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Johanna Billing: Take a Sad Song and Make It Better

MARK SHEERIN: You Don't Love Me Yet is a woeful, mixed-up song by a troubled singer from a trippy 60s rock band. But artist Johanna Billing is puzzled by Roky Erickson's little known classic. “It's quite a hopeful song,” she suggests, “Because it's ‘You Don't Love Me Yet’ so it's not really so sad”.

            Billing is a filmmaker who often works with music. Most of her chosen tracks could be described as melancholic, but her video pieces are strangely life affirming. So when she re-records You Don't Love Me Yet in a Stockholm studio, with a brass section and a choir, the result is as euphoric as an all-star charity appeal. “I thought it was very interesting to make a kind of spectacular, which resembles Band Aid. Normally with such a group, you have a clear message, and I thought it was really important to have something ambiguous and slippery, and searching.”

            Her engagement with the record is indeed searching. Billing has been touring the song since 2003 and inviting bands in cities all around the world to do a cover version. So far they have filmed over 200 different performances. It begs the question, are these pop promos? She says: “It could always be that the videos are close to other fields but it's this kind of confusion I quite like. On the surface it's similar to something you recognise, but there's something a bit different also.”

            The footage can be enjoyed at the Camden Arts Centre until 13 September, along with the filmmaker's latest work, I'm Lost Without Your Rhythm. Once again, she has found a haunting track (My Heart by Swedish band Wild Birds and Peace Drums) and recorded a new version to accompany an upbeat film, featuring improvised dance. It may come as a surprise to find an artist arranging her own soundtrack and adding vocals, but Billing explains that she used to play piano and misses performance: “I love working with film but it's been such a pleasure to arrange these versions and it's the closest I've got to making music myself at the same time.” Not content with recording one piece of music to go with this most recent film, she tells me she is currently working on a new backing track featuring improvised drums and marimba (a type of xylophone).

            Billing's search for new artistic/musical effects began when she was a teenager: “Ever since I started working, I was thinking if only I could make some kind of art that would make me have the same feeling that I have when I listen to this specific song, because for me that has always been more powerful or physical.”

            It soon becomes clear Billing knows her music. When asked what type of band she would like to have joined, the artist lists a few of the more obscure names from rock history. Then ten minutes after the phone interview she sends through an email with more names and helpful weblinks. (For the record she would have been Judee Sill, Biff Rose, or a member of The Roches, Os Mutantes, Galaxie 500 or Yo La Tengo. “There's something so great about trios,” she observes, “It's something about the dynamics, about getting the most out of things.”)

            Her passion for music led to two years spent working as a music journalist, and this experience gave her an interest in pop songs as artifacts. “Pop music is never treated as seriously as art. You think of it as some kind of entertainment,” she points out, “I think that is why I find it interesting to work also with the background stories of these songs.”            

            And in many cases that means giving the tale a happier twist. What's not to like?

 

Photo: This Is How We Walk On The Moon, 2007

DVD, 27 min (video still), © the artist

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