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Pittsburgh Artist of the Week: The Garment District

The Garment District is a project from multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Baron – who you may also know from the Brooklyn band The Ladybug Transistor. Music, art, and fashion collide in the world of The Garment District as Jennifer takes inspiration from her love of vintage textiles, sewing, and crafting. Vocalist Lucy Blehar takes the lead on “Left On Coast” – a song inspired by the work of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith.

Jennifer Baron recently spoke with WYEP’s Joey Spehar.

“Left on Coast” credits:
Jennifer Baron: music, lyrics, guitar, electric piano, organ, tambourine, backing vocals
Lucy Blehar: lead vocals
Corry Drake: bass
Sean Finn: drums
Greg Langel: outro guitar

This conversation may be lightly edited for content, clarity, or length.

What’s your musical history up to this point?

I am a multi-instrumentalist who creates music as The Garment District and a founding member of The Ladybug Transistor.

Teleporting way back, I took piano lessons from a neighbor as a kid and dabbled in guitar lessons at Lawrence Music (RIP!) in Castle Shannon, where I got my glistening Sea Foam Green Stratocaster (later stolen from a club; please let us reunite one day!) — and in Amherst, Massachusetts, when I attended Mount Holyoke College. But really, I learned to play instruments in a self-taught, hands-on way, like the musicians I admire most, by diving in and starting a band. For me that was in Brooklyn, playing guitar in Saturnine. Soon I joined The Ladybug Transistor, quickly learning to play bass for our tour with Sportsguitar in Switzerland, which flipped a switch in my psyche making me fall in love with playing music and touring. During a highly productive time, we all lived communally in a Victorian house in Brooklyn, very Partridge Family, Fleetwood Mac-style, making albums like “The Albemarle Sound” and “Argyle Heir” for Merge Records, where Gary Olson operates Marlborough Farms studio. That time was incredibly empowering and prolific, with many bands starting out performing at Brownies (I also lived around the corner in the East Village for a few years) and we played at venues like The Knitting Factory, Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge and Maxwell’s (RIP).

With Ladybug it was amazing to perform at festivals in the U.S., Sweden, Norway, U.K. and Canada, tour extensively with Of Montreal and play with many bands we’ve had a close-knit camaraderie with. One remarkable opportunity was collaborating with Soft Machine co-founder Kevin Ayers, when we recorded a cover of his song, “Puis-Je?” for the “Pop Romantique: French Pop Classics compilation (Emperor Norton), and he added the vocals remotely. One of my favorite live experiences was being was invited by Belle & Sebastian to perform at The Bowlie Weekender in England, which became the inspiration for All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Here in Pittsburgh, I played organ with The New Alcindors, and recorded at Nashville’s legendary Castle Studios. After a period of focusing my creative energies on endeavors beyond music — working at the Mattress Factory museum, co-organizing Handmade Arcade, and publishing a photography book, Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania — I returned to music in a serendipitous way.

I came up with The Garment District name to reflect my love for vintage textiles and fashion, sewing and crafting, as well as my respect for the women, countless anonymous laborers who have toiled in dangerous conditions. I started working on demos, and one night I went to see the excellent band Wet Hair play at The Shop (also RIP!). I loved seeing Shawn Reed’s silkscreen and collage artwork for his label’s physical releases and admired the aesthetic and community he was nurturing with Night-People Records. I sent him some songs in progress and he wrote back at 1:30 a.m. asking if I wanted to do a tape. That led to “Melody Elder,” named for my favorite childhood babysitter, and then my full-length LP, “If You Take Your Magic Slow.”

My next release was an all-instrumental solo album, “Luminous Toxin,” on acclaimed writer Bill Shute’s Texas-based experimental label Kendra Steiner Editions, which was an opportunity to explore my interest in interstitial and incidental music, field recordings and found sounds. I am ecstatic to have my new full-length LP, Flowers Telegraphed to All Parts of the World, being released on September 22 via Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records after knowing Mike Turner through Athens, Georgia and Elephant 6 bands, for many years. It is a dream come true to have had the expertise of Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive), who runs the Third Man pressing plant, oversee the (orange!) vinyl production.

