In Which You Can Never Be Sure Of The People You Know When They Don't Want To Show You Their Sadness
On Kath Bloom, Legendary Lesser-Known
by SARAH LEHRER-GRAIWER
About four decades deep into a remote, touch-and-go life of private music-making, Kath Bloom keeps on doing what she does in the margins. Maybe perpetually being on the edge of recognition and being on edge — emotionally broken and sore from the effort of feeling so much — go together the way her songs are both fragile and dignified, quivering and tough, willful and unhinged, very close and very far away.
Bloom was born in Long Island when it was still all farmland. She moved to New Haven as a kid when her father Robert, a famous classical oboist, started teaching at Yale. Early on she trained as a cellist, dropping it to teach her teenage self guitar after being turned on like countless other would-be rockers to Joplin and Hendrix. She played alone a lot in Grove Street Cemetery, so much that the groundskeeper offered to pay her to rake the leaves since she was already always around. She recorded there the first of what would be many times with experimental guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors in what was the beginning of a formative partnership.
Meeting in New Haven in the mid-70s, Bloom and Connors came into their own together, through each other. Recording was a casual afterthought and entirely Connors’ doing. Their collaborative albums (songs nearly all written by Bloom) were put out in tiny batches on his Daggett Records and St. Joan record labels, virtually undistributed. If it had been up to her there may not even be the small handful of now-coveted, cult classic vinyls from their sublime alliance of the late 70s and early 80s. There were about half a dozen albums with Connors (and often Tom Hanford) on Daggett Records between ‘78 and ’82: Gifts. Fields. Hanford, Bloom and Mazzacane. Listen to the Blues. Pushin Up Daisies. And ‘Round His Shoulders Gonna Be A Rainbow. Sing the Children Over also came out in 1982; Sand in My Shoe the next year, and Restless Faithful Desperate and Moonlight the following.
Each has the pair’s distinctively eerie, piercing, and breathtakingly beautiful sound—part fragile folk ballad parsed over a range of octaves (Bloom), part free-form avant-garde meandering guitar thru-line and the shadow of pained humming (Connors). They are astounding together, equally matched eagles. A first listen can feel like eavesdropping on private living room catharsis full of naked disillusionment and disappointment and sadness and failure more than pastoral ecstasy or feel-good sentimentality, though she isn’t afraid of clichés when she needs them.
The spare space carved out by Bloom’s throbbing voice and Connor’s jangling, quasi-atonal guitar is scaled down to the personal and the daily, with all the latent dimension of a precisely observed suburban existence — an intensely perceived experience of self. Her voice — as singer and writer, lyricist, poet — is achingly human. It surges and swells. It tries to be good and fails. There are frustrated desires and apologies and momentary releases, but mainly an air of desperation throughout. She’s perpetually on the verge of crying this awesome and awful thing called living. If you can take it all, you may be struck dumb where you stand.
Bloom didn’t record for a long time after her collaboration with Connors ended. She briefly tried her hand at acting professionally in New York. She started a family. Had three sons. She went to live for a while in Florida. Then moved back to Litchfield, Connecticut where she lives today. In 1995 Richard Linklater put her song “Come Here” in Before Sunrise. The second important collaboration of her life began with guitarist Peter Friedman. They recorded together, putting out Come Here: The Florida Years in 1999 and producing Bloom’s single favorite song of her career, “It’s Just a Dream.”
A couple retrospective anthologies have come out: 1981-1984 has songs she did with Connors and Finally has songs she did after Connors. In the past couple years her small cult following has steadily grown. A tribute album had fans Bill Callahan (with a downright shattering cover of “The Breeze/My Baby Cries”) and Devendra Banhart and Mark Kozelek covering her songs. Picking up her sound where she had left off, she released Thin Thin Line last year and started touring more broadly.
Being a fan feels like taking sides with the hermetic fringe of natural-born, pure-bred, real-deal artists in it for the long haul, through thin more often than thick.
People compare her ethereality to hippie lady folk singers like Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. But that doesn’t sit well with me. Vashti Bunyan may be a shade closer, but really Bloom is leagues beyond. Sometimes she reaches the heights of John Prine or Jonathan Richman’s genius. (For decades now, she mostly plays music and workshops for young children, babies and their parents—another good reason to think of her in relation to Richman, the iconic proto-punk troubadour who unplugged because he didn’t want to make music that would hurt a child’s ears.)
Her songs move towards sentimentality, cliché, romance, and dream but then twist darkly towards a brutal nakedness that bares itself as fucked up, having failed, cheated, cried, tripped, freaked out, broken down, died, passed out, fallen, and loved, if inadequately. By the time it reaches its chorus, the seemingly benign song “Little Flower” turns out to be about murder.
She also should be thought of as a certain kind of intuitively refined poet — in the vein of O’Hara or Ashbery, who trained himself not to revise so as not to interfere with thinking’s immediacy — whose sure-footed directness and guileless lyricism redeems banality and rejects creative constipation in favor of flow. Bloom doesn’t remember many of her early songs well enough to play them these days. The past is the past. She flows.
Her house is filled with piles, his piles and her piles of handwritten lyrics that flow whenever she taps it:
What did I ever do to make you as lonely as me?
Finally all those wasted days become so important like the sun through the haze
So if we try and if we fail I don’t think I could bear the sadness, but I’d do anything to try it anyway
You can never be sure of the people you know when they don’t want to show you their sadness
It’s so hard for me to tell where I end and my father begins
No I’m not impossible to touch, I have never wanted you so much
Is this called living?
My body tends towards habit, my heart it longs for something new, sometimes you gotta have it, that’s the way I feel about you
Sometime in the summer when we’re lying in the breeze, the breeze can kill me, the breeze will kill me
If your child likes — loves — you, the very love he bears you tears your heart out about once a day or once every other day.
That last one wasn’t Bloom but could have been if it weren’t Salinger. This is also Salinger but is reiterated here about Bloom: God, how I still love private readers. It’s what we all used to be. Private reader, private singer. Bloom is more than a singer or even a writer or poet, she’s like a force, a philosophical proposition. The unbearability of things, of being tied up with other people, of sustaining oneself somehow gets manifest through her fingers and vocal chords as fluctuating degrees of love.
I keep cycling back to her as a figure of perseverance and pacing — pacing of thought and yearning desire, of lyrical phrasing and poetic verse, and of an artist’s practice and life as it ages. Taking and giving it slow. Notes spread out and linger as they fade. Intensity of feeling directs sonic delivery.
Thinking about the flow of Bloom’s mind, the on-again-off-again trickle of public recognition which should be a river, and the innate ebb and flow of the way her words come together and lyrics form, I want to end, somewhat obscurely, like her, with this Chinese folk tale about a famous painter commissioned by the emperor to paint a crab. At the end of the five years, the emperor came to the painter but she had nothing to show. She needed another five years. At the end of the tenth year, the emperor again returned, at which point the painter gracefully painted, in only a couple minutes, right there in front of him, the most exquisite crab ever painted ever in just a few perfect strokes of her calligrapher’s brush.
"Freddie" - Kath Bloom (mp3)
"Window" - Kath Bloom & Loren Connors (mp3)
"Biggest Light of All" - Kath Bloom (mp3)
"The Breeze/My Baby Cries" - Bill Callahan (mp3)