“These songs were written over some of most tumultuous, painful, interesting and beautiful years of my life,” Dayna Kurtz says of Rise and Fall, her seventh studio album and her first collection of original compositions in four years. “I’m not inclined to write a memoir, so I’m grateful to have some kind of record of this time.”
The emotion-charged new set is a creative milestone for the New Jersey-born, New Orleans-based singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer as well as a compelling reaffirmation of the creative strengths that have already won her a fiercely loyal fan base. That audience stretches from Kurtz’s home country to Europe, where she’s toured widely to impressive sales and massive critical acclaim, with her song “Love Gets in the Way” becoming a Top 10 hit in the Netherlands.
The Washington Post called her voice “a deep-hued garnet of lifeblood and beauty,” while L.A. Weekly rhapsodized, “Kurtz tilts her head back at an angle and spins melodic, earthbound poetry that sets loose demons only to dismiss them into the ether… Kurtz makes ordinary misery voluptuous.” The Boston Globe stated, “There’s no logical reason why Dayna Kurtz is not a full-blown star,” star,” and prominent Dutch op-ed writer Frits Abrahams recently referred to her as the “female Dylan.”
A restless musical truth-seeker whose ongoing pursuit of inspiration has led her to follow her creative muse in unexpected and rewarding directions, Kurtz has spent the past decade and a half building a powerful body of recordings on her own uncompromising terms.
That catalogue encompasses her own compositions as well as her distinctive interpretations of outside material drawn from a bottomless wellspring of pop, folk, jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll traditions. In addition to releasing seven albums, a pair of EPs and a live DVD, she’s also built an international reputation as a riveting live performer, thanks to her tireless roadwork and industrious D.I.Y. spirit.
The musical and personal experience gained in Kurtz’s travels is reflected throughout Rise and Fall, on such richly crafted, emotionally precise tunes as the stirring country waltz “It’s How You Hold Me,” the startlingly soulful “You’re Not What I Need (But You’re All that I Want),” the audaciously forthright “If I Go First,” and the stark, haunting “The Hole,” which was inspired by the experience of burying her late father’s ashes near her family’s home in rural Vermont. Rise and Fall’s lone cover is a deeply felt reading of the Bobby Charles/David Allan Coe chestnut “You’ll Always Live Inside of Me,” which continues Kurtz’s tradition of imbuing outside material with her own fiercely expressive spirit.
Rise and Fall’s soul-baring songcraft and impassioned performances are the product of an extended period during which the artist experienced a series of major life changes. “These songs are the product of the last few years of my life, which were pretty heavy,” Kurtz notes. “My father died. My marriage ended. I moved from Brooklyn to New Orleans. I had a couple years of wild oat-sowing, and then I found a grand new love. There’s been a lot to think about and a lot to write about, and all of that is in these songs.
“The title Rise and Fall,” she explains, “comes from the chorus of ‘If I Go First,’ which is a love song from the grave. I was drawn to the fact that the phrase could describe the span of an empire, the life of a human, or the act of breathing.”
Kurtz co-produced Rise and Fall with longtime collaborator Randy Crafton at his Kaleidoscope Sound studio in Union City, NJ, with a musical cast that includes such longtime associates as guitarist Robert Mache (Continental Drifters, Swinging Madisons), bassist David Richards (Linda Thompson, Richie Havens), keyboardist/accordionist Peter Vitalone (Elske DeWall) and drummer Dan Rieser (Norah Jones, Amos Lee). Three tracks feature string arrangements by the acclaimed avant-classical foursome collectively known as Ethel, while noted French-Israeli alt-chanteuse Keren Ann adds her distinctive voice to “A Few Confessions.”
“For me, Rise and Fall is a lot like my first album, Postcards From Downtown, in that it’s a collection of original songs written over a long span of time,” says Kurtz. “Over the last several years, I’ve spent a lot of time collecting obscure cover songs and experimenting with country and rockabilly, so a lot of the songs I was writing that didn’t fit in that mold went on the backburner until I was ready to deal with them.”
Dayna Kurtz was still in her teens when she began performing her compositions in public. After releasing the low-key live CD Otherwise Luscious Life in 2000, she won considerable acclaim for her impressively accomplished studio efforts Postcards from Downtown, Beautiful Yesterday and Another Black Feather, all released on her own Kismet label.
Postcards From Downtown put Kurtz on the map in Europe and became a Top 20 seller in Holland, where she played sold-out headlining shows at Amsterdam’s fabled Paradiso (one of which became her first DVD, Postcards from Amsterdam). She subsequently collaborated with fellow songstress Mamie Minch on a 10-inch vinyl tribute to folk legend Hazel Dickens, and collaborated with notable pals Keren Ann and My Brightest Diamond on a pair of 7″ singles.
In 2012, Kurtz simultaneously released a pair of diverse yet complementary albums that demonstrated the breadth of her musical vision: the rootsy, R&B-and-rockabilly-inflected American Standard, and Secret Canon Vol. 1, on which she applied her interpretive skills to an idiosyncratic assortment of long-forgotten R&B and blues numbers dating as far back as the 1930s. Secret Canon Vol. 2 followed in 2013.
Along the way, Kurtz has achieved such distinctions as being named Female Songwriter of the Year by the National Academy of Songwriters. Norah Jones (with whom she later recorded a duet) and Bonnie Raitt have raved about her in interviews, she’s performed on such high-profile radio shows as World Cafe, Mountain Stage and NPR’s Morning Edition, and her singing was featured in a widely seen TV commercial for a prominent American hotel chain.
She’s also performed at such prestigious festivals as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Celebrate Brooklyn and Austin City Limits, and has been invited to open for the likes of Elvis Costello, Antony and the Johnsons, Richard Thompson, Rufus Wainwright, B.B. King, Dr. John, Richie Havens, Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama. And best-selling author Steve Almond spends an entire chapter singing her praises in his book about music obsession, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.
“One thing I love about New Orleans is that musicians here continue performing until their fingers, mouth, mind or heart no longer works, and I’m hoping to be one of those,” Kurtz states, adding, “Making music your life’s work has never been the easy choice, and it may be harder than ever now. But the payoff is that we get to do the thing we love, and that we aren’t often bored for very long. For me, it comes down to stubbornness; I’m just not interested in living any other kind of life.”