Dorothy Parker is one of the most beloved writers of the 20th century, famed for her wit and incising critique. Her work appeared in everything from the New Yorker to Hollywood film. Local songstress Myriam Gendron was inspired by Parker’s work so much that she transformed poems into songs. I spoke to Gendron about her new album.
Rachel Levine (RL): Can you tell me a little bit about your musical background. I’m not familiar with your work.
Myriam Gendron (MG): I’m just starting out. It’s my first record and my first recording experience. I’ve been playing music ever since I was a kid. I played violin, piano, guitar since I was 12 or 13. As a kid, I was lucky because the school in my neighbourhood had a free program for the kids to learn all sorts of instruments. Every kid learned violin in kindergarten, and one out of three was chosen for the music program, and I was chosen. That was a musical awakening for me. I left that place at age 10 and kept playing piano and learned guitar by myself.
I played covers all my life and went through stages. I had a punk phase, a metal phase, and then folk. I played a lot of Lenard Cohen, Jacques Brel, all these French singers.
I started composing very recently with this Dorothy parker project.
RL: Is this also your first live performance?
MG: Well, I did play in front of people when I was a teenager, but never professionally. I played in the subway for awhile when I lived in Paris. I pretended I was a bum and I liked how it made me feel to play in the subway with my guitar. I made money busking and I actually never made that much money since. I’m a book dealer.
RL: Did you just set up and play in the metro, or do you need to register with the city of Paris or something?
MG: You should register, but no one really does. The laws are there for you to break them in France. Once or twice, someone came and said “You can’t do that, you need a permit.” So you leave and go the following day. I was 14-15 years old. I played a lot at the Opera station. Not because of the opera, but because it was a nice spot.
RL: How did you come to learn about Dorothy Parker? She is very popular in the US, but I’m not sure about Canada.
MG: Parker is one of these authors who is not well known in the French literary world. Her short stories are translated and some of her more critical works, but not her poetry. I didn’t even know she wrote poems. I have different image of her as a satirical writer. I also didn’t know that whole sad part of her work. I was actually browsing in the Word on Milton street and I saw this beautiful book, a 1936 edition, a nice book, Dorothy Parker, Collected Poems. I didn’t know she wrote poetry. I was really surprised to see how sad she was. I thought she was a funny one. She was both. The whole world is in these poems. It’s funny, sad, witty, desperate — everything.
RL: How did you put her poems to music?
MG: It’s hard to answer because each song has its own history. The first poem is Threnody, and the first one I opened in the book store and that’s when I heard music. I brought book home and wrote this first song. For this one, that’s the story. For the others came from flipping the pages. I like this one, can I do something with it, try it, it doesn’t work, come back a month later, try something else. It’s hard to explain in a few sentences. A few poems I chose and wrote the music. Some I wrote the music and looked for the right poem to put with the music.
Ballad of a Great Weariness worked in a similar way. I read it and heard music. I wrote the song. That was an easy one. The poem really spoke to me. The music came easily. Why? It speaks to me in a special way. When you have your heart broken, pretty much everyone has had heart broken. Parker speaks to a lot of people on that.
RL: Is there anything else in particular about Parker that you connect to?
MG: Yes, for example in the poem the Song of Perfect Propriety, it’s the story of a woman who would like to be a pirate, but she’s just a woman so she writes songs. And I like Parker’s more feminist side too. It doesn’t show much in the poetry, but in some poems it does. She plays with these models like Disney world, a fairy tale world, how women wait for prince charming. It’s very witty how she talks about it and makes fun of herself for it. The Red Dress is exactly that. She was waiting for prince charming and puts on a red gown and goes walking on street, and now she’s old and has the gown but never had the prince.
RL: What’s next for you?
MG: I don’t know what’s coming next. That’s fine. It might come. It might not. It might take ten years and that’s fine with me. I don’t want to rush into anything else. This came naturally and that’s how it should be. I know people ask me that a lot. I don’t want to feel pressured to do anything else. I don’t want to make another album because I feel pressured to.
RL: When did you decide to release these songs as an album?
MG: It’s funny how it all happened. I wrote these songs for myself. It was a hobby and I recorded them for myself to remember them and then I ended up with a collection of nine songs and my boyfriend said we should try to do something with this. I wasn’t sure. We sent a demo to a few labels and got responses very quickly and it all went really fast from there. It wasn’t my goal when I started. I never recorded them again. The demos were released as they were. If I had known, I would have recorded a few tracks differently, but maybe the imperfection makes it special.
Myriam Gendron’s CD (in both CD and digial format) is released by MamaBird Recording Co. and she has a vinyl and 7” coming out on Feeding Tube Records. She performs March 4 at Casa del Popolo at 8:30 p.m.