How do you describe your sound?

I’m definitely focused on seeking a sonic intersection where orchestrated pop music, folk psychedelia and the vibe and feel of more ambient experimental sounds can coexist. However, I prefer to leave it to listeners to form their own impressions, wrap their own stories around the music, and articulate what they are perceiving. So here are some responses from one of the album’s very first listeners!

“All parts of the world. The Garment District combines psyche, garage, heavy breaks, organ freakouts, mystical Allegheny-specific lyrics, Velvets-esque jams, and mysterious song titles. Basically, an impossible amount of the ingredients that make music compelling. Jangle. Bounce. Atmosphere. It’s all there. Fans of The Ladybug Transistor, Spaceman 3 or ESG will no doubt appreciate this project, but there are so many other points of reference here sonically.”

Tell us more about the song “Left On Coast.” What inspired you to write it and what does it mean to you?  

“Left on Coast” emerged as a demo I recorded at home, using my Rickenbacker 360 and Boss digital 8-track recorder. The first demos were really slow, trippy versions with layered electric guitars and a drum machine. I love the raw, warbled vibe of demos and the sensation that things are precariously held together. Even if I use my iPhone to make quick song sketches, I always try to save them.

I recorded “Left on Coast” at the home-based studio run by my friend David Klug in Mount Washington. This was the first time I recorded with Dave after being connected through our mutual friend Chris Quattro, a musician who runs an awesome vintage music store in the magical town of Thomas, West Virginia. I love the energy and ambience of home studios, which connects to my years at Marlborough Farms in Brooklyn. David’s studio is close to our house, so recording there is very organic in terms of the flow of ideas and supporting my own processes for experimentation, orchestration and production. The goal was to achieve a warm, three-dimensional sound quality on an LP that works as a whole, but with songs that can stand on their own.

One of the things that helped me achieve the fuzz guitar sounds I was seeking for “Left on Coast” are the 1960s and 1970s guitar pedals I borrowed from my friend Gregg Kostelich, of the iconic Pittsburgh garage band, The Cynics, who runs Get Hip Records. In my mind, my ideal blueprint for the vision of the song’s rhythm section was Ronnie Lane and Kenney Jones. I love the sound, quality and performance of Corry’s bass in the song. I remember suggesting he play like Ronnie, so we definitely drew inspiration from him. Corry played a Mustang bass on “Left on Coast” and switched between using a pick and his fingers, and playing his parts both up high and then in a lower register. These kinds of details are what I love about making a permanent record in sound — they help tell an album’s story.

I write the music and lyrics, and create the arrangements, with contributions by a close circle of collaborators. An extremely rewarding aspect of “Left on Coast” was working with my cousin Lucy, who is a vocalist. I am very drawn to the concept of family bands (I play in The Ladybug Transistor with my brother Jeff) and what coalesces between relatives who collaborate. We are able to sing backups and harmonies and double certain melody lines together. It’s a very close bond, an organic way of enjoying the studio environment together. We love collaborating in that setting, and when the song called for it, we could expand melodies and harmonies that I wrote in advance on keyboards when making demos. This continues my family’s music-making heritage, as my grandfather, great-aunt and great-uncles performed in tamburitza orchestras in Braddock and Rankin.

Lyrically, “Left on Coast” is loosely inspired by my love and admiration for the visionary photojournalism and creative process of W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978), who worked on colossal projects in Pittsburgh and New York City, two cities that have played major roles in my life.

I am very inspired by a wide range of analog instruments that I have collected over the years. “Left on Coast” features a 1967 Vox Super Continental Organ, Wurlitzer electric piano, Fender Vibrolux Reverb amp, Rickenbacker 360, Epiphone Dot, and more.

Finishing an album during a pandemic led to a cocoon around the process, a chance to hyper focus on the meticulous art of mixing and mastering, which can seem like alchemy or magic. Hearing could be amplified, since other realities were paused. The circumstances meant I could concentrate beyond the boundaries of deadlines and challenge myself to create more expansive arrangements. Even going into the studio with nearly fully realized arrangements, I stayed open to the duality between experimentation and intentionality. I love recording and seeing where the process takes you.

