In Carissa's Wierd, Jenn Ghetto and Mat Brooke traded bar-stool confessions over aching, sparsely orchestrated slowcore, each singing in barely more than a whisper, lyrics over-lapping, leaning on each other (with lines like "If I could just see straight/I'd probably head straight for the door"). By the time the band broke up in 2003, Ghetto had already released one solo album, Sadstyle, under the moniker S. On her own, her singing sounded less steadied, more vertiginous—and it started looking like a long, dark way down from that bar stool.
On Sadstyle, Ghetto sang quietly, often multitracked to create a kind of internally ringing echo, over spare guitar picking. She released another S album, Puking and Crying, in 2004, this time collaborating with fellow Carissa's Wierd alum Creighton Barrett and adding both drums and electronic touches without sacrificing her appealing sonic intimacy.
In the year following the record's release, Ghetto played shows both as S and in metal duo Crictor, also with Barrett—but then she suddenly and quietly stopped. While her former bandmates have gone on to successful post-CW careers (Ben Bridwell in Band of Horses, Mat Brooke in that band and Grand Archives, Sera Cahoone solo), S remained conspicuously silent.
"It was just like, 'I don't want to do this anymore,'" says Ghetto. We're meeting at the Redwood, the bar where both she and Brooke bartend; Ghetto is drinking water. In person, she is slight and shy, nervous and fidgety, tapping her heavily tattooed fingers on her glass. (In e-mails, she admits to being rather terrified of interviews.) She's circumspect about her years spent away from music, but she's enthusiastic when talking about the new album, if shocked that people might actually want to hear it.
She began recording songs again last summer, and in September of last year returned to the stage, playing a show at the War Room that she describes as "basically just me and all my friends." "I guess that was my big comeback show," she says. "I probably hadn't played in like two years."
This year, Ghetto toured the West Coast and Europe opening for her old bandmates in Grand Archives, and Aviation Records reissued a remastered version of her first album, Sadstyle (the ostensible improvements in fidelity have actually been a target of some criticism from longtime fans of the lo-fi original). Recently, Sub Pop subsidiary Hardly Art announced that it would be rereleasing the Carissa's Wierd catalog this summer, and that the band would be reuniting for some as-yet-unscheduled live performances. "We've practiced," Ghetto says. "It's funny—we are just so quiet."
"I probably sing louder now," she continues. "After all the years of people telling me that I should sing louder. But you can't really whisper louder."
Two weeks ago, Ghetto celebrated the release of her new S album, I'm Not as Good at It as You, with an in-store performance at the new Sonic Boom Records on Capitol Hill.
The new album, like its predecessors, was largely recorded by Ghetto at home on an eight-track, but it sounds somehow clearer and less claustrophobic. As ever, her voice is fragile but tuneful and her guitar playing nimble. Indeed, her songs as S showcase, in more dour tones, the same quick picking and finger-stretching fretwork that, with the application of a distortion pedal and the crank of an amp, turned to credible metal shredding in Crictor.
(About Crictor, Ghetto says, "I wanted a band where I could just show off. Carissa's Wierd is just so modest—sometimes I'm only playing one chord for the whole song, but if I were to play more than that, I'd be stepping on someone else's part.")
Lyrically and musically, S carries on the bleak but beautiful spirit of Carissa's Wierd more than any of that band's other descendant acts. Most of the songs feature nothing more than Ghetto's singing and guitar playing ("Wait" features some strings and ukulele with guest appearances by Brooke and Cahoone; "Save Me" features a piano). There are even some literal echoes—the lyric "the x on your eyes" on "Away Around This" recalls CW's gut-wrenching "Drunk with the Only Saints I Know" ("This is how we all look when we die... x marks over our eyes"). The line is preceded by what sounds like an invitation to the old band's upcoming reunion: "We'll sing a song/Remembering when/It feels the same now/I'll never grow up."
At the album's heart is the three-song run of "Save Me," "This Is Love," and "Save You." "Save Me" is a desperate plea; "Save You" concludes with a hopeful if potentially codependent promise ("And I will be the one who will always save you").
"This Is Love" is a wild chase whose choruses turn from declarative ("This is love and that's a fact") to reassuring to wondering ("If you could really ever be with me"). Its verses tumble forward, guitars galloping, Ghetto's words tripping over each other and repeating almost as a stammer as they spill out: "And your legs are running/Running all over this town/And I will try to catch you/I will try to slow you down... I've wanted you for so long/Thoughts of you, they fill my heart/We should take off all our clothes/I'm sure you're the one for me."
If Ghetto is reserved in interviews, her songs with S (as with Carissa's Wierd) often feel like unfiltered outpourings. On "This Is Love," she sings, "It's unfortunate that all your friends are junkies/I will not mock or judge them/'Cause once or twice I've been there too." On "Save You," she dreams about finding a lover's cocaine and sings, "So you think you might stop drinking/Holding on to all these things." Still, Ghetto feels she's reined in her writing over the years.
"With Carissa's Wierd, it'd be like, 'I've got this journal entry, I'll just sing that,'" she says. "I feel like I can't really get away with that anymore. When I sing the songs off the first record, I want a disclaimer, like, 'I was only 21. I know better now.'"
At Sonic Boom, Ghetto performed seated, with guitarist Alice Wilder of Telepathic Liberation Army (and Ghetto's girlfriend of some years), and even though they were playing to only a few dozen people, including many friends from Grand Archives and Carissa's Wierd, Ghetto admitted she was "really nervous."
They played a set of eight songs, mostly from the new album, including the hesitant then bright "Wait" and the faintly twangy "Not a Problem." They also indulged in a cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" (in the Donnie Darko style) that morphed into a dissonant dirge version of Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and then into the halting S song "Away Around This." Throughout the set, Ghetto was soft-spoken and gracious, introducing songs and thanking the audience but also cracking little jokes, reluctantly hawking new shirts (which Wilder was modeling), and after one false start, apologizing, "This is an old song; I don't remember it that well."
"I still don't know why I'm even putting out this record," Ghetto says at the Redwood. "I like writing a lot, I feel like I enjoy playing shows sometimes, but there's a lot of shenanigans involved with putting a record out. I sent this record to so many labels, and it was hard being rejected so many times."
For all her shrinking and stage fright, Ghetto's songs are undeniably catchy and strong, and I'm Not as Good at It as You (did we mention a self-deprecating streak?) is her most consistently arresting work yet as S. It's a privilege to have her back.
This story has been updated since its original publication.