Long Live the Queen

Natalie Flanagan makes her wildest dream come true

BY ROBIN VAUGHAN

Natalie Flanagan is playing a show at Casey's, the Winter Hill working man's pub where she works as a day bartender. Itís a neighborhood joint with a glaringly bright barroom and, behind it, a more gently lit alcove where Flanaganís band set up, surrounded by dartboards and beer signs. Her friends from the music scene congregate in a sort of huddle by the doorway. The middle of the room is filled with high-spirited townies, regular customers here to show some support; they yell and cheer at the end of each song and then turn their attention back to giving one another crap and getting bombed. Flanaganís raggedly intense Velvet Underground minimalism might not be their usual cup of suds (somebody bawls out a request for Manilow once or twice); still, theyíre obviously fond of the musician. She addresses them with some affection as the "roguesí gallery." Toward the end of the set, sheís interrupted mid-song by a birthday cake carried in by the diminutive Chinese cook ("Bobby Ma, my best buddy"), who is beaming with excitement. Itís a weirdly timed, endearing moment for Flanaganís 39th birthday. She looks like a lanky-haired kid as she blows out the candles and laughs self-consciously. This is a slip of a person, and dressed like a boy, in a worn plaid shirt and old Leviís that are always a few sizes too big.

Let, her second full-length CD, was recently released by One Way Productions (the local indie that pressed her debut, Five Star Day). Produced with an elegant hand by David Minehan at Woolly Mammoth, itís an album Flanagan allows herself to be proud of, without reservation. During a break between sets at Casey's, I talk to the drummer, Larry Dersch, who has played with her off and on for about nine years. He isnít featured on Let; John Lynch played drums there. But Dersh would be proud to say otherwise. He talks about Let like a fan; heís excited just to have it to listen to.

So how did he come to play with Flanagan back when she was a raw beginner and just figuring out how to play guitar and express herself? After all, he was (and remains) one of the best drummers in town, well known for his charismatic contribution to the percussion front line in Concussion Ensemble. "I think sheís a great songwriter," he answers, adding that there was one particular song when they first started playing together that "just killed me." There have been others since, most recently "Long Live the King," which we agree is the most devastating song on Let. Flanagan starts the next set with it, accompanied on piano by keyboardist Andrea Gaudet (on loan from Red Chord) and guitarist Dennis Roach, a mainstay in her shifting rotation of bandmates-in-residence. Her vocal style, as sheís described it, is "more like talking than singing;" people compare her to Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. She sings in a low-pitched lullaby drone, ending lines in a fractured whisper thatís intensely intimate and pain-scraped. The first time I heard "Long Live the King," on Let, I actually felt as if I couldn't breathe. Even in the weird context of Casey's, with the regulars chattering away and the iffy PA mix, it's wrenching. "Under the tree I keep you with me/Shining bright like you should be/I take the blame is all I can say/It's utterly broken my confidence . . . "

A few nights later, Flanagan meets me at the Druid in Inman Square to talk about Let. After more than a decade writing songs and putting together bands to play them with, she finally feels, with this album, that sheís not "a beginner anymore." She gives producer David Minehan a lot of credit for Let's expressive precision - he was the kind of person she'd been hoping to work with, she says, after years of communication struggles with fellow musicians and producers who werenít much help. "I was starting to realize I needed to work with someone who knew a lot about arranging. I was finally beginning to believe they were good songs, and to believe in myself as a writer. And I just knew everything sounded like jelly, and I didnít have the expertise to say, "Don't hit the hi-hat and the snare at the same time." I knew I needed everything to be simpler, and one thing I had finally figured out was I couldnít have a guitar player playing over the vocals." She laughs. "I mean, it took me years to figure this shit out."

Flanagan's not afraid of a little work. She always seems to have at least two or three jobs at a time ó waitressing, bartending, tending to elderly invalids. Sheís delivered pizza and Chinese food; sheís worked vending carts downtown. For a while she worked as a rental agent in Allston; she calls that "one of my crimes against humanity, and one of my only true regrets." Deciding to become a musician in her late 20s was the most sensible idea she ever had, she avers. Her college career, at UMass, was a painfully prolonged series of "fits and starts" - burdened by self-doubt and periods of intense anxiety and despair, she took nine years to finish her BA in history. During one break she entered a jazz program at Holyoke Community College for two years. "I had started to put together and perform a few songs I had written. For some reason I felt I had to go to school for anything I wanted to do, and at this program the choice was jazz or classical, so I picked jazz. I didn't really learn to play for shit, I didnít really learn how to answer questions about theory, or transpose anything, but it showed me how much there was out there to learn. And it didn't break me."

She adds that she had a self-defeating notion that music was for "special people ó thatís who God gives that gift to, I thought." But finding herself directionless and unhappy at age 27, she asked herself, "If you could have your wildest dream come true, what would it be?" And she decided to become a musician. Paying dues was "a privilege," she explains. "Any cord I could wrap up, any amp I could hump up and down the stairs, was a joy for me. I was like, -Okay, you're really getting into it. You're doing the work.í "

She didn't yet know whether she was going to be any good at it. "I didn't think I could do it, actually, but I knew I had to try. The songs got better over time, and as periods went by I think I grew up a lot, so lyrically I was getting a handle on what it was that I wanted to express. Learning how to manipulate words. Getting to something thatís difficult to express, that's complex. Getting enough angles of that to merge so that it has this really nice ring to it . . . when I get to the end of writing a song, I grapple with the small decisions, whether to use the word Ďthe,í fine-tuning everything so it all stays open in some way."

On Let, the soul is in the details - the intuitive suspended spaces, the elegant minimalism of the phrasing. The songs are spare and deliberate, setting every musical breath into high relief. The intimacy is intense, but Flanagan doesn't give everything away. The CD cover photo shows her looking straight into the camera, with an expression that's unveiled and unreadable. A print of the Mona Lisa hangs behind her on the right. The art of balancing mystery and candor is no easy trick. Leonardo was a master. Flanagan's not a beginner anymore.

Issue Date: December 12 - 19, 2002