On a crisp fall day in Brooklyn, Jennifer Charles, wrapped in a swath of black fabric, cradles a cup of lavender tea. Amongst the trees and vegetation, one could easily mistake the backyard oasis for a far more secluded location. Charles, one half of veteran rock band Elysian Fields, feels right at home. “I get most of my inspiration from the natural world, and I like to study other cultures, particularly primitive cultures.” Charles is chic, arrestingly so, and she owns the aura of a front woman. However, she also has an innocence, and an appreciation for nature, that can cast her as slightly childish within. “It’s important to think back to a time before we were so messed up, and what it means to take from nature and give back to nature; exploring how we integrate ourselves with other animals. It’s fascinating to me. In many cultures it’s natural to look to the animals and learn things. The music and art that moves and inspires me is always possessed of spirit. When something is completely infused with the essence of that spirit you can’t help but be swept up and moved by it.”
Since 1995, Charles and Oren Bloedow have been making music together as Elysian Fields, and their work has served as an exploration of Charles’ deepest passions. The daughter of a singer and a jazz disc jockey, Charles was exposed to music at a very young age. Her earliest musical obsessions were fostered by hit parade classics of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and her parents, whom she refers to as “great music listeners and lovers.” Her exposure to classic songstresses like Lena Horne and Peggy Lee sparked her creativity, and she spent many nights next to a portable radio anxiously anticipating the latest hits. Like most passionate singers, she’s convinced she was probably singing “at the same time, if not before [she] was speaking.” Her early passion for music later translated into a pursuit of theater, and it was during her studies at New York University that she met Bloedow, while working part time at the original Knitting Factory.
The songwriting process can be solitary, but through various stages, Charles' longstanding relationship with Bloedow has remained a constant. The duo has soldiered on since the end of their romance eight years ago. “It’s nice to have a writing partner because it keeps you in check. It pushes you to get the best, not just for yourself, but for the person you’re working with, because you expect the best from them as well.”
Though Elysian Fields has remained the main focus of their work, Charles and Bloedow have also created two albums for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, in which they explored traditional Sephardic songs through their decidedly unique lens. “They’re traditional songs many from the 11 through the 15th centuries, and most were passed on through oral tradition. When you hear interpretations of really early music, a lot of it is really liturgical and we wanted to bring it back to la tierra – these are wandering songs, people singing about being displaced, about love, loss, hashish. We wanted to really get at that and the spirit of that. We wanted to fuse a connection between the Sephardic Diaspora; these songs may have come from different cultures but they’re all connected. We also wanted to bring newness and relevance to them. So we asked ourselves, ‘what happens when you add the rock n roll spirit of today?’ Yes, we love this music but we also listen to Iggy Pop. We’re not going to abandon ourselves, so we wanted to speak to that through our interpretations.”
Although tackling songs in Arabic, Polish and Greek is a significant hurdle for anyone, it was the task of performing them live which posed the greatest challenge for Charles. “Some people get on stage and perform and they might as well be alone – they’re having their experience on stage, but the audience doesn’t exist. I think that it’s most exciting when you don’t know what’s going to happen next, whether you’re the one on stage or you’re the audience. It’s about what’s going on in the moment, and that’s why it’s such a beautiful and fragile thing – anyone can break that mood. I’ve been told that I demand a lot from my audience and it’s true, but I demand a lot from life and to me they’re the same.”
Jennifer Charles and Elysian Fields plays Joe's Pub October 29, 7:30 pm, and (le) Poisson Rouge on November 25.