Accentuated with striking vocals and whimsically sophisticated lyrics, Massachusetts native Casey Dienel’s blend of cabaret, jazz, folk, and pop places her squarely in the eccentric-women-with-piano pop camp, which is much more fertile territory these days than eccentric-woman-with-acoustic-guitar or eccentric-guy-with-piano pop. Wind-Up Canary features mainly Dienel and her piano, with the occasional accompaniment of crash cymbals, a charmingly rickety drum kit, and a jazz banjo. Her songs show traces of Nellie McKay’s subversive formalism, Regina Spektor’s bizarro cabaret, and Tori Amos’s sweeping scope, but Dienel could be just as easily and fruitfully compared to those outside her camp– to the Decemberists or Clem Snide or to literary types like George Saunders and Z.Z. Packer, whose short stories share an oddball sensibility and heart-rent humor with Dienel’s story songs.
Like most writers, Dienel has her pet topics, first and foremost herself. “Everything” is a snappy birth-of the-artist tale (“When I was only four I found my lonely ivories and we became fast friends”), and “Cabin Fever” recalls her move from her small, seaside Massachusetts hometown to Boston– a looming milestone in her young life. “Tundra” shouts out to JoAnn Fabrics (an indie first?) and erects a complex metaphor involving the Weather Channel and a broken relationship. The 1960s also feature prominently on Wind-Up Canary, although not in terms of the counterculture so much as the Establishment. Stylistically, she slyly alludes to bossa nova and exotica rhythms without overtly incorporating them, and she deconstructs and rebuilds 60s pop mythology to gee-whiz glee. “Frankie and Annette” re-imagines the Mouseketeers as small-time outlaws, pitiable in their poverty, and on the opener, “Doctor Monroe”, Dienel sings about an Everyman who chain-smokes, reads Playboy, drinks highballs. But soon the faÃ§ade crumbles, and he begins dressing up in his wife Helen’s clothes and “speaking to the sixth dimensions through public urinals.” Dienel marries this hard-luck tale to her most playful verse melody and her most impassioned chorus, half in awe of the man’s savoir faire and half disgusted by his lack of self-examination. It’s her best song– her “Joan Jett of Arc”, her “Sea Oak”.
As “Doctor Monroe” shows– and “Tundra”, and “The Coffee Beanery”– Dienel’s at her best when she’s at her weirdest, and oddly she’s at her weirdest when she’s at her catchiest, because nothing sells a peculiar daydream as persuasively as an infectious hook. Flirting with preciousness but never going all the way, Dienel always sounds confident in her quirkiness, blissfully unaware that her melodies aren’t always strong enough to warrant such self-assuredness or that her lyrics sometimes sound like clever nonsense. But who needs melodies when you’ve got real songs, or sensible lyrics when you’ve got so much personality?
-Stephen M. Deusner, April 11, 2006
Casey Dienel has been writing songs since she was a little kid, growing up in a New England fishing village. But she never recorded them. Now sheâ€™s in her early 20s and is releasing her first recording, which means sheâ€™s had plenty of time to perfect her songs, to tinker around until she found her own unique style of songwriting. Or at least thatâ€™s how it seems, considering how unique her music is, and how well her debut album Wind-Up Canary sounds like the work of someone who has found a way to mold a variety of influences and inclinations into music she can truly call her own.
The first sound on Wind-Up Canary is that of Dienelâ€™s piano, which she plays in a rolling, slightly rambunctious, yet always sophisticated way, like sheâ€™s putting on a musical and providing all the music herself, or as if she were a riverboat piano player who picked up bits of the local music from the ports she passed through along the way. â€œWhen I was only four I found my lonely ivories / and we became fast friends,â€ she sings on â€œEverything”â€¦and if thatâ€™s not an autobiographical line, it might as well be, considering how skillfully her hands move across the keys, gently stirring up melodies here, powerfully hammering out emphasis there.
