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Take a late-night walk through Boston’s music underground—into Jamaica Plain’s DIY venue, the “House That CD-Rs Built” or pass by some dark unnamed basement filled with 20-somethings in Somerville—and you’ll hear, echoing into the street, the long influence of Thalia Zedek.
Zedek, who turns 53 this year, has spent decades out of the hard oversold limelight, instead skirting the edges where her style has made its way into some of the most pivotal sounds of American music. To most folks on the street, her name is likely unknown. But Kurt Cobain, Dinosaur Jr. and indie god Bob Mould have all tipped their hat her way. “Her songs,” Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray said two decades back, “have made a mark on every underground musician I know, from folk to punk.” Today, her sound continues to be an undercurrent in the music of local bands like the Fat Creeps and Speedy Ortiz.
The singer/songwriter moved from Washington, D.C., to Boston in 1979. She dropped out of Boston University and made her name in the raw grind of blues-punk, fronting the bands Uzi, Live Skull and Come. Both underrated and influential, depending on whom you ask, her voice took form and thrived in those groups from the ‘80s until 2001, when Come disbanded and she put both feet firmly on a solo path.
Five albums and 3 EPs later, Zedek’s voice still rings—if a little more mature—with such a defined rasp that is both so hard to replicate and even harder to tire from. Her power may have hit critical mass in the 1990s, but you’d be flat wrong to characterize her as an “over-the-hill” rocker.
Today, her words are potent and sharply cerebral—not angsty or recalling angst from younger days. She paints images of real world problems—grown issues of dislocation, reconciliation, and a torrent of mistakes to cope with, rather than reject. “What we left behind,” she calls in her Dylan-esque ballad “Afloat,” “someone else will find washed ashore.” Zedek is capable of dismantling the complexity in human relationships without allowing for cheap cliche punk modes to cloud her delivery and wisdom.
Thalia Zedek met up with WBUR's Off The Record, just back from her European tour promoting “Six,” her latest EP. Packed into Allston’s dive bar, Model Café, she broke out her spare dirge-fueled tracks “Julie Said” and “Afloat.”
There are few more appropriate places to hear such a dominant figure in Boston’s music counterculture. Model Café—a veritable institution—lies at the crossroads where beards, tattoos, SuicideGirls, and punks mingle with other interesting degenerates over a PBR. Although Zedek’s latest sound is considerably slowed, her sticky guitar strokes and floating voice strike an emotional bridge between 1980s Boston bands like Mission of Burma and Lou Miami all the way to today’s ramshackle dance punk like Guerilla Toss.
There are musicians to consume with headphones—noting a grace note or a perfectly placed symbol dribble—and there are musicians to feel in real life. Zedek is best appreciated in that raw form—uncurated. Her sound is more spare than the crunch-based punk of the older days, but it flows from the heart of a punk that was never afraid to evolve. It is raw talent mixed with years of storytelling that can capture even the most unfamiliar listener.
And yet, the question remains: how can such an influence with such musicianship escape fame? "I've never felt like we'd be huge,” Zedek told the Boston Phoenix in 1998, “the kind of music we're playing is totally wrong for that.”
She may have been speaking of her former band Come, but the sentiment lives on in her solo work as well.
She is a musician’s musician with a true sound, unable to market itself without totally ceasing to exist. And those musicians that have sought her out are those that have carried her torch, letting her influence pass from one band into the next like a game of telephone.
But step back and experience Zedek in her truest form. Let the power of her voice weigh on your ears and you will experience the highest artist. Blending form, twisting sound into something perfectly her.