Love songs on Valentine’s Day are usually about as appealing to me as a prostate exam. In fact, now that I think of it, they have a lot in common. Both involve someone you don’t know well being a royal pain in the ass and inflicting themselves upon you for no other reason than they can. At least the person doing the prostate exam has something passing for an excuse for trying to make tears well up in your eyes which is more than the person singing about either their broken heart or their truest love can say.
It’s obvious I’m a cynical bastard who can’t be moved by anyone or anything. Well, you’re only half right. I am a cynical bastard and have had my fill of watching people have their emotions manipulated by politicians, singers, advertising executives, and all the other whores out there trying to get you to open your wallet by squeezing your heart with sentimentality and false feelings. None of which means I can’t be moved by genuine emotions, including songs about the weirdness that passes for relationships between human beings. You see my problem isn’t so much love songs, it’s the fact they usually reduce something as complex as the interaction between two human beings to a pithy phrases or cute hook.
All of which means that when I come across someone who not only makes the effort to delve a little deeper than normal into those murky depths, but does so with intelligence and flashes of quirky humour, I want to make sure as many people know about them as possible. So, the other night when my wife came home and said she had seen this really amazing young woman performing, I was intrigued enough to listen to the two CDs she brought home with her.
Most of you won’t have heard of Andrea Gauster yet, or probably know any of the material from either her six song debut CD Reverie or her follow up full length release from August 2010, We’re Not Lost, both on the Toronto Canada based independent Broken Window Records label, but you should run, not walk, to either buy or download either one you can get your hands on as soon as possible.
The first thing you’ll notice about Gauster is the fullness of her voice. In a world filled with pop tarts with squeaking out three minutes of drivel about either their cheating boyfriends or their undying devotion to the same, the shock of hearing a voice with range and expression was so great I didn’t even start listening to her lyrics until playing her CDs a second time. What got to me was the complete absence of artifice; there was no climbing up into the nether reaches of a scale in an attempt to show the depth of her emotion, just a real woman’s voice singing. The hardest thing for any performer to do is to simply be, to open up and let their voice come out the way it wants dependant on how what you’re doing or saying affects it.
There are very few performers out there who are either allowed to or let themselves be that exposed and vulnerable when they sing. By that I mean honesty, not wearing a bleeding heart on your sleeve to show the world what a sensitive guy or gal you are. As I was listening to Gauster singing I was puzzled as to why she was one moment reminding me of the wonderful Canadian folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle and then the next moment making me think of the haunting country/gospel voice of Iris DeMent. While the four women sound almost nothing alike what they share is that wonderful ability to centre themselves in their material and let it guide their performance.
As I implied earlier the majority of the songs on her recordings are about what goes on between two people, which for a lack of a better term are usually called love songs. However, there’s nothing usual or typical about any of Gauster’s material. I mean how many love songs do you know with titles like “Tandoori Chicken”? Yet listen to the lyrics and its full of the mundane shit in life that passes between two people which somehow add up to a relationship and love. “Your underwear on my floor/your blond hair in my Tandoori Chicken/I cooked all day/come sit down this should not go to waste”. Now, that’s not what you’d call romance, but the song is all about familiarity breeding love. How “when your flaws are the reason I love you just the way you are”, is more a proclamation of love than a dozen roses or avowals of eternal devotion will ever be.
Of course she also deals with the some of the nastier aspects of the games we play when it comes to the couple thing in a kind of stream of conscience babel about another woman called “Secrets”. “And am I so wrong to wonder why/you can live your life lost in your mind/a place so empty, you have betrayed/every thought but how to get laid”. But then she admits to something of her own feelings of inadequacy by saying she doesn’t know how to compete with a woman like her “and though I try on most days/to put on a face I can display/I sometimes wish I could pay the world to look away”. Yet she still manages to find a defiant note to end on, for even though she likes pleasure just as much as the next person she’s not about to make it her life’s work to find it. “I choose to see the world I’m living in /that doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying it/oh I’m enjoying it/ya I quite like it/so eat shit”.
What makes this song work so well is how much of what’s really behind the words Gauster lets through while singing. There’s a real sense of how difficult it is for her to not envy the other, obviously more physically attractive woman, and how much she’s warring with her desire to put her down in order to feel better about herself. As a man there have been times in my life where I’ve run through the same gamut, putting down the guys who seemed to be able to get laid whenever they wanted as shallow and vacant while part of me was eating my heart out with envy. There comes a point though when you grow out of that and realize you both can’t, and don’t want to, play that game and you don’t care what anybody has to say about decision not to.
What’s really quite amazing about both the EP ReverieWe’re Not Lost is Andrea Gauster’s ability to pull you into her material when basically she’s a solo act accompanied only by her guitar. Sure other instruments make their appearances on various tracks, but the production team have done a great job of keeping her front and centre at all times so our focus is squarely on her. With a less interesting performer, or one lacking what’s necessary to hold a listener’s attention, that can be a recipe for disaster. However that’s not the case with either of these discs as the combination of Gauster’s vocal abilities and song writing talents are more than enough to keep a listener’s attention.
Andrea Gauster is a rarity (aside from her musical career she’s also a medical student at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario) as she’s not only able to write songs about relationships based in reality, she’s able to sing them in a way that rings true. By the time you read this Valentine’s Day will most likely have been and gone but that shouldn’t stop you from running out and buying one or the other, if not both, of her releases and listening to some of the most best songs about love and the whole damn thing you’ll have heard in a good many years.
(Photo of Andrea Gauster taken by Bob MacKenzie February 10 2011 at The Mug & Truffle, Kingston Ontario)