Her piano is joined by a banjo, an upright bass, some horns, a cello, guitar, and percussionâ€¦ and of course her voice, which is in and of itself quite distinct. She sings upward and outward like a jazz singer, her voice trembling and glimmering and inducing shivers. At the same time she sings straight ahead, telling a story in song. Somehow her voice is grounded and flighty at the same time, soaring but without drama or spectacle. Sheâ€™s a cabaret singer, sheâ€™s a humble indie-label musician playing house parties and coffee shops, sheâ€™s a torch singer belting her heart out, sheâ€™s an author turning her fantasy worlds into songs. Sheâ€™s all of this and more, at once.
On Wind-Up Canary Dienel and friends create music that feels like itâ€™s of another era, but not a particular one. An imagined one, maybe, where lifeâ€™s a grand fairy tale, not without pain but always with a certain panache and mystery to it. Or is that the story of today? It seems to be through Dienelâ€™s eyes, as the lyrics never read as anachronistic, more like todayâ€™s world filtered through her unconventional perspective.
In Dienelâ€™s hand a song with the basic message â€œI wish you were hereâ€ starts as a remembrance of her love for embroidering and continues into a tale of times spent in the French Alps, drinking strawberry wine, before leading up to the sentiment behind it all. Her â€œFrankie and Johnny”-type tale of outlaws in love, â€œFrankie and Annetteâ€, starts at a Boston Red Sox game and includes both a Cracker Jack ring and the phrase â€œBook em, Danno.â€ Dienel has a way of taking small stories and writing them into epics fueled by imagination. She sings of cabins in Vermont, of Folgers tins, of JoAnn Fabrics stores, of a ghostly doctor who fancies himself a ladies man and approaches random women with the line, â€œvoulez-vous couches avec moi?â€
Her songs impress with the rapid-fire imagination of childrenâ€™s books, yet ultimately what stays with you are the emotions and insights at their core, propelled by her voice. On â€œStationaryâ€ Dienel cleverly sings about attempts to write about anything but a rejected love, but itâ€™s the chorus which she sings with such intent and genuine befuddledness that it leaps out from the speakers: â€œI canâ€™t shake you off baby / no matter how hard I try.â€ â€œFrankie and Annetteâ€ offers a dazzling array of allusions in its tale, but itâ€™s the conclusion that life is â€œall about walking away from the wreck,â€ about pulling a life together from pieces of wreckage, that makes the strongest impression.
Casey Dienelâ€™s debut album should get widely recognized for how fresh and how unlike everything else the music is. Her seamless blend of styles and genres into one that she alone occupies should get her a lot of attention…and for good reason. Her music is endlessly spellbinding. Yet I canâ€™t help but also keep thinking of the smaller moments that linger long after the albumâ€™s over, those places where she acutely gives voice to emotional realizations and dilemmas. Moments like during â€œEverythingâ€, when she encapsulates the feeling of wanting to do everything in life all at once, by excitedly, loudly singing â€œDo I stay / do I go / I donâ€™t know.â€ Or at the albumâ€™s end, on â€œThe La La Songâ€, when over her piano she slowly sings â€œitâ€™s funny / I like me best with a broken heart.â€ And then she chooses to resolve her quandary by singing â€œla la la la la laâ€ over and over again, turning to her voice and a tune to express the inexpressible. Thatâ€™s musicâ€™s power, and Wind-Up Canaryâ€˜s power ultimately lies with her voice, her piano-playing, her melodies, and her words: the way they all stick with you and comfort you. Or as she sings earlier in the album, â€œif your heart starts feeling slow / thereâ€™s a refrain I know / and Iâ€™ll teach you.â€
You can almost picture Casey Dienel sitting atop a piano, microphone in hand, Scotch-drinking bar patrons leaning in to catch her words. Her hair might be flopping over one eyebrow, her sequins worn a tad ironically. She seems, perhaps, a bit young to be hitting the cabaret circuit and a little skewed in her approach to these cracked and tender ballads. Still, she has the kind of old-fashioned jazz-inflected voice you last heard on scratchy 78 records, caressingly soft like Billie Holiday, arch and knowing like Lotte Lenya. It is such an interesting voice, so different from most of what you hear on records, that its wordless runs in “The La La Song” are an album highlight. Dienel holds the notes like the trained singer she is, yet there’s a vulnerable eccentricity in her phrasings, coming breathily above the rolling piano lines or plucked stand-up bass.
