Jarboe - Photo by Monica Curtain
Jarboe - Photo by Monica Curtain

The keyboardist and singer/songwriter Jarboe has blossomed in her solo career following the turbulent creativity of Swans

When I first heard Swans, theirs was the music I had been waiting for all my life. In 1988, the New York-based Swans released two covers of the Joy Division 1979 song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” One version was red-sleeved, with Michael Gira on vocals; the other, black-sleeved, with Jarboe on vocals. When I heard both versions, they were all I listened to, over and over, day in day out, until I could get hold of the band’s other songs, and listen to those, too.

The “red” version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Swans:

The music rumbled like velvet earthquakes, producing beautiful darkness with voices like lightning or thunder, vines or roots, water and air. What power! Listening to Swans was like being on the best drugs, like being sent into the cosmos of beauty and terror and the sublime with a sure way to travel through it all, my own interior world dovetailing. Listening to Swans helped me endure anything, including my own fraught perceptions and inability to function in the normal world.

Gira formed Swans in 1982, and self-reportedly licked the floor of CBGBs when he played there a few years later. According to drummer Jonathan Kane, guitarist Sue Hamel co-created the architecture of the band’s immense sound. The shows were so crowded that the guitarist who replaced Hamel, Norman Westberg, bodysurfed to the stage.

Photos of the band beguiled me; they looked so…tremendous. Powerful. Just like their music sounded. Little did I know how tremendous, how powerful! Jarboe, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist was, in particular, more powerful than the immensity of their music, which was sometimes made from sheets of metal and power tools in a city legendary for its possibilities, from grime to glimmer, violation to vanquishing.

Jarboe - Photo by Wim Van de Hulst
Jarboe – Photo by Wim Van de Hulst

Jarboe, born Jarboe La Salle Devereaux, grew up in the Deep South. Her FBI agent father taught her fearlessness when he showed her how to handle snakes as a child. He also, unbeknownst to her, tape-recorded her phone conversations when she was a teen. When she found out, she saved the tapes and ultimately sampled them in her music.

“My father is responsible for recognizing and developing my aptitude for music as a preschooler and encouraged my lessons on the Hammond organ as well as voice lessons all the way from kindergarten through college,” Jarboe told me.

In Zora von Burden’s 2010 Women of the Underground: Music, Jarboe explains that Mardi Gras and the eccentricities of New Orleans street performances also influenced her theatrical artistry. As did music history/music theory/voice classes. A singer with numerous vocal personae, who primarily plays electronic keyboard and computer, Jarboe also plays bass, electric and acoustic guitar, pump organ, xylophone, piano, hand drums, and chimes, experimenting with multiple microphones. She composes and records the music.

Jarboe SKIN music video, “One Thousand Years”
Jarboe SKIN music video, “One Thousand Years”

“I do see myself as an artist working in sound and voice and not strictly a musician, per se,” she explained, adding that she works “best in solitude and absolute quiet and focus. I don’t like intrusions into that creative space and I need privacy and time in my head to develop and deliver what I feel is a pure effort on my part. I don’t own a television. I do watch films once in a while. I keep to myself unless I have a quiet dinner with a few friends or allow a rare concert of someone else to penetrate my consciousness. Everything informs the work and so it’s a good idea to be selective.”

Jarboe joined Swans in 1984. She began as a roadie, lugging their gear, then auditioned with sampling and sound effects, which then-boyfriend Gira approved. She describes auditioning her music for those loud, sweaty, shirtless men, proving her mettle. After a year with Swans, she did another successful audition, as a singer. Because of the sexist views in the music scene, it took several years of hard work for that discrimination to end. In college, she took occupational aptitude tests. The test results were always: “male musician.”

Years before she moved to New York and joined Swans, she worked as “living sculpture/performance art” at private parties for successful rock stars. Some people at these events would get drunk and try to provoke the performance artists by urinating on them or burning their skin with a cigarette or trying to tie them up.

Jarboe – Photo by Marilyn Chen

“It didn’t break me,” Jarboe said, telling me, “That chapter of my life is so long ago that it is impossible to even see it as me. However, the one aspect of it that I take away is endurance, the body, the exploration of ego annihilation, the exploration of power struggle. I know that one reason I do my best to break down barriers between audience and performer is because of that chapter of my life where I was exploring just how far the ego and deluded grandeur of the rock star god would go with their view of people as objects because of their overblown ‘money and fame can buy anything’ attitude. I never experienced anything in those days as abusive. I was there in full awareness.”

In college, she took occupational aptitude tests. The test results were always: “male musician.”

In Andrea Juno’s 1996 anthology, Angry Women in Rock, Volume One, Jarboe states: “I willingly allowed myself to go through that to get closer to the power I wanted.”

Juno calls the search for power and creative expression the heroic journey. Similarly, the plot quest, as defined by writer Carolyn Heilbrunn, operates as a lifetime’s discovery, one made through experiences and adventures outside the home, a quest historically reserved for men. For women, the traditional plot quest is finding a man to marry (as we all learn from fashion shows, whose climax is the wedding gown).

