One of the wonderful things about pop music is that each artist has his or her own spin, always keeping things just the slightest bit different. And one of the worst things about pop music is that most artists overestimate the depth of their difference, at best.
Bay Area songstress Dawn McCarthy might not fall into the pop music classification at all, and she certainly eschews any pigeonholing, probably by accident. McCarthy, who is usually known by her nom de plume, Faun Fables, has spent more than a decade quietly building a body of work that merges music, storytelling, and theater. Interestingly, McCarthy doesn't seem to be driven by any desire for eccentricity or self-conscious eclecticism. I'm under the impression that she creates her art for herself, and would gladly continue in her pursuits if no one was listening. This quality of dogged singularity is perhaps what makes her work so beguiling.
Predictably, many listeners have assumed that Faun Fables is McCarthy, or that Faun Fables is McCarthy's band. McCarthy explains that Faun Fables is actually an amorphous title for a body of musical and theatrical work.
"I've been nicknamed Dawn the Faun since I was a little kid," she says. "And originally I put those two words together for a graphic novel I was working on. I just kept using it. It's not an alias and it's not my name. It's more of a body of work that's centered on characters and a story."
McCarthy's newest album, The Transit Rider (Drag City), is the song cycle from a performance piece of the same name. First presented in 2002 by a loose conglomeration of performers in the San Francisco area, The Transit Rider has been pared down in order that McCarthy can present the theater piece on the road. Musically, McCarthy's oeuvre sounds like a vaguely skewed take on old-world folk sounds such as madrigals and Celtic reels, with a slightly lysergic edge. McCarthy explains that the piece is loosely based on the metaphor of a train, alluding to the paths of life, fellow travelers, and the stations along the way.
"I got the idea for The Transit Rider when I first lived in New York City," she says. "I'd never lived in a town with a subway. And I'd never lived anywhere that was so intense and 24/7. I was just amazed at the experience. And from there I found the transit theme, the idea of a dream on a train, the questioning—it seemed like such a world in itself. If life was a train, where would you live?"
The Transit Rider's protagonist is a rider on a train who misses her stop. Drawing similarities to Kafka's Josef K, the
rider's fellow passengers try to convince her that her train stop didn't really exist. "She wakes up from a dream, on a train, and she doesn't know where she is," explains McCarthy. "She's kind of a simple character."
For the on-the-road performance of The Transit Rider, McCarthy is aided by three other cast members, including her longtime collaborator, Nils Frykdahl, also known for his work with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. An ambitious undertaking, McCarthy and company will present a full-scale theater piece designed for presentation in unlikely spaces. The show includes songs, dialogue, costumes and video presentations. Most of the stops on the tour are in theater spaces and art galleries with larger stage areas that are more performance-friendly, with the stop in Knoxville at Pilot Light presenting something of a challenge.
"On this tour, because the prices are a little bit higher, I don't think we're going to have people just dropping in on the show to have a beer," says McCarthy. "They'll probably go down the street for that.
"Our ambition was to make the show into something we could set up and break down in one night," McCarthy continues. "And we generally tried to book it in non-bar type venues. We've just been working on creating theater in different kinds of spaces. When you bring it to different settings, people appreciate it, and it's amazing how much they will listen. People are catching on."