Recorded in rural central Massachusetts with a band of conservatory-trained friends, Dienel’s debut record is fittingly called Wind-Up Canary, for it pits the fragile melancholy of a caged bird against the mechanical precision of piano-roll rags. In the opening “Cabin Fever,” she accompanies herself with gospel-flavored piano, weaving metaphors that link autumn to a homeless man, “jangling a coffee cup outside store 24/ But he’s not a beggar ’till the cold settles in, and he swears there’s an Indian summer in him.” Bittersweet as November sun, the melody fits perfectly with lyrics about wearing sweaters and cabin fever. “The Coffee Beanery” is much jauntier, feeling like an incidental music from an off-Broadway play. Both these cuts are sparsely instrumented, just Dienel and her piano for the most part. “Embroidery” encases Dienel’s voice in a richer fabric of instruments, and layers her voice over itself in harmonies. Yet although this one, and cuts like the banjo-embellished “Baby James” and the tango-rhythmed “Dr. Monroe,” contain a denser array of sounds, the focus remains on Dienel’s voice. It flits and flirts and dashes over the instrumental sounds, never audibly pushed but somehow dominating the mix.
The songs are engagingly written, folding everyday details like a character “chewing aspirin like it’s M&Ms” (in “Fat Old Man”) into surreally entertaining stories. The best narrative song on the album is “Frankie and Annette,” about a couple who ran off at 16 after finding a ring in a Cracker Jack box. Things turn bad for the pair, yet the song is resolutely sunny, with a chorus that reminds us, “It’s all about your 15 seconds/ And it’s all about walking away from the wreck/ It
THREE IMAGINARY GIRLS
By Erik Gonzalez
We live in a postmodern world. Nothing exists without the context of the reader and the writer. With that, I feel I must disclose a number of key facts about Casey Dienel and this review before I begin: (1) Casey is from Boston (the home city of your humble author, although I forgive her for recently moving to Brooklyn); (2) I saw Casey live (with Tiger Saw) on New Year’s Eve in Somerville, MA and (3) I’m a sucker for female musicians, especially when they talk to me. That being said, I might have a predisposition to like her new album, Wind-Up Canary. Equal parts Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds, Tom Waits, and Fiona Apple, Casey creates songs that skirt between somber indie-pop and cabaret.
One of the first things you notice about Casey during her shows is that she seems so demure and reserved during her intro that you’d be surprised if you could hear her if she amps went up to 11. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Once the talking ends and the singing begins, she suddenly becomes the Slayer, if Buffy was destined to sing and play piano. The audience eats out of her hand, sing-along when requested and responding when queried (nothing will get a Boston crowd going these days like an chance to diss Johnny “Turncoat” Damon), especially with her closing number “The La La Song” that trailed into the snowy New Year’s Eve night air like an chorus sending 2005 off to pasture.
Wind-Up Canary captures much of the energy that Casey brings to her live show. Not surprisingly, most of the songs are dominated by her voice and piano and you feel like that’s all she really needs. “Doctor Monroe” and “Embroidery” have a strong Rufus Wainwright feel to them, sounding as if we should be hearing the songs in a smoky bar late at night. Take that same bar setting and move it to the old west in the early 1900’s and you get “Baby James” that has a Fiona Apple meets Sixteen Horsepower sound. Most of her songs are narrative in the Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits tradition, showing her strength in fashioning excellent lyrics that do more than support the melody. “We’ll toast this death of summer months and summer warmth and summer love,” she sings in “Cabin Fever” a song about the changing of seasons in New England, “as soon you get used to one season, it moves and that’s all you can count on.”
