Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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The Shameless American

I’ve spent most of the past 15 years on the road, constantly adjusting to a new city, country, or culture. While this unusual path of mine is often invigorating, it is never easy. I have to frequently adjust to new temperatures, currencies, and languages. The cultural assumptions are the most challenging, and the most pervasive. There are days when I’d rather stick my head in the ground than look at another stranger.

After years of passing through many places and staying awhile in others, I can feel a chronic disconnect from my surroundings. My favorite antidote to this is by listening to music by artists who remind me that being a brassy American broad is a gift, not a flaw.

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Johnette Napolitano’s always near the top of my list [Note:some might consider her landing page NSFW]. Whether she’s writing about barflies on the seedier side of Los Angeles or ghosts in Texas, no one creates lyrics with such a mix of passion and eccentricity. Last week she played a small club in Sydney. It was the ideal venue to showcase her style: more of a pub than a club, the wooden floors and small stage provided the kind of intimacy that would’ve been impossible at the height of her notoriety as lead singer for the band Concrete Blonde.

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We stand through a painfully twee pair of opening female singers. The club fills. Johnette jumps onto the stage in a pair of gleaming silver bedroom heels, carrying an acoustic guitar and a glass of wine. She sets down the glass, and strides to the mic. Though of average height, her presence is huge, and she stands solidly in her five-inch shoes. Her thick boot-black hair covers her face.

“Hi!” she says with a quick smile, and launches into the first song. Ghosts, parking lots, and murders. Her voice starts as a smoky low tenor then rises to a clear alto. At the low end, her voice has the tired vibrato of Johnny Cash, and her face twists into those distortions possible only with relaxed older flesh.

She’s just turned 52.

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Her sparkly neckline has those distinctive knotted buttons – yep, she’s wearing a vintage Qipao. It’s likely from the 60s or 70s, and would’ve been hand-tailored for a tall, substantial Chinese woman, or possibly sold off-the-rack in the West. The loose fit is perfect for a musician on the move.

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There’s no way anyone could bend like that in your typical Shanghainese qipao, which is tailored to squeeze every curve and ensure you don’t want to have dinner, let alone breakfast. But, like me, she wouldn’t completely buy into the Shanghai look, because she’s American. She’s lusty and loud, and wants it all: her sensuality is brazen and comfortable.

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America was at best an ambiguous home, and so is everywhere else I’ve lived. The closest thing I have to a home is a home base or two. But when I listen to Napolitano’s lyrics, I’m grounded again, wherever I happen to be. I’m reminded of those American traits I can never shake: my straightforward dry humor; the opinions I share with all and sundry, however inappropriate; and how I ignore the abyss and fill it with distracting stuff. Then I down another glass of cheap red wine.

Here’s a Napolitano video from 1993. Check out that poet shirt. Ignore the cheesy special effects, and have a listen to that voice.

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