Born in 1961 in Washington, D.C. Education: Attended Boston University, c. 1979-80. Addresses: Record company--Thrill Jockey Records, P.O. Box 08038, Chicago, IL 60608, website: http://www.thrilljockey.com.
Singer-songwriter Thalia Zedek has fronted a number of influential bands during her long career in punk, post-punk, noise rock, and grunge. In 2001 she began releasing solo efforts that effectively showcased a voice that London Sunday Times writer Mark Edwards once termed "a fantastic instrument" with echoes "of Bob Dylan's drawl, Patti Smith's yearning bluntness and Leonard Cohen's timbre." Zedek, who sang with the seminal blues-grunge outfit Come during much of the 1990s, is a longtime fixture on the Boston music scene, and "holds the distinction of being one of the most respected but underappreciated women in rock," noted Boston Phoenix writer Christopher Muther in 1998.
Born in 1961, Zedek grew up in Washington, D.C., where her Lithuanian father and German mother had settled. She discovered the music of proto-punk rocker Patti Smith as a teen, and began writing her own songs and learning to play the guitar. She moved to Boston in 1979 to enroll at Boston University, and joined her first band, White Women, after she agreed to accompany her new roommate to the audition. Zedek ended up trying out, too, and was hired as the drummer. She took up the guitar not long afterward when her roommate quit, and was eventually recruited to sing. "I was kind of nervous about it," she admitted in the interview with Muther. "I had always really liked singing, but I never had a good voice."
In 1981 Zedek became a founding member of Dangerous Birds, another all-female group. Their one single, "Smile On Your Face," had the historic significance of appearing on the first-ever compilation release from Seattle's SubPop label, which would single-handedly usher in the grunge movement a few years later. The single appeared on SubPop 100, released in 1986, which also featured bands like Sonic Youth, Skinny Puppy, and Shonen Knife. In 1983 Zedek formed Uzi with drummer Danny Lee, and their EP Sleep Asylum was released not long after their 1986 split over creative differences.
By then a minor legend on the East-Coast punk scene, known for her raspy vocals and fearless stage presence---at a time when few women appeared in bands, let alone fronted them---Zedek was recruited by seminal New York City noise rockers Live Skull in 1987. The band, inspired by wall-of-sound guitar stylists like Glenn Branca, was often compared to Sonic Youth, another emerging New York noise band of the era. Zedek spent the next three years with Live Skull, cutting two full-length records and one EP. Critics hailed her arrival as a turning point for the band, providing a much-needed energy that was evident on their records Dusted and Positraction, as well as the 1988 EP Snuffer.
But Zedek and New York didn't mix. She sank into a problematic heroin addiction for a time, and moved back to Boston after Live Skull disbanded. In 1990 she teamed with guitarist Chris Brokaw, formerly of Codeine, and formed a band they called, for lack of a better name, Come. Its original members included bassist Sean O'Brien and Arthur Johnson on drums, who both departed midway through the decade. After this initial incarnation of Come played their first live show, they were invited to cut a single a few days later. That effort, "Car," came out on Sub Pop in 1991 as part of its influential single-of-the-month club. That led to the LP Eleven: Eleven, recorded in just eight days, which received some impressive media mentions. Entertainment Weekly reviewer David Browne called it "a captivating blast of ennui and feedback," and commended Zedek's "lethargic snarl that seems to be corroding as she's singing." Browne concluded by describing the collection of tracks as, at times, "enthralling, like watching someone howl into a rainstorm."
Within a few months Zedek and the band were feted with a feature story in Rolling Stone, in which Ted Drozdowski called her the "new high priestess of noise rock---and an unlikely-looking one at that. Onstage, she's a small, sweaty, swaying androgyne wrapped in flannel with raccoon-ringed eyes squeezed tight, her head cocked up toward the microphone as she smashes spiky chords from her chipped Telecaster." Other fans of Come included Bob Mould, the former Hüsker Du frontman, as well as Kurt Cobain and J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.