In a Ben Folds moment, “Frankie & Annette” tells the a Bonnie & Clyde-set-in-Boston story (starting at Fenway Park no less) that ends when, “They got caught by the cops when they got Columbus/Who is it that put you up to this?/Frankie said it was fate, Annette said it was love.” Songs like these seem to go by so quickly as you get wrapped up in Casey’s sparkling narrative lyrics. “Stationary” takes us from the smoky bar to the non-smoky coffee shop, replacing Casey’s piano with an echoey acoustic guitar. This track is starkly contrasted by “Tundra” that probably has the most complex arrangement on Wind-Up Canary, with horns, strings and piano. This difference demonstrates the range song styles that Casey is able to master, as her voice feels perfectly at home in both settings. She closes the album with the aforementioned “The La La Song,” a bittersweet lovesong about the end of the year, “It’s funny, I like me best with a broken heart,” Casey admits and takes us out with a melancholy chorus of “la la la” (see above).
Wind-Up Canary succeeds in being an album where you feel like the singer is opening herself to you, the listener, as if you are an old friend. Casey Dienel presence, both on the album and live, seems to be something special when even in a roomful of people you don’t really know listening to a singer you’ve never seen before. you feel like she’s singing straight to you. That quality is something many artists lack and it’s hard to create â€” you either you have it or you don’t. Casey has it in spades.
It is possible that Casey Dienel has the best piano-side demeanor of any of her contemporaries. Dienel does all sorts of interesting things on Wind-Up Canary, an album full of her innovations on keyboard and microphone. Most of them will provoke the same response from almost every listener: “I didn’t really expect her to do that, but man is that good.” Her playing is a thing of beauty, owing to her energetic style and a fantastically old-sounding piano. The dark sound of the instrument alone has almost as much character as the voice of its golden-haired, pretty-eyed, pirate-smile mistress.
Dienel’s strong compositions, coupled with her vocal skills, make her hard to resist, whether it’s the twisting of the one-word chorus in “Everything,” or the pure New England essence of the melancholy “Cabin Fever.” Dienel works every song from her own soul, transferring it directly to the soul of the listener.
Shattering illusions of a simple starry-eyed songstress, Dienel starts cursing in the breathlessly whimsical “Frankie and Annette,” a flowing piece in which she wields a tapestry of quotes, tall tales, and enough proper names to make Ben Folds blush. At the same time, Dienel isn’t afraid to lead the band into a klezmer interlude in “Baby James.” “Tundra” reveals the depth of Dienel’s arranging skills, topping off the album with an achingly gorgeous song hidden near the end.
The whole “girl-with-a-piano” mystique leads to a few inaccurate comparisons – Dienel is not nearly as moody as Fiona Apple, nor as flighty as Regina Spektor. She seems remarkably well-connected to the general consciousness. Throughout each of her songs, she sounds absolutely approachable, giving the strong impression that you could spontaneously have a nice conversation with her. By the end, listeners will be hopelessly charmed by the engaging Casey Dienel. (Hush Records)
-C.D. Di Guardia
For me one of my most anticipated releases of spring 2006 is by Casey Dienel. From what I’ve heard of her music it’s been lofi singer songstress all the way but I get the feeling that the lofi part has just been a circumstance of her surroundings and not necessarily an artistic choice. Now with the help of Hush Records she will have the support she needs to create her vision.
The new record, Wind Up Canary, was recorded on a farm on Leominster, Ma. and while Casey grew up in a remote fishing village I think these songs of everyday life will strike a chord. I found one song from the new record (not sure if it’s mastered or not though) and it’s a good `un. Filled with stories of life in good old Massachuessetts (Cumberland Farms, Crackerjack boxes and The Red Sox etc) the song is driven by a borrowed piano and Casey’s unusual delivery.
Casey Dienel is sitting at a table in a restaurant with a glass of water, half empty. The lemon ,perched on the rim of the glass like a canary, periodically drips its sour secretions down the inside of the glass, mixing with and stirring up the water in the glass. The glass is still half empty, but she knows the waiter will walk by and fill it up again. This is one of the best ways you can describe Casey Dienel’s music. For the majority of her first recording, Wind-Up Canary, she uses slower, seemingly simplistic rhythms coupled with lyrics that always have a certain desperation to them, but are never pessimistic. This enigmatic concoction is an irresistible delight that will hook the eardrums at first listen.
