Eszter Balint: The Interview

Eszter Balint Interview

Feature Photo: by Peter Yesley

An Interview with Eszter Balint

By Andrew Daly

Recently, I had the pleasure of dialing in with the one and only Eszter Balint, an elegant musician whose eclectic life has bred an intoxicating mix of musical whimsy.

Balint’s latest project, I Hate Memory, does nothing to dispel that notion. No, once again, the veteran indie musician has managed to dazzle while creating music worth contemplating. Consider this one to settle down with on a rainy day while ruminating on the events swirling around you. And once you’ve finished it, somehow, things will seem clearer. That was my experience, at least. Truth be told, all music is subjective. You’ll have to see for yourselves, now, won’t you?

Eszter Balint took a moment away from the whirlwind beaming in with to dig into her created process, the recording of her latest record, I hate Memory, and what she has on tap as she moves ahead.

What was the moment which first sparked your interest in music?

I studied classical violin, starting at age six, for ten years or so. And I was always a closet singer. I still feel like a closet singer, ha. I remember singing along to The Magic Flute when I was about eight at my grandmother’s house. By the time I was 13, I was a DJ collecting and spinning records in our club. I was a huge music fan. But who isn’t at that age? I think almost everyone has a passion for music innately. Still, I do recall being extremely obsessed, especially with the human voice, even as a kid. I idolized singers.

Who were some of your earliest influences that first shaped your style? 

There was so much phenomenal music happening in NYC when I was a young teen growing up here. It all influenced me greatly, so it’s honestly incredibly hard to name one or two or even ten artists. We had a music club where I lived, and some of the most exciting bands, now referred to as legendary, played there. The Lounge Lizards, DNA, Kid Creole, and the Coconuts, just to name a few. A lot of jazz and blues, too. Early exposure to non-conformity both shaped and influenced me and my style greatly.

I think of that time as being very open, too: there was a refusal to be boxed into one kind of music or genre, which has influenced me too. As a teen, I was equally thrilled dancing to The Bee Gees or watching a PIL concert. Then later in my 20s, I fell deeply in love with bluesy and traditional folky/old-timey sounds, as well as the lilting melodies and storytelling of old-school country music. I was less exposed to all that as a kid growing up but got really lost in it, and that had an influence on my style.

How would you say that style has evolved as you’ve moved through your career?

I know there is a shift, but I don’t know if it’s obvious to me, so not sure how to define it. My ears still gravitate towards similar riffs, sounds, and musical atmospherics. The rawer sounds still always call out to me more than polished sounds. So, there is a consistency to my aesthetics. And yet, over the years, there’s been a shift to ever more devotion to the telling of a story, drilling into the essence of the song, with increasingly less concern about what kind of style or genre of music I’m making.

I used to be more concerned with defining the musical palette I wanted to create on a conceptual level. Don’t get me wrong, I care about the music as much as ever, if not more, but It’s less conceptual now. Music needs to capture the essence of the feeling, the story, that is all: that’s the kind of music it is. There is an increasing simplicity in that sense-and. By simplicity, of course, I mean complexity. Again, it’s a subtle shift; perhaps someone who stands outside, who is not me, sees more stark changes.

What were some of your earliest gigs?

Well, I recorded on violin on a recording produced by Basquiat, with Rammellzee rapping. I would say that was cutting my teeth for sure. It was scary; I felt like I was in the big leagues. And I’d never recorded it before. I was in a short-lived band when I lived in LA in the late ’90s, and singing in front of people for the first time, especially after having had some recognition as an actress, was the most terrifying thing. I have always loved singing and idolized singers, so that felt incredibly exposed. And I think I fell on my ass a few times too. Nothing will teach you better than the trauma of falling way short of your expectations. And not much has changed in this regard, by the way. I’m still cutting my teeth. But this scary dance is far less extreme now, I’d say.

Tell me about your newest project, I Hate Memory.

If it weren’t for Stew’s encouragement, I probably would not have taken this project on. I’m not someone whose first instinct is: let me tell you my story! In public! It’s not a matter of false modesty; it’s just not really the way I’m wired. So, It was a challenge, but we wanted to try working on something together because we recognized an artistic kinship in each other, and he thought I had a worthwhile story to tell as a witness to such an exciting and special time in NY. A participant, even! So, I wasn’t going to let the difficulty of it stop me, but I had to work with it. So, I  introduced the difficulty of the telling (for me) into the telling. And that made it more fun. And then we set about to write some tunes.

Tell us about your journey from Hungary and how that helped shape this record.

I left Hungary as a kid with an extended family of theater makers, which included my parents. The authorities in Hungary censored the theater company’s work at the time, so they really had no option if they wanted to continue doing their work. I would say the bulk of the story, such as it is – it’s more impressionistic than a strictly linear narrative – takes place in New York. But leaving Hungary provides an important context. New York City was a mess then, dirty, poor, and dangerous, but to us, it felt so open and full of possibility.

