Syd Straw is sitting in her truck outside her home in the tiny town of Weston, Vermont. Born in Hollywood with the performing bug, the singer says she yearned for the country life at a mere six months, and that her parents obliged her with regular visits to Weston.
"I was an influential baby," she says.
That influential baby grew up to be an adult who's spent her life singing with many influential people. After moving to New York at nineteen, she's graced more than three hundred albums with folks like Wilco, Emmylou Harris, Michael Stipe, Vic Chesnutt, Rickie Lee Jones, and Dave Alvin. In July, she and Los Lobos performed for an audience of thirteen thousand. But next week she'll play a pair of shows at the Cave and Slim's, two of the Triangle's most proudly cramped venues that have a combined capacity of less than two hundred.
It might look like a comedown, but the low-key spaces are in sync with the modest ambitions of Straw's tour. The dates she'll play will pay her way down to an Americana festival in Nashville, for which she'll receive an honorarium she calls "a laughable pittance."
"I thought we should play some shows," she says. "I have no idea if anybody's around that remembers me, or cares. I really don't know."
There's no apparent anger, hurt, or self-pity in this admission. Plenty of people remember and care for her. She's made three solo LPs in nineteen years. Mostly she's kept busy adding her signature vocals—sweetly husky, Southern-tinged, yearning—to the work of others. Playing that backup role is an unheralded enterprise, and it surely hasn't been an easy path to tread.
"It's a challenge," she admits. "So that's why I'm happy I can just do a little tour, kick up some musical dust, make a ruckus, and then try to finish some records so I have something to sell—because that's how people live."
Despite her grade-A résumé, her career can be surprisingly workaday. Last month, she drove two hours to a studio to record one song. The session expanded to two more, but Straw abruptly ended it when told her vocal could be Auto-Tuned later.
"It's a macho thing for me. I don't wanna be fuckin' Auto-Tuned," she says. "There are plenty of people who really can't sing. As long as those people are trying to make records, Auto-Tuning will have a valid place in the process—but just not on my sessions."
Some similar music-biz frustration has cropped up in her songs. Her most recent LP, 2008's Pink Velour, ended with the lacerating "Actress," a catalog of indignities built around the refrain, "I'm having that kind of career." It would be folly to think that some of those indignities weren't ones she's personally endured.
"You know what the miracle is? That anything ever gets made," Straw says. "Lots of good things get started; not that many things really see the light of day."
Straw's first break was singing backup for Pat Benatar, then Van Dyke Parks. It was with the latter that she caught the eye of Anton Fier, the hot-tempered original drummer for The Feelies and The Lounge Lizards. His band, The Golden Palominos, updated the retro concept of a supergroup with an aggressively eclectic lineup of cameos, from John Lydon to Cream's Jack Bruce to Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell. Straw, the group's one constant vocalist, stood out on 1985's Visions of Excess and its follow-up, 1986's Blast of Silence (Axed My Baby for a Nickel).
Too weird and arty for mass fame, The Golden Palominos earned a devoted cult following—one of several such associations for Straw, who sang "Que Sera Sera" over the opening credits of the hit film Heathers in 1988. She did some of her finest backup vocal work with the late Grant McLennan, cofounder of Australian indie pop legends the Go-Betweens, and had a recurring role on The Adventures of Pete and Pete, which earned popularity in the nineties through quirky storytelling and cameos by people like LL Cool J, Iggy Pop, and Steve Buscemi.
Straw's role as Miss Fingerwood, an algebra teacher obsessed with the number two, is close to her heart. She'd love to reprise Miss Fingerwood, and has even had meetings with the show's cowriter, Will McRobb, but apparently Nickelodeon, the network that originally broadcast the show, wants to do nothing with it.
"It's kind of like having a really good record that the label doesn't want to put out again," she says.
Straw knows that scenario well. Her 1989 debut, Surprise, a slick set abetted by an all-star cast and featuring a gutsy duet with Michael Stipe, has long been out of print. It drew critical praise but weak sales. Straw didn't make another record for seven years, and when she did, it was a looser, humbler affair, devoid of big names.
It seems she has often been on the cusp of things. The Golden Palominos for example, have received posthumous praise as originators of a now-monster genre.
"So many people have come up to me over the years and said, 'You invented Americana,'" says Straw. "I don't feel like I or the Golden Palominos did. We have to reach back to Woody Guthrie to see who invented it."
Still, she'd love to reunite the group—as the Silver Palominos—and several from that iteration of the shape-shifting outfit are already on board. As for Anton Fier?
"I'm thinking of hiring him to play drums," she says.
These days, Straw divides her time between New York, Los Angeles, and Vermont, but she often encounters old friends in familiar settings. Even on short grocery runs, she encounters her contemporary, Natalie Merchant. But even that recognition stings a little.
"I think OK, maybe I'll go and get milk and a couple oranges and some bread, but it's almost like they see me coming and they cue up the 10,000 Maniacs loop," she says.
"I like them, and I like her, and I know her and everything. But it's like, would it hurt you to just play me once in a supermarket?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Living on the Edge"