Dienel’s second track on Wind-Up Canary, “Everything,” briefly tells her life in the second verse. At age four she found her “lonely ivories” and has been playing them ever since. She moved from a Massachusetts harbor town to Boston to go to school, but “can still hear waves.” Once at the New England Conservatory, she had trouble deciding if she wanted to focus in opera or classical. She made the choice so many people have made when they’re stuck in that situation, and decided to make some pop songs. She then went to an abandoned farmhouse in Leominster, Massachusetts where she was offered to record for free. She took up the offer, but after she was done recording, she put her songs away, thinking of them as nothing more than a pet project. Through some connections, Hush Records gave her songs a listen, picked up Dienel, and released Wind-Up Canary.
The album’s first track, “Doctor Monroe” starts off with an almost childish sounding piano rhythm, but gradually increases in complexity, adding light percussion in the background and slight backing vocals. The track gradually gets more intense, ascending toward a fuller sound. “Baby James” has a very enticing jazzy tune, differentiating from the rest of the album, but Dienel’s vocals still have that lingering desperation that adds a different dimension to any song. A rare aspect is that each one of the tracks is highlighted with its own special touch, which makes listening to the album as a whole just as adventurous as hitting “random.” Wind-Up Canary will surely be one of the CDs regularly on your car’s sun visor, that is, if its not playing in the stereo full-time.
The Piano is an instrument that most definitely has its greats: Ray Charles, Elton John, Billy Joel, and for the more recent generations, Ben Folds. At only 20 years old, Casey Dienel still has much of her musical career ahead of her, an intriguing thought seeing how impressive her debut album was. Including her amongst that list of greats shortly after her career has started may be saying a bit much, but don’t be surprised if you hear Casey Dienel spoken about with such reverence in the future.
The arresting young singer and pianist Casey Dienel is a student at New England Conservatory by day. By night, she gathers up her six-piece Misfit Orchestra and sings spell-casting Gypsy songs about cats and dogs, historians, cowboys, apricots, glasswork, waltzes, Switzerland, trains, ferris wheels, gin, candy corn, suitcases, failed love affairs, crazy drunk old men and traveling.
The Boston Phoenix (above) loves her and you just might also. It gives me great pleasure to direct some attention to now Brooklyn resident 20-year old Casey Dienel, whose lyrical maturity and sure-hand with catchy piano folk-pop will render Wilco, Loose Fur, Joanna Newsom, and Beth Orton fans speechless. And then wanting more.
“The arresting young singer/pianist Casey Dienel is a student at New England Conservatory by day; by night, she gathers up her six-piece Misfit Orchestra and sings spell-casting Gypsy songs about ‘cats and dogs, historians, cowboys, apricots, glasswork, waltzes, Switzerland, trains, ferris wheels, gin, candy corn, suitcases, failed love affairs, crazy drunk old men, [and] traveling.’ Comparisons with the Dresden Dolls are inevitable, but she’ll get over them. Yes, she’s up on her opera and her Waits and her Dietrich, and her keyboard work can lurch maniacally when it needs to; but her singing and her melodies have an Old World jazz feel (she’s studying with Dominique Eade – see under “Friday”) that’s closer in spirit to Billie than to Brecht. Dienel’s demo is called Grandmother Rock, an appellation that just might stick. (Note to local college DJs: will make pleasant segue into Jolie Holland, CocoRosie, or Joanna Newsom.)”
Three Minutes with a Piano
Put a girl behind theivories and there are too many quick comparisons that get made, and while someone may find reason to reference Nina Simone, thereâ€™s dozens more whose ears donâ€™t reach back further than Tori Amos. While thereâ€™s a Blossom Dearie to counterbalance all of Fiona Appleâ€™s influence, thereâ€™s a whole â€™nother generation that only knows Vanessa Carlton.
â€œSome people say I sound like Norah Jones,â€ Casey Dienel shrugs. â€œI guess we play the same instrument when weâ€™re not singing.â€ With her witty sincerity, Dienel writes songs that meander into their own form. Itâ€™s the same sort of iconoclasm that blossomed in the pianos of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Van Dyke Parks when they were all itching to get noticed. Ultimately it finds Dienel standing comfortably in line to be the next Carole King.
