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Savage garden

Goth-rock royalty Jarboe lets her Southern roots show


If Buckhead had a soundtrack, it would no doubt feature a little Dave Matthews, a heavy sprinkling of electroclash, and perhaps Salt 'N Pepa's "Push It." One thing you definitely wouldn't find would be the confrontational, pre-goth art-rock of the late New York underground band Swans. So it's a little disconcerting to find singer/performance artist Jarboe, who with Michael Gira was the group's only constant up until Swans disbanded in 1997, living on a tidy and proper block in Atlanta's playground for prowling college kids and ballers.

"I'm here in that my mother had property here," Jarboe says in a disarmingly gentle Southern accent, "so I'm a homeowner in north Buckhead. But I've kind of turned it into a savage place. Everyone else around here has these manicured properties, and pays people to trim their lawns. My land is overgrown, and I have a natural fence of trees and bushes; you can't even see my house from the street. It's kind of like you drive down the street and see this wilderness area."

It's too easy to make the analogy that Jarboe herself is much like her home: a savage spirit tucked away in a world of homogeneity. On the surface, Jarboe doesn't seem all that different from her neighbors. Her website reveals her to be an avid runner with a taste for French roast cafe au lait. She recently attended R.E.M.'s show at Philips Arena and follows the budding career of local rock band Mastodon. But in darker rock circles, she's goth royalty, a provocative performer with a broad fan base. Fitting with that persona, in late October, Jarboe co-headlined the gothic/electro Seelenschmerz Festival in Athens, Greece.

So what's an underground icon, a peer of artists like Lydia Lunch, doing in a city known more for its hip-hop, R&B and mainstream rock stars? Jarboe claims she is staying true to her roots. "You can't take away where you were raised and what you were exposed to as a child," she says of her native city. "[The South] comes out in the way I'll deliver certain words and phrases; that kind of tonality and attitude. Even in Swans, I'd go on stage sometimes intentionally looking like I was from Appalachia or something."

That sensibility rears its head on the aptly titled Neurosis & Jarboe (Neurot Recordings), a new collaboration with the Bay Area industrial/experimental outfit Neurosis that ably shows off Jarboe's multifaceted vocal approach, from the deep moaning pitch of "In Harm's Way" to the corrosive punk scratchiness of "Erase." On "Within," over a backdrop of galloping drums and a high-pitched, monotonous whine, Jarboe repeatedly sings, "I tell ya/If God wants to take me/He will," in a pronounced regional drawl.

It's oddly fitting that the singer claims the collaboration had its origins here in town: Jarboe first heard Neurosis' work on Atlanta radio station WREK. "It reminded me of Swans, say, around the Children of God era," she says. "Choral vocals, big, epic-sounding guitars; it seemed like there was an affinity that we shared. We talked about doing a project together, just because we liked each other's music. We talked about this for years, and it was just a scheduling problem." Eventually, both parties found time for a cross-country collaboration, "sending files back and forth, rather than being in the same studio."

That approach no doubt helped to facilitate Jarboe's work on Men, another collaborative effort scheduled for release sometime in the spring of 2004. Men features duets with the likes of Love and Rockets' David J. and Alan Sparhawk of Low.

This newfound collaborative method allows Jarboe to continue her peaceful lifestyle in her hometown. "I don't think it matters where I live anymore," she says, "as long as I have an Internet connection and the ability to get on an airplane and go meet somebody if I have to.

"It's very difficult for me to look at this city as an outsider. All I can see is how it's developed and grown and blossomed from when I was growing up."

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