two-year fellowship that allowed her to focus on writing. She's since published and won awards for her short fiction as well as her 2008 novel, Manifold, a Rust-Belt gothic Jewish gangster novel that draws inspiration from her father's life.
"It's a much lonelier life than being a musician. Writing is not collaborative in the same way," she says. "All of the issues you have that might inhibit you loom large when you're by yourself in a room. Stuff that everybody else will get you over at band practice by being, 'Oh, come on and just play the fucking thing,' there's no one there to say that."
There are those unfinished recordings, though—a few with Morphine drummer Billy Conway, others with her sister for a never completed second Dana and Karen Kletter album, collaborations with folks from Greg Humphreys to Tres Chicas. And her own recent recordings are more intimate and quieter than Dish, while less baroque than Dear Enemy, landing somewhere between Low and Nick Cave. She's hoping to perhaps revisit the work this summer, when she returns to North Carolina after finishing up a final semester teaching writing at the University of Michigan.
"It's very different to be as old as I am, have the experience that I have and be, 'OK, now I'm going to write and try this," she says. "Of course, I'm haunted by what happened. I'm haunted by the specter of my own—there's no other way to put it—but essentially my kind of failure."
But she's not going to think about that. Rather, she'll concentrate on her happiness at seeing old friends like Regina Hexaphone's Sara Bell and former Motocaster bassist Brian Silwa, who'll be joining her at The Cave. She plans to resurrect a few memories from the past (including perhaps, a couple tunes with her sister, Karen, who still lives in Raleigh) and offer a peek at music that still may lie in her future.
Dana Kletter performs with Regina Hexaphone Saturday, Dec. 26, at the Cave. The 10 p.m. show costs $5.