As a kid who had to ask for piano lessons for Christmas, Dienel became obsessed with playing not long after she started. The songs her dad had played and the songbooks he left in the seat were what she had to play. â€œI spent most of my time memorizing stuff from Tapestry since it was in the best shape,â€ Dienel says, tipping her hand. â€œI loved reading music because it was so easy it was like an access code. Sheet music is so cool because itâ€™s so accessible, anybody can read it.
Dienelâ€™s not afraid of music on a staff but she is on a hiatus from the composing program at the New England Conservatory. Instead sheâ€™s finished up an album, Wind-Up Canary, thatâ€™s set to be released on Hush Records, the Oregon-based home of Kind of Like Spitting, the Decemberists, and others. For the 20-year-old from Boston, things seem to be progressing even better than planned.
â€œFor some artists, they have a day job and they have art or they have other things and music is something they just fell into, but for me music is a complete career choice which makes it scarier,â€ Dienel admits. â€œI left home to go to conservatory with the intention of being a professional musician. I thought I was going to be an opera singer and then two weeks in I realized I was never going to be an opera singer. I then became a composer and while that was something that was interesting and compelling, songwriting is interesting and compelling in a different fashion because everything I could say in 14 minutes with an eight-piece wind ensemble I could say in three minutes on my own with a piano.”
t began early first plunking away at the keyboard completely on her own accord at four; she was drawn to the music and not forced into a regiment of lessons. â€œNow that Iâ€™ve been at conservatory,â€ Dienel observes, â€œI realized how many kids start playing music because their parents are musicians or because their parents started putting them in lessons.â€ She actually wanted to start with the guitar, but this was one of the rare points where her parents deterred her ambitions. â€œI wanted to learn how to play guitar, but it was huge when I was 4 and my dad said not until you learn how to play piano.â€
Learning on her own with a piano at home, Dienel adopted her own techniques that often would often send her instructors straight to the loony bin. She would play songs and riff on themes like a jazz musician might, but where her flights of fancy would take songs was different territory. â€œI never realized that it was something unusual,â€ Dienel claims, â€œI thought embellishing was just what all musicians did, it was what my dad did when heâ€™d play â€˜Mr. Tambourine Man.â€™ I would always go off on tangents, it drove a couple of my teachers crazy.â€
When music waned in popularity and coolness, Dienel found herself spending more time than ever around a piano. â€œAround the time I was 10 all of the cool kids were doing school plays. I quit my lessons and after that I was playing all the time. Every afternoon Iâ€™d come home from school and play. Iâ€™d even skip classes and sneak into the practice rooms where they had the pianos. Thatâ€™s when I started improvising.â€ It really seemed the natural way and for her â€œpracticing and playing and writing and improvising were all the same thing.â€
Itâ€™s that ability not to limit things in any single box that makes Dienelâ€™s songs such an enigma; even when sheâ€™s trying to drown her sorrows, she makes you laugh in the midst of that despair. â€œIâ€™m obsessed with sincerity and kitschy cheesiness. I love art thatâ€™s both: when things are almost to the point of being totally over-processed but completely meaning it,â€ Dienel says. â€œDetachment is my biggest problem with music today. I just have a tough time believing that people mean it. Part of why I started writing was because I have convictions about things and have a lot of things that move me and make me excited. Theyâ€™re always the tiniest things, itâ€™s not like the universe, but it is the universe; itâ€™s not war, but itâ€™s some weird guy who came up and sat next to me on the train.â€
Encounters like that, when a spontaneous conversation generates an idea for a song, find Dienel prepared. â€œI bring a scrap of sheet music paper wherever I go,â€ she says. â€œI write everything down and Iâ€™m a compulsive eavesdropper.â€ Often though sheâ€™ll be creating her own songs in her head based on a tiny moment in such a circumstance. Claiming that she composes as much on the train as she ever does in front of a piano, Dienel can latch a melody onto a particular phrase and build upon that idea. â€œSometimes I can use words if I have a really clear lyric in my head. Lyrics and music are often really symbiotic,â€ she says. â€œI write music and lyrics simultaneously, and I never write more than necessary. If the song has two verses itâ€™s going to have two verses; if the song needs four verses, itâ€™s going to have to have four verses itâ€™s a very authoritarian process writing and negotiating with myself.â€
