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The Restless, Rootsy Songs Of Eszter Balint

Born in Hungary, raised in an avant-garde theater company, introduced at a young age to a whole range of downtown luminaries (including filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who cast her in his bohemian road movie Stranger Than Paradise), Eszter Balint says that she learned early on to rely on herself and travel light.

Her second album, Mud, now out on Bar/None, is a rootsy declaration of independence, blending quintessentially American genres including folk, jazz, blues and rock. "There's something about that music that's very universal to me," she said during a recent phone interview. "There's something very basic and essential about that sound that, I think, appeals to a lot of people, to all of us. A lot of the music that might be called 'roots-based' because it has something to do with our roots as a people — not as Americans, but there's just something very human and basic and elemental about it."

Balint added that despite her early childhood overseas, she has always felt surrounded by these elemental styles, "A lot of that music is prevalent in other forms of music that aren't necessarily called roots or folk or country, but it's permeated all rock 'n' roll," she said.

Mud may be rooted in traditional sounds, but it is, in many ways, a road record. The lyric to "No One" observes, "There's not much to carry/ Just a few meaningless things/ Along with her will and her blood/ And the tape player she's had/ For 15 years and a dozen lives" and you can't help but picture Balint tossing an aged boombox into the backseat for another soul-searching journey. When she sings "No one ever leaves this land of being left behind" on "Pebbles and Stones" there is a restless, mournful quality that only a lifelong traveler could muster.

In fact, Balint says that music has been a constant, controllable factor in a peripatetic life. "Even when I am in one place, music has a feeling of transporting rather than being stationary...," she said. "Something like the feeling of being on a train and looking out the window, or being in a car, there's something about a journey. It's something that feels home to me, possibly because of my growing up."

Balint moved to the United States from Hungary at the age of 10, following her parents, members of the experimental theater group Squat, to Baltimore, then New York City, and on nearly constant tours. "We traveled around a lot," she remembered."It was the sort of environment where the kids in the group had had to grow up very fast, to be, well, 'self-sufficient' would be a very diplomatic and nice way to put it."

Yet on the flipside, Balint was introduced at an early age to an astonishing array of actors, musicians, artists and intellectuals — including the painter Jean Michel Basquiat, who produced her first recording, musicians including James White, Jim Zorn, Sun Ra and others who came to a nightclub where she DJ'd, the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, and many others. She developed intense, lifelong quasi-sibling relationships with many of the children in the troupe, many of them turning into the kind of dangerous, magnetic characters at the center of the murder song "Good Luck."

Asked if there was a tradeoff between what seems, on paper, to be a glamorous life, filled with interesting characters and projects, and the song's deep-seated feeling of unsafeness, Balint replied, "Yes, you take a lot of chances and also rely on yourself. Because a lot of those characters, and that's I think what 'Good Luck' refers to, a lot of those really magnetic characters aren't that safe.

"That song was essentially based on a dream that I had, which was a pretty straight-ahead, horrifying murder story about a totally fictional murder character," Balint said, adding, "But, I don't know, it's sort of a metaphor for, I guess, being attracted to trouble... the idea of literally falling in love with my murderer is kind of an interesting metaphor for something, for being attracted to trouble... or situations that are dangerous, whether it's literally, physically, in the case of a murder, or something that's more emotionally dangerous."

Balint plays a whole orchestra full of instruments on Mud, including violin, guitar, mandolin, vibraphone and glockenspiel. She is accompanied by Chris Cochran on guitar, Michael Duclos, who contributes the album's extraordinary bass lines, and two drummers, Mick Brown and Phil Hernandez. The band recorded the basic tracks in two and a half days at Brooklyn Recordings with Andy Taub, then Balint and producer JD Foster added overdubs at her home.

"On my last record, Flicker, it was a very different process in a lot of ways, and I'm not saying it's better or worse, but it was kind of more experimental," Balint said. "That time, I went into the studio with not entirely what I thought were finished songs, and a lot of it was more experimental, playing around with stuff. But this time I really wanted to feel good about the song. I felt that would really free me up to have fun with all of the other ornamentation or whatever happened to the songs. If at the foundation I had a good song, that was important to me."

Balint said that she writes almost exclusively on the guitar, even though her primary instrument is violin and she also plays piano "For some reason, the guitar, I think, is just so easy and spontaneous to pick up. Maybe that's why, because the songwriting never happens to me like in this way where I set a block of time and decide to write a song," she explained. "The guitar is just kind of sitting there in the corner and I pick it up and start noodling, and that's much less of a conscious process than, I think, sitting down at the piano. And there's something about the sound of the guitar that's so inviting for the song. But I think, I want to work on writing on the piano a little more."

After studying classical violin as a young girl, putting in five-hour practice sessions for years, Balint said she burned out by her teen years. "I just put the instrument down for 10 years," she remembered. "But I think when I started getting into a little songwriting, I thought, maybe all those years of torture will pay off now. I can put it to some other use where my level of skill doesn't have to be on the level of a concert violinist. I still have a pretty good foundation on the instrument."

Balint, whose 1984 film debut in Stranger Than Paradise is widely considered a classic, also had roles in Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog and Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, and lived for a time in Los Angeles. She is no longer acting, a decision she explained like this: "The whole film thing was something that I never really totally sat down and chose for myself as a way of life. I was exposed to a lot of interesting things early on, including Stranger Than Paradise and all the theater stuff I did, and I think the rest of what became available was not quite... you can't keep up that level all the time."

And, as so many things in Balint's life do, it all came down to self-sufficiency. "Film is something that you can't really do on your own when circumstances don't line up," she said. "Music is a little different in that, no matter what, no matter how much we bemoan the industry, one can always sit down and write a song. That's not necessarily true for acting. I don't like that lack of control. You have to wait for opportunities to come your way in order to do your work at all."

For a woman who makes her own opportunities, however, Balint has collaborated on projects with an impressive array of artists. She played violin on the Angels of Light's Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home last year, and has worked with Marc Ribot & Los Cubanos Positivos on Muy Divertado. Balint, who is the mother of a seven-month-old son, is currently planning a tour for spring/summer 2004 and working on songs for the next album. — Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, May 18, 2004]

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