Diane Izzo: One for the ages

February 28, 2011


I last bumped into Diane Izzo with her husband Marco Zas on the street—I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think it was in Austin at South by Southwest, and I’d guess it was a year or two ago—and she wouldn’t stop profusely thanking me for the tiny blurb I’d written in November 2008 previewing a concert for her benefit at the School of the Art Institute.

Izzo had left Chicago quite some time earlier to resettle in New Mexico. But though she was gone, she hardly was forgotten, and now that she was battling a brain tumor, a few of her many friends in the local music scene—Robbie Fulks, the Waco Brothers, Sally Timms, the boys in Califone, and others—were getting together to do what they could. Writing that blurb was the least I could do; I was embarrassed that I couldn’t do more beyond supporting the cause and resolving once again to rail at the absurd injustices that artists and musicians and so many others suffer in this country’s pathetic excuse for a healthcare system. I wanted to give her a hug, but she embraced me first. That’s the way she was, and while this city’s music community often comes together to help one another out, well, you got the sense that for Izzo, the impetus was even more intense than usual. It wasn’t even a question that she no longer called Chicago home; those here who knew her always would love her.

Izzo died on Friday after a recurrence of her brain cancer placed her on life support. She was surrounded by many—though by no means all—of the people who loved her. She would have been 44 in May.The best way to remember and pay tribute to a spirit like Izzo’s is via the way she shared her soul with the world: through her music. Here is a link to her MySpace page, where you can stream several of her demos and finished recordings.

And here is the profile I wrote of her in 1999, circa the release of the debut album that should have made her the post-alternative era’s Patti Smith, with all the attention Liz Phair had garnered before her and then some.

Sometimes there’s just no justice in the universe.

***

There have been a million angry kiss-off songs written throughout rock history. In 1999 it takes a strong voice to put a unique spin on the form, but it’s one of several impressive feats by Chicago singer-songwriter Diane Izzo on her debut album “One.”

Partly Izzo accomplishes this via the poetic touches in the lyrics of her story-songs. “Once upon the ship you waved back to all your subjects/Shooting from your hip and your gorgeous death trap,” she sings of a self-inflated amour in “The Real One.” Even more impressively, Izzo cycles through a wide range of emotions—anger, pain, pride and defiance—while somehow making a powerful hook out of the tune’s short but emphatic kicker: “Now you’re gone, and to me you’re done.”

Recorded with Chicago producer Brad Wood last June, “One” was released by the local label Sugar Free on Tuesday. That’s not an unreasonably long time to wait for an album to arrive in the stores, but Izzo traces the genesis of “One” back much further. “This is my first record, but I’ve been writing songs for about 10 years,” she says. “I took a long time to try to become a better writer.”

The Chicago native didn’t begin performing in earnest until about two years ago, and she only became convinced that she’d found her calling when she landed an opening slot for Townes Van Zandt. “That was an important show for me, and I started thinking about really genuinely performing,” she says. “It all unfolded from there. I started playing a lot with other musicians and finally decided to take my songwriting to a different place and have some standards for myself.”

Izzo set her sights high. She cites as three of her primary influences Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. (“I don’t know any songwriter who’s worth anything who hasn’t listened to him,” she says). Though several fans have compared the throaty growl of some of her hardest-rocking songs—notably “Ground”—to that of Patti Smith, the punk godmother never placed particularly high in Izzo’s personal pantheon. Nor had she heard Brad Wood’s best-known production when her friend Leroy Bach suggested that Izzo work with Wood. “I listened to [Liz Phair’s ‘Exile In Guyville’] once or twice, and I said: ‘O.K., he seems to know what he’s doing,” Izzo recalls, laughing. “But the most important things were that I liked Brad a lot, we got along really well, and I liked his musical ideas more than anything.”

If Izzo’s music resembles Phair’s in any way, it’s in the wide range of viewpoints that her songs adopt (from a figure out of ancient history in “Horse Of Diana” to a skeptical nursemaid in “Faker”), and the breadth of her musical vision (from mandolin-flavored country ballads to the cathartic, Eastern-tinged rock of the title track). “I just want to have freedom to pursue whatever sound or whatever moment comes out,” Izzo says. “If it’s rock, then that’s what that experience is about emotionally. I think rock is actually still viable, but unfortunately, it’s not done to my liking most of the time. Oftentimes I find myself going back to things that are older, and I think to myself: ‘What is this? Why can’t I find something new or current that I have this kind of emotional reaction to?’”

It’s a good question, and while Izzo may still be looking for the answer, many listeners may find exactly what she’s describing in the grooves on “One.”