While composing music, Dienel is economical to the point that of expecting Webern-like brevity to her grand ideas. Her playing is lyric and fluid and the tones she aims for are those she found in Thelonious Monk and Biff Rose when she first heard men â€œsinging with the piano.â€ The balance with which the songs fit into their forms and the irrepressible knack for phrases and changes to stick in your ears is almost like Steven Sondheim. Dienel seems to have absorbed the entirety of 20th Century piano and processed it into something uniquely her own. â€œIâ€™m really effected by antique song structure and antique verse structure. I like things that are a bit more phonograph friendly.â€
With an admiration of classic song structure fully formed, Dienel realizes that songs need to have words that will endure. While humor has a way of being very of-the-moment, a great song can exist anywhere there is someone with the music to play it. Her wit shines through in her songs but passes over restrictions of novelty due to her conscientiousness. â€œI have a hard time writing lyrics making sure that Iâ€™m not making a joke thatâ€™s going to get old, because itâ€™s not like a comedy routine where you can take it back.â€
While Dienel admits, â€œI have a hard time sometimes with music because I feel like Iâ€™m not doing enough outside of myself,â€ she finds things to sing about because her perspective is decidedly different from the other songwriters sheâ€™s listened to. â€œI started writing music because I wasnâ€™t hearing anything that could pertain to my life or my interests. Itâ€™s cool that everyoneâ€™s writing about relationships, but thatâ€™s really not how they are for me. Not everyone gets down in a ball gown in a bathtub when they get dumped, but sometimes I do.â€
Whether her songs are as baldly autobiographical as â€œTundraâ€ or as character driven as â€œDoctor Monroeâ€ and â€œBaby James,â€ Dienel knows how to make her songs compelling. She also realizes that no matter how infectious the melody is, lyrics are an important part of reaching an audience. â€œFor a listener, words are a really great way to access music and to explain whatâ€™s going on. Some people like to make art thatâ€™s very disorienting and they prefer it to be disorienting since it reflects their philosophies, but for me I donâ€™t make music to confuse people as much as to communicate with them,â€ Dienel shares. â€œNot that my credo is make it seem simple and easy to comprehend, but I donâ€™t like alienating people and I donâ€™t like music that people feel like they need a secret password to understand and enjoy.â€
If she finds a desire to turn her songs into puzzling complexities, Dienel certainly has the skill. â€œSometimes I think it would be fun to make a very atonal pop record, but no one would ever want to listen to it. Maybe Iâ€™ll just do it for myself. A lot of my more self-indulgent songs Iâ€™ve written are just for me and Iâ€™m the only person whoâ€™s heard them and thatâ€™s OK.â€
Judging by whatâ€™s reached the public however, sheâ€™s proven remarkably successful at writing songs that can adhere to most any sort of listener. Considering her stated objective â€œwas to make something that anybody could listen to, that anyone could sing and get stuck in their head as they walk down the street,â€ Dienel seems to have some seriously savant capabilities at a very early age. Each song on her album has couplets with truly adhesive qualities.
Wind-Up Canary was recorded out at The Estate in Leominster, Massachusetts with Jim Reynolds and captures these songs in a pretty pure form. For her debut, Dienel wasnâ€™t aiming for ornate orchestration and studio trickery. â€œI want my record to sound like youâ€™re sitting in a living room with all of your friends and the fire is crackling and thereâ€™s somebody singing and theyâ€™re right in your ear, theyâ€™re right there.â€ With a clear objective, she got what she was hoping for as opposed to her first attempt at recording which she describes only as a â€œdrunken dare.â€
Reynolds added elements of banjo and guitar and drums and accordion and cello and whatever else he could call someone in to add, but these songs are really centered on Dienel and her piano. With words worth being heard, sheâ€™s happy with the results. â€œI donâ€™t want the idea of having all of these really personal songs that are supposed to be accessible and are supposed to draw people in and then having the vocals very far back in the mix, so we made it really upfront. The vocals are very intricate as they wind around.
