It was by whim and circumstance that I found myself, on Tuesday night, at SubCulture for the CD release of THE ORIGIN OF ADJUSTABLE THINGS, by the singer Joanna Wallfisch and the pianist Dan Tepfer. The strange poetry of the title belies the eccentricity of how it came to Wallfisch while water skiing on a family vacation in Canada (she was, apparently, having trouble keeping the gear properly adjusted as the boat pulled her forward). It’s own origin aside, the phrase is a haunting one, starting as enigma and going from there to the associations it calls up. Think of all that might be adjusted in the world, from luggage straps to insurance claims, to our relationships with other people, to our political attitudes, and you have some idea of its richness as a strip of language.
That she is centered on language and its uses is important to understanding Wallfisch. She stands, really just stands, with the most minimal and occasional of gestures, in the curve of the piano and plays with the words of the songs. Tepfer’s key strokes follow her, as if on tiptoe, as she matches their cadence and, so to speak, pretends not to notice. Now and then she makes exceptionally judicious use of a looper to fill the space, in a different way, with the reflective timbre of her voice. The dominant tone is of cabaret, with hints of show tune and a touch, although everything was sung, of spoken word. Most of her numbers, whether original or interpreted, come off like soliloquies or prose poems, episodes or character studies in a bigger drama.
The exceptions tend to be satirical takes, with titles like “Brighton Beach” or “Garden in my Mind,” on the urban landscapes of Brooklyn, as confronted by Wallfisch, who is a transplant from England; listening to her sing them, I had flashes, but only just, of Nellie McKay. In one case, she switched places with Tepfer as he took the singer’s microphone to blow into what looked to be a toy store melodica. Such moments were breaks in the poetry, or, better said, variations in kind that accentuated the whimsy that animates her as a writer and a singer. “Satellite” is like that – whimsical – the third person tale of a woman captivated by the idea of an orbiting body, passing overhead like a star. The looper, in “Satellite,” adds to the otherworldliness, and sheer dreaminess, of the song, and for the title composition, “The Origin of Adjustable Things,” she brings on a trio of guests, who at Subculture were Angelica Allen, Camila Meza and Karlie Bruce, to act as a sort of human looper of the song’s meanderings, which are unusual for Wallfisch in that they do not, except momentarily, coalesce into words. It ended, on Tuesday night, with a sounded outtake of breath by Allen so startling that it took away our other breaths.
Wallfisch mostly gives voice to a feminine sensibility, either explicitly (the “she” of “Satellite”) or implicitly (the mind of “Garden in my Mind” is presumably hers). So it is all the more powerful when sings Radiohead’s implicitly masculine “Creep.” Since the monologist of the song is clearly not the woman standing before us, but someone she is channeling, or into whose personality she is entering as a storyteller, the tone, if not the subject, of the song is one of deep empathy, so deep that it borders on identification. This is emblematic of what I saw in this artist whom I am glad to have discovered, an engagement, with a remarkable eschewing of adornment, with what is being said and how (for to her singing is a kind of saying) as well as who is, or might be, saying it. She empathizes, as one must, with human feeling, but exposes, in her sensitivity to language, the poetics as well as the emotion.