While not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, transgender singer-pianist Baby Dee is a true Cleveland treasure. Born and raised in Old Brooklyn, he started out as street performer and 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 and dressed as a bumblebee.
Dee has said she gets bored talking about her colorful past, but she's done a bit of everything. For a short time, she toured with a circus and would lie on broken glass and have concrete slabs broken over her head with a sledgehammer. While all that craziness is decidedly in the past, the fact remains that those experiences make her a singular entity, even in the anything-goes indie rock world.
"When you have a life as weird as mine, things just seem as strange as they actually are," she says in an email interview from Amsterdam where she's just wrapped her "dream gig," a six-month residency with a theater company. "Old age doesn't make it make sense. I think I've always been lucky, though. To do as I pleased with my art, my life, I was lucky to be able to be the nerdy organist and to be the bear and to be the bee and to be the cat and to be the hermaphrodite. And I was lucky to get to know and work with wonderful people like [rock singer] Andrew W.K."
Dee spent a total of 28 years in New York, working the streets as a performance artist. In 1999, she moved back to Cleveland to live in the Old Brooklyn home where she grew up.
"At first I hated it," she says of her return to town. "But after a few years I learned to love Cleveland. It has an unfortunate tendency toward big corporate stupidities but I can forgive that if I avoid places like the 9th Street Pier and House of Blues. Cool American cities are getting hard to find. They all got attitude. Pittsburgh thinks it's Warhol. Baltimore thinks it's John Waters. Seattle thinks it's Nirvana. Gimme a break!"
Dee's discography includes a steady stream of indie releases that put her in the same camp as operatic singer Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons fame). And for the past two years, she's concentrated on making State of Grace, a collaboration with singer Little Annie. The two are currently on a short U.S. tour before they head overseas for a few shows.
"Annie's an incredible lyricist," she says. "We've known each other forever and lived in the same neighborhood in Manhattan, knew all the same people, played all the same venues but somehow never hooked up until about five years ago. In spite of being neighbors with tons of mutual friends we never really met until we both opened for [pop singer] Marc Almond in Barcelona in 2007. After that, we kept bumping into each other more and more and finally decided to do an album together. Now we're making up for lost time. As Annie's fond of saying, 'We're the best songwriting team since Leopold and Loeb.'"
A beautiful album of haunting ballads that comes off a bit like Nick Cave with a jazzy transgender twist, A State of Grace doesn't depart much from Dee's own recordings even though Annie handles most of the lead vocal duties.
"Annie and I have a few things in common," Dee says. "One of them is that we both cringe at the idea of producing our own album. We both like big strong men to make decisions for us. I was afraid it would come out sounding like two girls dancing and I didn't want that. But if we waited for the big strong men to become available we'd probably still be waiting so we just jumped in and recorded piano and Hammond and vocals at my place."
Annie wrote the lyrics and Dee penned the music, and the two would collaborate at Dee's house Annie came to town on "little visits."
"The only song we didn't hammer out right in the room together was the final song on the album, 'Perfect Gift,'" says Dee. "That was neat. We hadn't seen each other in a couple months and during that time I had written nothing but one little piano piece and this came about during a stopover at home for just a few days. I went out on the road again and not only forgot the piece (I don't write things down) but I'd forgotten I'd ever written it! So when we met again, Annie said she'd written one little lyric and I thought, 'Wait a minute. Didn't I write something?' and I totally panicked and couldn't remember it but eventually I got lucky and it came back to me. And the cool part was that her little lyric and my little tune fit together perfectly as if we'd worked on them like we did with all the others."
Dee's English manager, Richard Guy, handled production duties and added the dynamic string arrangements that bring songs like the prickly title track to life.
"We did the bones of it ourselves and gave Rich carte blanche to take it wherever he liked," she says. "So he turned out to be our big strong man. He got Chris Cundy to do horns, Eric Cheneaux to do guitar and Jordan Hunt to do strings. He put it all together himself. It was his idea to invite [indie rocker] Will [Oldham] to duet with Annie on the title track. Annie and I are over the moon about it. It came out perfect. He took it somewhere beyond our wildest dreams."
The album makes for another terrific chapter in Dee's musical career. While she's been dismissed (and sometimes affectionately referred to) as a freak, Dee doesn't take offense at the term.
"I don't embrace the term freak, not really — even though I've worked in freak shows," she says. "There's a friendliness among freak show people. That's a wonderful thing. But nobody really likes to be called a freak. Some people are different and work very hard to disappear into the crowd and blend in and some people are different and cop an attitude about it. I guess I've been both of those at various times in my life. Nowadays I just can't be bothered. If I have to deal with the unkindness of some moron once in a while, well, who doesn't?"