While complex playing may be almost second nature, her challenge is singing her sometimes near-tongue twisting lyrics. Her syllables never seem shoehorned into musical phrases, but that doesnâ€™t always make it easy for her when sheâ€™s performing new tunes in front of a crowd. â€œI make it real hard on myself because my songs have a lot of changes in them, thereâ€™s a lot of chords and the lyrics are pretty wordy so thereâ€™s a lot of crunching of things I have to spit out really fast.â€ Since overcoming early performance anxieties, those fears have been abating. Now sheâ€™s itching for time on the road.
She rarely held recitals while growing up, but Dienel is planning to spend a lot of time playing her songs in front of people. She had an abortive attempt at starting her performing career after a bad Chopping Block show set her confidence back 8 months. Unlike a the portability of a guitar, the piano can still get in the way of the type of connection sheâ€™d like to have with her crowd. Dienel claims, â€œIâ€™m very sensitive to my surroundings. The people that come to my shows are people that listen to my record because they had a really rough day at work or because they got engaged.â€ She never comes to a show with a set list prepared, instead preferring to gauge the audience and prepare a show more catered to whoâ€™s there. While the piano is restrictive as a tool for showmanship unless you want to kick benches or shine a floodlight at your crotch, Dienel says, â€œThe whole thing about performance for me isnâ€™t that people are looking at me, itâ€™s that people are listening.
Sitting on a piano gives Dienel a voice that youâ€™d never expect from her small frame. While she has the gentle nuances that make Joanna Newsom immediately distinctive, she sings with a power thatâ€™s at least equally reminiscent of Olivia Newton John. Such an odd juxtaposition makes it likely that Dienelâ€™s voice will be a distinctive reference point for people uncovering the next young voice twenty years from now.
Her music lets her shine in a way that ensures that people will take notice. â€œWith most things Iâ€™m terribly shy, itâ€™s why I do music. I did it that way so I could talk to people.â€ Realizing that performing was a podium, Dienel has tried to make songs that matter. â€œI feel like I write songs with the intention of effecting people. Maybe itâ€™s not a humanitarian, Peace Corps thing, but itâ€™s what I do.â€ She continues, â€œI donâ€™t want to be uniformed. I think itâ€™s important for musicians to take a stand on something. I think I do but in perhaps a less obviously political way. Values are a big deal for me, but imposing them is not. Itâ€™s not really my objective that everyone agrees with me.â€
No matter what people feel about her songs, Dienel is in a confident position with herself and is ready to take whatever comes. â€œIâ€™m very comfortable with music, I know all the ins and outs, I know my writing process, I know what kinds of environments are conducive to me writing, I know that after Iâ€™ve traveled Iâ€™m good to go, but when it comes to business and promotion Iâ€™m clueless.â€ With a label behind her, all Dienel needs is someone to book tours and she can do the rest. When she plays, people will stop and pay attention and the crowds will surge in kind.
With a solid sense of musicâ€™s history, Dienel finds other contemporaries worth admiring like Nellie McKay and Regina Spektor. At the same time itâ€™s not the music of other girls with pianos that drives her most. â€œIâ€™ve played Cole Porterâ€™s piano at the Waldorf,â€ Dienel beams. â€œThatâ€™s the coolest thing Iâ€™ve done or will ever do. I can die happy because that piano for one is gorgeous, and two, the action is amazing.
While that piano is likely in tune all of the time, some pianos that she gets to try are far from it. Sometimes those untuned monstrosities can have a character all their own that makes songs sound even better. As a student Dienel frequently composed atonal pieces, but finds arguing whether atonal or surreal or neo-traditional is better a useless endeavor. â€œIt was the classic university student conundrum where youâ€™re just like â€˜which one do I chooseâ€™ and for me none of it was working. It just wasnâ€™t working for me to write things that I couldnâ€™t sing myself.â€
Understanding her strengths and believing in them has set Casey Dienel on a pretty great path. Watching her travel down it should prove interesting. Though not quite so much as hearing the results.
by Jeff Breeze