Some of Zedek's songs on 1994's Don't Ask, Don't Tell---whose title seemed a nod to a new controversial military policy regarding gay men and women in uniform---revealed a more daring style of writing about personal issues, particularly her own sexuality. The group's next record, Near Life Experience, was described as "dark slabs of intense music" by Albuquerque Journal writer Kenn Rodriguez, but Zedek liked to challenge critics who called her songs depressing. "If a man writes a moody, angry ballad, well they're a writer," she countered in the interview with Rodriguez. "But if a woman does dark music, it'll be assumed not that she's an artist but that ... she needs therapy."
Come's final release was 1998's Gently, Down the Stream, which Entertainment Weekly reviewer Will Hermes found to be full of "prickly beauty and tortured grandeur." But Zedek had already decided on her next project. With an ever-changing lineup after the departure of O'Brien and Johnson, she and Brokaw made a couple of mini-tours by themselves in a stripped-down recital, and then decided to take a hiatus from the band business. Zedek realized she liked singing over less noise, and decided to explore the possibilities of a new sonic mood for her next effort. "I really wanted to do something less loud," she told Boston Globe writer Joan Anderman, "where I could hear myself sing, and do some interesting things with vocals and melody."
The result was an album full of torch songs and slower tunes, Been Here and Gone. The record was released on Matador in 2001, and though a Guardian review from John Aizlewood found fault with some of her original material, he liked the cover songs from Leonard Cohen and Luiz Bonfa, among others. Aizlewood described her as "a less self-parodical Marianne Faithfull: all nicotine voice, Weimar insouciance and portentous piano."
Zedek and Brokaw formally disbanded Come in 2001. "We'd get together once in a while and try to do some Come stuff, but we sort of felt that we'd hit a wall," she told Anderman. "And we were feeling like the band wasn't really getting anywhere, professionally. We'd reached our audience. It was like, let's leave happy and satisfied."
In 2004 Zedek released her next solo record, Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness, on Chicago's Thrill Jockey label. Another cabaret-style collection, the record retained her characteristic melancholic mood. She admitted that her personal relationships provided much of the creative inspiration for her songwriting. "I feel like all my records are breakup records," she said in an interview with the Advocate's Steve Gdula. "I put out a record every few years. At some point during that time, a relationship ends!"
by Carol Brennan
Thalia Zedek's Career
Joined all-female punk outfit, White Women, c. 1979; founding member, Dangerous Birds, 1981, and released single, "Smile On Your Face," on Sub Pop; founding member of Uzi, 1983, and released EP Sleep Asylum, 1986, on Matador; joined Live Skull, 1987, recorded three albums with them; formed Come, a Boston band, in 1990 with Chris Brokaw, and signed with Matador Records; released four LPs with Come, 1990s; launched solo career with Been Here and Gone, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Been Here and Gone Matador, 2001.
- Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness Thrill Jockey, 2004.
- With Uzi
- Sleep Asylum (EP), Matador, 1986.
- With Live Skull
- Dusted Homestead, 1987.
- Snuffer (EP), Caroline, 1988.
- Positraction Caroline, 1989.
- With Come
- Eleven: Eleven Matador, 1992.
- Don't Ask, Don't Tell Matador, 1994.
- Near Life Experience Matador, 1996.
- Gently, Down the Stream Matador, 1998.
- Advocate, October 23, 2001, p. 72.
- Albuquerque Journal, March 6, 1998, p. E18.
- Boston Globe, August 31, 2001, p. D12.
- Boston Phoenix, February 1998.
- Entertainment Weekly, February 19, 1993, p. 60; February 13, 1998, p. 70.
- Guardian (London, England), July 27, 2001, p. 16.
- Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993, p. 22.
- Sunday Times (London, England), July 29, 2001, p. 22; September 19, 2004, p. 25.
- "Thalia Zedek Biography," Matador Records Website, http://www.matadorrecords.com/thalia_zedek/biography.html (October 12, 2004).