Elysian Fields came out of New York’s legendary Knitting Factory, a hotbed of musical exploration and genre mixing and a hub of the vibrant 1990s downtown scene. Drawn together by a mutual love of The Beatles, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Iggy Pop, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Captain Beefheart, Ravi Shankar, Frederic Chopin and Olivier Messaien, founders Jennifer Charles and Oren Bloedow had traveled parallel paths in Washington, DC and New York until a scholarship to New York University’s drama department drew Jennifer to New York. Both had been to see the Bad Brains and Lounge Lizards (for whom Oren would play bass in the early ’90s), both worshiped Woody Allen and Fellini, both went to alternative high schools and had become independent at an early age.
Jennifer introduced Oren to the work of Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death) and Nick Cave, as well as the Cocteau Twins. Oren showed Jennifer The Seven Samurai, failed to interest her in Fairport Convention, scored with Randy Newman, and, significantly, introduced her to the songs of Ed Pastorini, whose band 101 Crustaceans Oren had joined in his late teens on bass and who would become a constant fixture in their work. At the time of meeting Jennifer, Oren was fresh from his only year at music school (at New England Conservatory) and was working with Ed and several smaller downtown bands in the scene that was dominated by post-free jazz composers like Henry Threadgill, David Murray on one side and dissonant guitar shredders like Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca on the other. In the center was the Knitting Factory, where such sounds mingled in the work of Arto Lindsay, John Zorn and other musicians who had been working mostly in lofts and underground venues in the preceding decade. It was here that Jennifer worked as an intern in the busy office where the club’s bookings, package tours and record releases were planned. She ran her own poetry series, waiting tables for paltry tips at sparsely attended Charles Gayle midnight sets with the January wind circling about the empty club. Although New York had great hip-hop in those years, the city was due for an explosion of great bands, and many of them frequented or played there, Cibo Matto, Blonde Redhead, Soul Coughing and Skeleton Key are a few of the notables of the “Class of 1994.” Others like Jeff Buckley and Firewater were particularly close to Elysian Fields, sharing a lot of the same players and many late nights together.
When Oren and Jennifer began writing for Elysian Fields, they were playing jazz standards and a few T Rex songs, and were looking to create original tunes that could fit in between these styles. So they got Pastorini and some jazz guys into the studio and did some recordings. Of these songs, three ended up on a cassette that fell into the hands of Radioactive Records’ Gary Kurfirst, who had built a music empire managing a host of New York punk and new wave-era legends (notably Talking Heads), and had recently launched the label as a home for his new discoveries (such as Shirley Manson) as well as older signings like Big Audio Dynamite and the Ramones. Gary came to hear EF at the Mercury Lounge and very quickly Jennifer, Oren, Ed and the amazing rhythm section of James Genus (bassist, of Saturday Night Live fame) and Ben Perowsky (drums) were in New York’s Sorcerer Sound making the first EP, Elysian Fields, and in the Minnesota woods for the follow-up album Bleed Your Cedar, which sold comfortably and gained the band a foothold in indie circles around the US. Songs like “Lady In The Lake,” “Fountains On Fire” and “Jack In The Box” appeared in TV shows and commercials and both young music fans and the media were taking notice of the band and their distinctive style, founded on Jennifer’s inimitably sensual voice and confident pen, and the daring and depth of Oren and Ed’s unique guitar and piano work. (The gorgeous cover photo of Jennifer by underground legend JK Potter did not hurt either.)
While Kurfirst had a keen eye for talent, he was under pressure from his parent company, Universal, and insisted the band hire a name producer to bring in hits and drive up sales. The band’s choice, Steve Albini, whose name was at that time associated (promisingly, to the record executives) with Nirvana, and the record they brought home from Chicago ended up emphasizing the “even less commercial” side of the band, and after some back and forth, they asked to be let out of their deal. The record was never released, and a concurrent slump in the record business ensured that it wasn’t until 1999 that, thanks to an introduction by Tod Ashley of Firewater, EF signed a deal with Jetset Records and entered Brooklyn’s Good And Evil studios to record a fresh set of songs for their second album, Queen of the Meadow. A collection of songs based on the group’s original recipe of blues, punk, dissonance (all discernible in the underground rock/dance floor semi-hit “Bend Your Mind”), and their jazz-inflected ballads, QOTM also marks the introduction of a folk element in songs such as “Black Acres” and the title track.
