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The Burning Point

Scout Niblett comes through the other side of the fire

scout niblett sings a new kind of torch song.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 3/3/2010

Scout Niblett plays the Golden West March 10. For more information visit myspace.com/thegoldenwestcafe.

information visit myspace.com/surroundings.

"Calcination" means, in short, purity through fire. In alchemy, it is the first of seven steps in the process of transformation. A person trashes his or her ego, burns themselves down into humility--and then comes out clean. "In psychological alchemy, it's looking at the kind of shadow side of your personality that you don't like," Scout Niblett says by phone from a California tour stop. Her sixth record, The Calcination of Scout Niblett, came out this month on Drag City. "You burn things to, dunno, get rid of things that you don't want any more."

Niblett, born Emma Louise Niblett in Staffordshire, England, is a fantastic wreck in person: permanent bedhead, a ridiculous orange safety vest--seemingly more a habit than "quirky" put-on--the sort of weird smile that's as readable as Greek; just a whole honest-to-god shabby package. On the phone, she speaks slowly, measuring out every word in a still lingering Brit accent--she lives in Portland, Ore., now--mixed with an almost-lisp that comes out more like little kid-speak. The delivery winds up weighty and, strangely, sort of goofy at the same time.

Her musical style, deep in its DNA, is all contradiction. Fifteen years ago, you would call it grunge--soft-loud-really loud-soft (over the course of a song, but also an album)--but 15 years ago, you'd also be pretty confounded by a female grunge singer/songwriter bouncing back and forth from electric guitar to drums every few songs.

"Some of the themes of the songs, it's the same thing really," Niblett says. "I feel like I'm always basically doing the same thing. They all have a harsh, aggressive loud part--[and] some parts are soft and vulnerable. That's my whole thing, balancing those things. It's been the same since the beginning. I feel like I have to have those two elements playing live for it to be a real representation of what I can do."

Two years ago, on her last Too Pure record, This Fool Can Die Now, she palled around with sometimes guest Will Oldham, which made a strange sort of sense. There's a kind of folk buried down in Niblett's music, on a pining ballad like "Kiss" or the meanderings of "Do You Want to Be Buried With My People?" It's more than those songs being just plain pretty, they're actually peaceful songs. There's contentment there that doesn't come out much in Niblett's music.

And then there's "Lacy Lucifer," from Calcination, all loose, staccato drum hits and a seething so brutally real it makes you want to hide your face. It is honest, expressive, and, more than anything, angry music--personal without being clich?d or cheap. And that's a rare thing. That's just how it's gone. Music today surrounds you in gloss, irony, and mimicry--actual human beings, less so. Which is overly reductive, but take a rough survey of your usual music outlets and argue that there isn't something missing.

"I just appreciate what people are doing if they're being themselves," Niblett says. "It doesn't matter to me if they're angry or not. But if I can kind of feel that they're expressing who they are, that they know who they are, that to me is powerful. I don't see it very often. I don't really understand what's going on right now [in music]. I find it very . . . confusing."

Live, Niblett is amazing; it goes past performance into the sharing of a performer's experience. Like, you are actually watching this person interact with her deep-down self via music--and it's hard to explain how that's not cheesy, but it has something to do with the sort of swirl of near-tantrum, goofiness, prettiness, and storm clouds that her live show becomes.

"I get really excited playing [my songs] in a live sense," she says. "I really like to play aggressively, allowing myself to express in my music. I don't think I was aggressive musically when I was younger. I think it's really good for me to use it and use it, channel it out.

"I think being a woman in general--not that I'm blaming it all on that--I think it's more difficult for women to be angry," Niblett continues. "We're taught not to do that. It's just not acceptable or something. And now I revel in it. It's more a part of my personality than I ever really thought. I find that a powerful feeling. Not because I want to feel invincible but. . . when you have an emotion inside of you, it can be powerful. It's just how you use it."

Since releasing her first record in 2001, Niblett hasn't made the usual indie-band stylistic shake-up. The impression is that this is just how she sounds in her head at any given point--there's no filtering layer. "The aggressiveness, the harshness, and the loneliness, I needed to hear that in the songs," she says. "It makes sense to me. A lot of [my albums] are like messages I need to hear, I think.

"It's been a time of introspection, looking in on myself for the first time than I have in a while--looking at who I am, and who I've been."

The Calcination of Scout Niblett is dark and angrier than any record she's made. "Welcome to my self-made sweat box/ this is where I take it all off/ sweat, I got to sweat it out," she sings, practically holding back a wail, on the title track. But it's another line, from 2007's "Dinosaur Egg," that really lingers, that gets so perfectly at the marriage of beauty and unease/rage in Niblett's songwriting: "My solar body . . . oh my solar body/ When will I join you out of this flesh?/ Cause I am sick and tired of being sick and tired/ I'd much rather be a golden ball of light, but still have sex."

Scout Niblett isn't even exactly sure what the next stage is in her alchemic transformation. "Distillation?," she wonders. "I am right in the middle of [calcination]. I think it's going to be a few years, honestly. It feels appropriate, something that has to happen at this point. It's not easy, but it's something that has to happen." There's a long pause, and she adds "to get myself on a more . . . efficient track."

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