Jarboe determined her plot quest through music. She began body-building and also created sound installations for art galleries. But then she heard the noise-rock of Filth, the 1983 album by Swans and knew she had to join the band.

“Power for Power” from Swans’ album Filth:

Jarboe began a correspondence with Swans, went to a rehearsal in the East Village, and interviewed Gira for an art zine.  A vegetarian weight-lifter who did not drink alcohol or take drugs, her physical strength helped her roadie for Swans, carrying drums and moving amps and even supporting drunken band members up the stairs. Her time as a “living sculpture” for arena-rock bands strengthened her emotionally for the sometimes violent sexism she experienced on tour.

“I never wanted to give the impression of the ‘helpless female’ and so I would take this aggression and try to handle it in a nonviolent and dignified manner,” she said. “However, at times on tour and in rehearsals, I did feel rage when the stress of it all got to me.”

The churning relentlessness of their industrial music turned into something very pretty on their 1987 double album, Children of God, despair and rage and lust becoming malleable with melody.

The title track from Children of God, written by Jarboe and Gira:


“I’ll be your body when your body is broken,” sings Jarboe in shimmeringly strong assurance. Their themes of religion, hierarchy, suffering, exploitation, sex, labor, and love no longer grinding but graceful, compassion tempering the cruelty. It’s as though they got their brake pads replaced and were now able to go further.

Swans soothed me like the ethical and loving counselor I wished I had. The Burning World (1989) is not their favorite album; in fact, every album Swans and Jarboe released thereafter was released independently. She told Terrorizer: “I think people need to question the massive hierarchy that’s been set up by the music business; there’s like a fear factor built-in, that you gotta have all these people between you and the people that are going to listen to the music.”

Jarboe’s solo work and her work with Swans—contributions that amount to more than 80 albums—contains luscious layers that sound like the way every gradation of dark and light look, luminous and eerie, sometimes scary. She tours internationally and extensively and has collaborated with filmmakers and visual artists such as Beth B., Laura Levine and Richard Kern.

Gira’s lyrics sometimes distracted me with their predictable tropes of woman as dangerous, devouring mouth. But Jarboe’s experimentations with sound, voice, power, and personae made me think of feminist film theory because of gender performance, endurance, and transformation.

Her first solo album was 1991’s Thirteen Masks, with her gorgeously weird collage of art by Deryk Thomas, shows her face distorted by various moods. The album showcased her many musical genres: dance, industrial, atmospheric, noise, and jazz surround her ever-changing voice.  As she explained to me about masks, “In humility, you are powerful. You are unafraid of opening your heart. This path is the one made of power. The power to be real. The power to remove the mask of insecurity.”

“Listen,” the opening track on Jarboe’s Thirteen Masks album;

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In Adele Olivia Gladwell’s 1995 book, Catamania, Jarboe explains: “…when I record, or when performing in front of an audience, I am nude and sacrificial. No matter who I am.”

Gira told me that in 1984, Jarboe sent letters and her music to him by way of introduction. Through years together, they were collaborators, and became husband and wife, without the paper contract. When I asked Gira about Jarboe, his eyes deep with a profoundly feeling warmth and an ice veneer on top, his respectful protectiveness of her as a woman and as a musician was evident. Jarboe, highly paid as “entertainment” by big-name acts in arena rock, endured pain at the hands of the revered musicians. Jarboe in a later incarnation, as the roadie for a band she loved. Jarboe joining that band, becoming their co-leader.

She wrote to me: “I found an energy and source of passion and strength with my voice and creating sounds, that I had not experienced elsewhere. It’s like that feeling you get when you fall in love and the world is suddenly rosy. I felt that all the barriers were lifted and that I could channel strong emotion into something that resonated with people. I saw then that it was like being in service to others and in some way helping them when they needed a friend, needed another voice. For me, making music is a friend that is there to have a conversation with me. I’m not alone when I’m playing the keyboard.”

Jarboe performing at Supersonic Festival in UK with Esoteric
Jarboe performing at Supersonic Festival in UK with Esoteric

When I moved from my hometown in Kentucky to California, that mythical place of gold and glamour, I immediately jumped into the ocean. A big wave grabbed me, the immensity of its strength and force rendering me powerless, surrounding and pushing me. I never knew a wave could be that strong. I was tossed and turned and thrown into what felt like endless somersaults and body morphing. I didn’t fight it. Suddenly the water changed, its power gentled but not weakened, and the waves moved me some more, then set me gently near shore, my head nestled but not wrecked upon a jagged rock, so I could breathe again. That is Swans for me. That is Jarboe.

“I never wanted to give the impression of the ‘helpless female’ and so I would take this aggression and try to handle it in a nonviolent and dignified manner,” she said. “However, at times on tour and in rehearsals, I did feel rage when the stress of it all got to me.”

In her interview with von Burden, Jarboe says that she took Bodhisattva vows from the Dalai Lama in 1992, with the “intent to be an embodiment in my actions of compassionate nature…I see my music and performance as channeling the emotions and suffering of the audience, and so I see myself as in service to others with my work.”