In the meantime, they had been discovered in France, and had begun traveling there and to neighboring countries where they were greeted by large stories in major magazines, grand venues and television appearances. Upon the release of QOTM, Jennifer and Oren assembled a new band and hit the road in Europe appearing alongside French artists like Alain Bashung and good friend Jean Louis Murat, traveling in festivals like Les Inrockuptibles and Les Femmes S’en Melent and headlining their own tours. In the US, Queen of the Meadow went to the top five in the CMJ chart, was well-reviewed and was accompanied by moderate touring on the East Coast.
Their third disc, 2004′s Dreams that Breathe Your Name, featured contributions both from their newer cadre of collaborators and from the original band. The album continued their success in Europe, where they did more touring and appeared in festivals such as Nuits De Botaniques in Brussels. This record also set off a new era of the band recording both in the studio and at home. It was mixed at Philip Glass’s Looking Glass studios by U2 recording engineer Robbie Adams, featured some of the band’s most atmospheric and lush work (“Shooting Stars,” “Live for the Touch,” “Narcosmicoma”), and found a champion in the dean of British rock critics Nick Kent, who wrote, “Maybe we have their out-of-the-mainstreamness to thank for a sound that is still unique — as sensual as a sleepwalker’s wet dream.” The record was released in Europe by Play it Again Sam (PIAS) records and in the US on the band’s own imprint, Diluvian. American critics were also kind, with TimeoutNY music editor Mike Wolf rating it “Close to noir-rock perfection.” Cover art was done by the great psychedelic collagist/painter Fred Tomaselli.
The next album, Bum Raps and Love Taps, was released in Europe in 2006 on the Naive label and continued the band’s steady touring in Europe. The album is dedicated to Charles’ grandmother, from whose unfinished memoir the title (very confusingly to those unfamiliar with American slang) was taken. Another song “Duel With Cudgels,” at eight minutes and thirty seconds, takes its title from a Goya painting. In fall 2006, the video artist Vincent Moon filmed two live videos of Elysian Fields for La Blogotechque, one featuring Jennifer and Ed Pastorini’s song “We’re In Love,” the tender acoustic track that closes the album. This album was finally released in the US in late 2008 on the band’s own Diluvian imprint. In general, Bum Raps saw the band painting with a bigger canvas in terms of song forms and string arrangements, drawing on their mutual passion for surrealism. They were also incorporating a new element: having been given a piano by his stepmother, Oren began composing on it, with the parts being stylishly executed by new band member Thomas Bartlett (Doveman). Claude Coleman (Ween) played drums, and noted Icelandic composer Shahzad Ismaily (Ceramic Dog) appears on the record and was also a band member during this period. It was recorded by Joe Blaney of The Clash fame (another EF favorite), mixes were by Blaney and Bryce Goggin (Pavement), and the cover photo was a classic image by Michael Ackerman.
In 2009, the band released The Afterlife on Vicious Circle in France, which was received with high critical praise. European tours followed, along with sold out concerts in several major cities, and engagements like the prestigious Art Rock Festival in St Brieux. This classic breakup record features some of EF’s most intimate moments, more and stranger string arrangements, and among the new ingredients, some borrowings from the work of the great John Coltrane. Wistful and melancholic, The Afterlife explored deaths and their postscripts, both literal and metaphoric. The cover is a painting by Jennifer, entitled “The Red Shoes,” which takes its name from the great Powell and Pressburger film, another inspiration for the record.
