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Gimme an 'S-C-O-U-T'

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: Sept. 24, 2003


Scout Niblett
w/ Jake Bellows and Steve Bartolomei
Sept. 26
9 p.m.
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha
$6

Oh how I tried to get in touch with Emma Louise "Scout" Niblett. But every time I called her cell phone, I only received a coy, dewy "Leave a message" from her answering service, a sure sign that she didn't have her cell phone on. Maybe she had turned off the media for a few days, giving herself a break from all the stupid questions we clueless music writers tend to ask.

Questions like "How much influence has Cat Power had on your music?" Niblett likely would have said "Cat Power? Who's that?" or some other curious comment to try to make us believe that she'd never heard of Chan "Cat Power" Marshall. Still, it's impossible to not make the comparison between the two singer/songwriters. Both take the same arch, minimalist approach to music, flatly singing oblique lyrics over the slimmest of arrangements.

But look at Niblett's one-sheet for her new Secretly Canadian LP I Am and you'll nary see a mention of Cat Power, only references to other underground artists such as Polly Jean Harvey and Daniel Johnston. If you journey though the Internet long enough, however, you'll discover that Niblett has shared the stage with Marshall, opening for Cat Power on one of their tours. The influence is obvious, right down to their shared atonal warble.


 

 

Had I gotten Scout on the phone I would have asked her about working with legendary Chicago producer Steve Albini. Strike that -- Albini doesn't like to be called "producer," he prefers the more emotionally-divorced title "recording engineer," insisting that he doesn't influence the artist's performance, merely captures their sound like some sort of unencumbered recording cipher.

Regardless, Albini's deification for raw minimalism rings loudly from I Am, giving the recording an artsy, low-fi, home-made atmosphere without the annoying tape hiss. He's become indie music's studio version of Wynona Ryder, who, it's said, all rock stars must sleep with before they become famous. Niblett can now say she has done her time with the legendary "engineer" who's worked with every significant indie rock band from Nirvana to Low to The Jesus Lizard to, well, PJ Harvey.

"Working with geniuses like Albini" probably would have been the answer as to why she bothered to move to the good ol' U.S.A. from Nottingham, England, where she attended art college in the late '90s. An only child growing up in Staffordshire, Niblett said she took her name from the character Jean Louise "Scout" Finch from the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird," partially as an homage to Gregory Peck. She says she gave up piano lessons when she was nine, because she "didn't want to learn other people's songs."

In 2001, she released her first album, Sweet Heart Fever with drummer Kristian Goddard on Secretly Canadian, which was followed by a split-release EP with Songs:Ohia that put her on tour with sprightly Americans Swearing At Motorists and The Microphones.

 


She says she gave up piano lessons when she was nine, because she "didn't want to learn other people's songs."

 

 


 

 
The meaning to Niblett's songs are anything but easy to grasp.

 

 

Oh, there would have also been the obligatory questions: How are you going to replicate your rather narrow drum-and-vocals sound on stage? Is it just going to be Scout behind a kit with someone playing guitar in the shadows? And what's the deal with the wigs? Have you ever been to Omaha before? (According to her label, Niblett was actually in town just a couple weeks ago, for unexplained reasons that didn't include a performance).

By the end of the interview, I would have gotten to the ol' reliable, "What are you trying to say with your music?" Because the meaning to Niblett's songs are anything but easy to grasp. Songs like the tribal-drum powered "In Love," with lyrics "Hey America / In your first shoes / Walk into me." Or the spoken-styled "It's All for You" with lines delivered in cheerleader-bark: "Gimme a 'T'/ Gimme an 'R' / Gimme a 'U' / Gimme a 'C' / Gimme a 'K' / For the truckers." Or the fuzz-guitar-fueled rocker "Drummer Boy," which concludes with Niblett screaming like an overheated child: "I can't wait 'till the morning, I gotta go now!"

I know how she'd answer. She'd say, "Quit trying to figure it all out. Just listen to the music. You ask too many questions."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader September 24, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.