In the mood

Her songs hold no suggestive entreaties or slick, come-hither rhythms. In fact, Dayna Kurtz isn’t sure why her CDs are so often exalted by reviewers as ideal soundtracks for evenings spent sizzling in the throes of passion.

“I don’t [understand] sometimes,” admits the New Jersey native. “It’s not like I’m Barry White, talking about getting down. The songs are about traumatic love relationships. [But] it’s flattering. I take it as a compliment.”

Hookless, stripped of the seductive indulgence of melody, and naked of any accompaniment save the ruminative strum and thump of her guitar, Kurtz’s songs contain none of the infectious cadence of pop to drive them into memory. Her sole tool is a gritty titan of a voice that’s able to mine the depths of misery, linger there a hair shy of the breaking point, then spin upward toward rapture with elementary grace.

This is not easy listening, along the lines of too much nerve-embalming singer/songwriter fare. And that seems appropriate, since the discordant emotion in Kurtz’s music isn’t strictly attributable to her songwriting prowess. The truth is, it’s all in that voice — so jarring and powerful it often sounds startled by its own strength.

Kurtz names Tom Waits — somewhat of an anti-singer/songwriter himself — as a significant influence on her most recent work. And, indeed, the offerings on her new CD, Otherwise Luscious Life (Deebles Records, 1997), do recall the singular vocal delivery and even the sometimes excruciatingly intense self-absorption of Waits’ music.

In other words, you have to be in the mood for it.

By her own admission, Kurtz is now shedding the confessional mode she adopted from earlier role models like Joni Mitchell and spreading her wings in the more complex role of narrator.

“Instead of just showing a snapshot, I take a feeling and go off from there, expand it like a short story,” she says. “I create my own little world in each song … I’m a more cinematic writer. The move came with adulthood, I think. I stopped having to explain myself.”

Kurtz has shared the stage with a varied slate of names, including Ani DiFranco, Freedy Johnston, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Martin Sexton. Otherwise Luscious Life, a live album, was intended to capture the smoldering ambiance of an actual performance, something the singer says she has a hard time doing in the studio.

“Some people are good studio performers, [but] I’m intimidated by all the gadgetry,” she confides. “[It’s that] chick-in-an-auto-shop feeling. I wanted to do a live album first.”

That makes sense, because Kurtz’s music is all about the moment. Her inspiration, she points out, often stems from sources more direct than the distant strains of fellow singer/songwriters.

“Fabulous food inspires me, but that’s because I’m in New Orleans right now,” she declares. “I’m inspired by films: Ironweed inspired a recent song of mine. I like poetry — the more musical poets, like Allen Ginsberg.”

Kurtz has also isolated the variable that makes her live performances outshine her studio efforts: “I know how to take the energy in the room and use it,” the singer confesses — which might also be the key to her popularity in those more private rooms where her unlikely alter ego, Barry White, often writes the script.

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