The adventurous downtown spirit of the art and music community we landed in felt like home; it was a kind of paradise, albeit sometimes terrifying. There are several different thematic threads in the story that weaves through, and the immigrant experience is one of those. I felt like an outsider and wanted to belong, as all teenagers do. But that’s not the full story either. We also fell in with a wider community of outsiders, where essentially everybody was an immigrant in some form—escaping conformity (among other things).

How have your collective experiences affected the music? 

On this record, Stew and I had a lot of productive conversations about my experiences growing up in NY, and I started thinking a lot and taking notes of episodes and moments that stood out, which had maybe a striking visual setting and a strong mood, and which could form the basis for individual songs. These memories are random, but they sort of pool together to form the larger story of growing up in this extraordinary world with a lot of ordinary human concerns.

How about the production mixing side of things?

It was a tricky process. I was working on the live show version of this collection of songs with my director Lucy Sexton and the band and our visual designer Tal Yarden (who directed the video for “The First Day”). The show was set to open in late March 2020 at Dixon Place in NY. So, then we know what happened. The show never opened. It was immensely frustrating, as none of us had any idea what would happen with the show now, and I had invested so much time, effort, and psychic energy by that point.

So it was a difficult time. I thought, “Well, I can still at least record the songs as I had always planned to.” So, as usual, I set about doing things the hard way: making a record during the pandemic. Without getting into a Homeric epic about the various fits and starts, stalls and regroupings, let’s just say it took a long time and a lot of effort, a whole lot of support from a large collection of amazing musicians and engineers, and no small amount of persistence form me.

We couldn’t ride any natural momentum without the usual container of a normal timeline and some sense of predictability about the world around us. So, it was harder than usual to pull it all together. But I’m so glad we did it. Kato Hideki co-produced with me, and Stew sings and plays quite a bit of guitar on the album. Very happy to have him on it since he was a big part of the origin story.

Who else features on the record?

The rest of the musical cast is Chris Cochrane on guitar, Marlon Cherry on everything, Brian Geltner (drums), Jeff Hermanson (trumpet), and Syd Straw on some additional vocals. We had a couple of sessions at Brooklyn Recording, engineered by Andy Taub, who has recorded all my records to date, and I did a bunch of sessions working with Kato Hideki in his home studio. Then I mixed with Bryce Goggin, who also recorded my vocal overdubs. Kato Hideki mastered it, and there you have it. Once the recording started wrapping up, the live shows started happening.

What lyrical themes are you delving into, and why are those important to you?

As for this record, it was important to me, and I suspect to Stew as well, to capture a flavor that was all around and abundant during this special time. As a kind of historical record. A flavor that is not so obvious now. We lived and breathed a kind of devotion to creating, to art, to moving, dancing, living with creativity and non-conformity. Without romanticizing it, lyrically, the writing is very much about capturing that flavor, I think.

Not just talking about it in the stories/songs but really capturing that essence in the way you tell them. In the word choices. Looking through these memories through that lens, that worldview, was what was essential. But there are a lot of other “themes” weaving through as well. I think being a young girl in that crazy time is in there. The male gaze and all that goes with it. The playfulness of the time but also the difficulty, the loneliness, and some of the wreckage, even.

The tension of wanting to tell some important stories but not wanting to get stuck staring at the rearview mirror. There is a lot in there for me about America, what it meant then, and the illusions. There is a political streak in it. And with all these contradictions, always going back to the hat tip to art, to making a song or a story out of all this: that’s where the magic lives, and that’s how you reconcile and continue.

Will the material get any time on the live circuit? 

Oh no, please don’t let it end in the studio! The album is important, and I believe works on its own, but it’s also one aspect of this larger project which is definitely my most ambitious creation to date. I’m developing this as an anti-musical. As I mentioned, directed by Lucy Sexton. We’ve had a few shows at Joe’s Pub this year, with more coming up, and our vision is to expand it for a larger theater with more extensive projections and show magic. His project has a lot of built-in flexibility, which makes it suitable for various incarnations: as an album, a concert, a smaller-scale hybrid song cycle /show like what we’ve been doing at Joe’s Pub, and a larger-scale theatrical work, which is one we haven’t gotten to yet.

What’s next for you in all lanes?

For now, I’m still very preoccupied with expanding and exploring the possibilities of this work. I’ve been pretty consumed by it, and the live component has a future ahead of it and is still in development. So, while I am still “creating” this, it’s hard for me to start creating something entirely new. I am someone who needs to replenish and live on the fallow ground a bit so that what I do feels essential, not arbitrary.

But I have started quietly thinking. I have a feeling my next project, whether a collection of songs or another larger-scale work, will have a lot less of myself in it, ha. That will be a relief. Of course, I always bring my essence to everything I do. But there is a more directly autobiographical nature to this work which, as I say, has been tricky. In general terms, I’m very much looking forward to a lot more live performing ahead. These last years have made us hungry!

Eszter Balint Interview

Photo: by Peter Yesley

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