A product of the punk-rock shock wave that rattled Wilson High School in the late '70s, Lida Husik might have been a Dischord star. In fact, she appeared (as Red Emma) on a Dischord release, State of the Union, the benefit compilation recently reissued on CD. That album was a project of Positive Force, and Husik was once a member of the do-good punk group. So what was the formerly abstemious singer/songwriter doing last month in the desert near Palm Springs, shooting a (gasp) rock video?
Recounting the adventure at the Phillips Collection's cafe, Husik doesn't seem quite clear on this point herself. “I basically just walked toward the camera several times, mouthing,” she explains, after taking a nap in a car while waiting for the crew to set up and “having drooled over the makeup done three hours ago in L.A.” It's all part of being signed to Caroline, the semi-indie label started by Virgin—where Husik's contact is Vice President of Label Operations Lyle Preslar, another Wilson alum and a member of early-'80s harDCore heroes Minor Threat, a band that also included Dischord founders Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson.
A Ward 3 native, Husik's first group was the Lafayette Elementary School orchestra, in which she played violin. Later she switched to drums, thumping for “a punk band that played one gig” and the Mourning Glories, “my first real band.” (The latter featured Peter Hayes, later of the High-Back Chairs, and Mitch Parker, who's currently in Tone.) Then, she remembers, she discovered four-track recording and became a solo artist.
Along the way, Husik spent almost a year living in the Positive Force house. “I did manage to be completely straight-edge and vegan for 10 months,” she wryly brags of that period. Despite that accomplishment, she doesn't think she quite fit in. “I was the small negative force within the Positive Force,” she laughs. “I couldn't keep El Salvador and Nicaragua straight.”
One problem is she didn't like the in-crowd politics of the harDCore aristocracy. For that matter, she didn't like the music much either. “I really loved the first wave of punk,” she says. “When all that thrashy stuff happened, I had a headache.”
Husik also attended the Corcoran, following the art-school path of many notable British rockers. “I thought I was doing the Beatles thing,” she says.
The singer is sardonic about the Corcoran experience, although she admits she enjoyed it. “There was this atmosphere of egomania,” she recalls. “Everyone was so groovy.” After the introductory semesters, she says, “for the next three years, you just found yourself.”
Following art school, Husik traveled, spent some time in San Francisco, and worked what she terms “a lot of dumb jobs,” including in a law library, at the Holocaust Museum, and doing “faux finishes” for a restaurant. Now, she notes, “I'm just living from advance to advance.”
Through former Washingtonian Don Fleming, frontman of the Velvet Monkeys and later Gumball, Husik met Kramer, proprietor of New York-based Shimmy-Disc. She made three little-heard albums—she now calls them “stealth records”—for that label, and though “Kramer wasn't really there for most of it,” his cheap-and-speedy method had its influence.
Husik remembers, for example, that she thought Your Bag was going to be an EP. Kramer expected an album, though, so she just stretched out the songs. The relationship concluded with her least favorite of her Shimmy-Disc releases, The Return of Red Emma, an album she thinks suffered from Kramer's hastiness. “I was just not in the mood to make a record that day,” she jokes.
The Shimmy-Disc albums were better distributed in Britain than over here, and one of the people who heard them there was Beaumont Hannant, an ambient musicmaker who mentioned his enthusiasm for Husik's music in a magazine interview. “He said, "I want to work with Lida Husik or Liz Phair'—and I beat her to it!” Husik explains in mock-exultation. The result was the duo's “Star”—“the last Rough Trade single ever”—and an EP, Evening at the Grange. The latter was released late last year on Astralwerks, the ambient imprint of Caroline, which decided to sign her as a solo artist as well.
The resulting album, Joyride, was compiled primarily from demo tapes, some recorded at D.C.'s WGNS Studio and others in New York with Ultra Vivid Scene's Kurt Ralske. “Only four of the songs were done after I had the deal,” says Husik of the album, which also includes “Star.” The latter “was sort of guitar-based, so it went on there,” while the single's more electronic flip side ended up on Grange.
Indeed, Joyride and Grange don't sound all that different: The former has a few more aggressive moments, but both are trippy and relaxed, too song-oriented for ambient, too ethereal for punk. (Sample Joyride titles: “Sweet Lavender,” “Flower of the Hour,” and “Dream Lake.”) Husik says that will change once she starts playing regularly with her band, bassist Charles Steck and drummer Jay Spiegel (both veterans of the Velvet Monkeys). Spiegel, she announces semi-ironically, “really brings out the rock demon in us.”
“I'm sort of an ambassador,” she says of her recent life, which has involved flitting from London to L.A. and playing solo showcase gigs for various industry functions. She's looking forward to touring with the trio, which is scheduled to happen in the fall. “I'm never playing solo again, thank you very much.”
After touring, the band will record another album, which should offer a greater contrast to her upcoming second collaboration with Hannant. “I think the next record will be more direct,” the singer proclaims. “I'm ready to rock.”
“This L.A. trip was my first venture in traveling for music. Even though it was L.A., it was fun,” says Husik, who thus far has no complaints about her affiliation with semicorporate rock. “I floundered until I got to Caroline. I was ready to quit at anytime,” she says. “I've really just now realized I could make a career of this.”