Baby Dee's forthcoming album, A Book of Songs for Anne Marie, had a particularly long gestation period. The flamboyant transgendered singer with a colorful past started working on it in 2002 during a brutally cold Cleveland winter.
"Basically, it's one of those things that hit me like a ton of bricks," says Dee. "I worked on it for about a year or so, but it came at a weird time. I was a little bit crazy. I totally retired from any kind of music thing. I had stopped doing shows and was looking after my parents in Cleveland. I didn't even record. I stopped singing, even to myself."
She initially thought someone else would sing the songs she had written and recorded haphazardly. She put them out on a CD that came with an illustrated book of lyrics. Only 150 copies were released, and Dee says she doesn't even have a finished copy.
"I wanted someone to discover them, like fishing a bottle out of the ocean," she says.
Then, a year ago, Russian-born arranger and Cleveland Institute of Music grad Maxim Moston (Antony and the Johnsons, Rufus Wainwright) offered to produce the album and arrange the songs.
"He's a really great arranger and violinist," says Dee. "He knows all these great musicians. The people on it are unbelievable. When I listen to it, all I'm doing is waiting for the oboe to come in. I just get blasted away; it's so beautiful. I'm really thrilled with the album. I finally got what I wanted. Max took it over, and gave it a life and beauty that I could never, ever come to close to on my own."
On tracks like "Love's Small Song" and "Anne Marie Does Love to Sing," Dee's fluttering vocals mesh perfectly with tender orchestral arrangements that are alternately beautiful and haunting.
"I've been really pleased with the response from old-time fans that have the book," she says. "You do these songs, and it's just you and the piano, and then you move heaven and earth to create this magnificent arrangement. And then all your fans say, 'I liked it better when it was just you and the piano.' And you want to murder them. That hasn't happened. Even the people who liked my original crazy version of this album really, really love this album. How can anyone find fault with arrangements like that?"
While not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, Dee is a true Cleveland treasure. Born and raised in Old Brooklyn, she started out as street performer. She moved to New York City, where, after a stint as a music director at a Catholic Church, "he" became "she." Baby Dee then became a performance artist and quickly gained notoriety for outlandish shows that found her playing the harp while riding a tricycle.
"What the things in my past all have in common is that I was completely on my own," says Dee. "I did have people who played with me, but it was mostly a solo gig. Now I have these wonderful collaborators. The last album [2008's Safe Inside the Day] I recorded with Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney. Andrew WK just came to Cleveland, and we recorded the next album at my house. I have all these people to collaborate with. That's new. I never had that. That's a welcome change in my life."
Dee says she's looking forward to playing Cleveland this week, in part because she's doing two different shows. Her performance at the Cleveland Museum of Art will be a 20-minute solo set that may or may not include a collaboration with the Opera Cleveland Chorus, who are also on the bill. The next night she'll play a longer set with her backing band at the Beachland.
"I love being home, and last year I was home a lot because the album took so long to come out," she says, adding that she lives in a "most unfabulous neighborhood" on the west side. "I was totally luxurious. I just sat at home and was happy as a clam, even if I didn't have any money. I just love being in Cleveland."
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