A landmark was passed in this period when, having re-issued the under-distributed Queen of the Meadow, with new artwork by Lance Scott Walker, Vicious Circle became the first label to release more than one Elysian Fields album. Following that feat with the release of Last Night on Earth, also on VC, the band offered one of their most enjoyable discs of their career, drawing on the classic rock radio sounds of their youth and presenting some of Jennifer’s happiest love lyrics as well as meditations on intersections of childhood and the scary but exciting world of adults (“Sleepover” “Red Riding Hood”), a little bit of Brecht/Weil (“Johnny”), and the closing epic title track, the only EF song to in any way reference reggae (but not the only one to reference Pink Floyd).
That record was followed by the usual European touring cycle, with Parisian upright bass legend Sarah Murcia and drummer/pianist Chris Vatalaro joining the band. At this time the songs were written that became EF’s latest and possibly best record, For House Cats And Sea Fans. To be released in February 2014, it is a record that continues to mine the familiar veins of Beatles and blues, jazz and folk, Coltrane (“Love Me Darling”), Brecht and Weill (“Frank”), and includes longtime collaborators like John Medeski on the Czech bass flute fujara and no wave icon James Chance on saxophone, with JG Thirlwell mixing in sound. Lounge Lizard John Lurie contributes the naive and beautiful cover art. The record was mixed by Mark Plati (David Bowie, The Cure).
In addition to contributing to many of John Zorn’s produced compilation records, including one of Marc Bolan and the first track on the Serge Gainsbourg tribute, Charles and Bloedow have also released two complete albums of Sephardic songs on Zorn’s Tzadik label. The first was named La Mar Enfortuna, and that became the name of the group for the follow-up Convivencia in 2008. Charles sings in Ladino as well as in Arabic, Aramaic, Spanish and Greek on these albums, as the group gives ancient Moorish melodies a revamp with their signature sound.
Elysian Fields have also performed in several tribute concerts produced by the impresario Hal Willner, including an event in Los Angeles featuring the songs of Randy Newman, where Oren was a musical director, and another for Edgar Allan Poe. Elysian Fields performed at the Carnegie Hall on April 5, 2007, in Michael Dorf’s all-star tribute to Bruce Springsteen with Oren was once again as musical director, backing up several artists including Badly Drawn Boy, and Bruce Springsteen himself for the rousing finale of “Rosalita.” Elysian Fields rendition of “Streets Of Fire” was noted in both Billboard and Rolling Stone as being one of the show’s highlights, and described as “sensual” and “passionate.” In February 2009, Elysian Fields performed in Paris in a sold-out show at Salle Pleyel as part of John Zorn’s Serge Gainsbourg tribute concert alongside Marc Ribot and Sean Lennon.
Elysian Fields’ music has appeared in films as well as many television shows including Damages, Conviction, Smallville, Charmed, One Tree Hill, Extra, The Crow and Lipstick Jungle. “Black Acres” from Queen of the Meadow was used in 2011 in Lavazza advertisements across the globe.
Separately, Elysian Fields leadership have been involved in many projects of interest to music fans. Chief of these, to many, is the trip-hop classic album Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By made by Jennifer with Dan the Automator, Mike Patton and Kid Koala. In addition, Jennifer has lent her voice and writing skills to an assortment of other musicians, including DJ Logic, Tweaker, and French artists Wax Tailor (on the 2012 single “Heart Stop”), and Jean Louis-Murat (on the 2004 album A Bird on a Poire). Incidentally, both French releases were nominated for French Grammys (Victoires de la Musique). Theatrical collaborations of Jennifer’s also include composer Michael Gordon’s Emily Dickinson-themed show Lightning at Her Feet (with films by Bill Morrison), and the ongoing underground theater spectacular “Dream of the Red Chamber,” directed by Jim Findlay. For his part, Oren traveled and recorded for many years with Meshell Ndegeocello and Chocolate Genius, was a key member of the band on the Broadway musical Fela! (which took him as far as Lagos, Nigeria to honor that great artist’s life), and among countless other talented artists, has worked for Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons) on the singer’s solo music and in the Robert Wilson show The Life and Death of Marina Abramovitch. Oren continues to play with Ed Pastorini in 101 Crustaceans.