What was the first album that really changed your life?    

Ahhh, an impossible question that I love to ponder and discuss! Definitely at least 10 for each stage of life.

New Order: “Power, Corruptions & Lies.” It encapsulates a time in life when I was starting to buy a lot of my own records, taking the T Downtown to Eide’s with friends and seeing a ton of life-changing shows at venues like the Syria Mosque. Sometimes a record can open up an entire new universe for a person. This LP seems to merge dimensions of music, design, aesthetics, emotion, culture in a cohesive way that was extremely liberating and pivotal for me. It was a direct intervention too, no social media or cell phones, just you and one album made by a group of people from far away. Plus, the music itself is just brilliant; the melodies crush me. Peter Saville’s lush artwork. Love all of Joy Division’s and New Order’s music, but this album holds a part of my youthful heart.

Growing up, our house was filled with LPs, which were some of our first toys. Earliest memories include gazing at imaginative album covers, such as The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” and being surrounded by so much fantastic music, especially Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.

Who are some other Pittsburgh artists you think more people should listen to?  

Mystic Seers, Buscrates, Good Sport, The Fantastic Dee-Jays, The Swamp Rats, Chariot Fade, Astronomy Now, Emily Rodgers, Betty Davis, 1000z of Beez, Slim Bryant, the Mount McKinleys, the Arondies, Beaver Harris, Kenny Clarke, Gene Ludwig

Any other super interesting things we should know about you?

I already have new material started and hope to be back in the studio soon!

This fall, I will be on tour with The Ladybug Transistor, including at The Andy Warhol Museum on November 9. On September 8 & 10, I am participating a Q&A with Derek Almstead (ex-Of Montreal) at the Pittsburgh premiere of the new “Elephant 6 Recording Co.” documentary, to which I contributed some archival tour footage.

I am thrilled to have worked with Pittsburgh artist Nicole Czapinski on the music video for “Left on Coast.” We filmed portions of it at a former Nike Missile Site that for years has captivated me far in the distance from the second floor of our home, where I often photograph the structure during different weather conditions, seasons and times of day. Our goal was to create a music video that blends analog and digital technologies, which could also reflect the process of writing and recording the song. We fed off of each other’s energy in a really generative way and share a deep appreciation for handmade, do-it-yourself, and old-school ways of making.

My forthcoming album features a cover I have wanted to record for years, “Following Me,” an unreleased 1967 song by The Human Expression. The song will be accompanied by a music video made by Asheville, North Carolina-based artist Peter Speer. I’m also planning to work on new music videos in collaboration with Pittsburgh artists Michi Tapes and Sandy Loaf.

In terms of previous releases, my song, “Nature-Nurture” was remixed by Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3, Spectrum) and “Bird or Bat” features bass guitar by Jowe Head (Swell Maps, Television Personalities), who I previously recorded with years ago, when we were stuck inside during an epic NYC blizzard (look for lost recordings to resurface!). The wildly gifted Pittsburgh musician Buscrates remixed that song (“Bird Or Bat”) and has performed live with us in the past, and we hope to work together again. Other artistic highlights include contributing music and photography to ESOPUS Magazine, participating in artist Doug Aitken’s Station-to-Station project, and creating audio and photographic work for exhibitions at SPACE Gallery curated by Brett Yasko.

This year, I had the once-in-a-lifetime invitation to DJ at the opening of “The Velvet Underground & Nico: Scepter Studio Sessions” exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum, creating a set based on “The Velvet Underground & Nico” album. At a Community Block Party presented by the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, I played 78s from my grandparents’ collection of tamburitza music and I hope to participate in similar cultural events.

Learn more about Garment District here.

Check out previous Pittsburgh Artists of the Week here.

Joey Spehar is a Pittsburgh native who started as a volunteer D.J. at WYEP, fresh out of college in 2006. He took on any job they’d let him do like editing audio, engineering remote broadcasts, and shoveling snow.