Claudia Schmidt plays a concert in celebration of her latest studio album, New Whirled Order. The release heralds the happy return of the legacy artist to her former label, Red House Records, with her first studio album for the Grammy-winning indie label since 2000. Supported by master jazz guitarist Dean Magraw and an ensemble of other great players, the album is chock full of stand-out tracks and is her most definitive collection to date. One of Red House’s keystone artists in its early years, Schmidt is a stunning chanteuse with a dazzling multi-octave voice. She seamlessly blends folk and jazz idioms into a genre all her own, much as Nina Simone did in her day. A fan said it best after seeing Claudia perform recently, “You are a shaper of space and time.”
The album marks a return to the national spotlight for Claudia. As her career was ascending and she was easily selling out large theaters, she turned her back on the music business to open a bed and breakfast with her husband on a small island in the middle of Lake Michigan. This detour lasted over 10 years. When the marriage ended, she moved to Minneapolis, MN and began a creative renaissance and new chapter in her life that continues to blossom, resulting in New Whirled Order.
Claudia says that these songs were inspired by lines from a poem in Michael Leunig’s book A Common Prayer -- “There are only two feelings: love and fear.”
“I've never sung so unabashedly about love; fear was never a problem!” she says. “While I did not embark on this project with a theme in mind, it is clearly woven through all the songs on New Whirled Order, I was ready to go that route at this point in my life.”
From her soaring, acrobatic vocals on the opening song (the mountain -folk flavored “Already”) to the sultry lounge pop of “Dawn Star” and the Joni Mitchell-esque “Coward in the Face of Love,” Schmidt dazzles vocally with her emotional, effortless delivery. “My Defenses Are Down” is a noir-ish, smoky jazz/blues number where wraps her vocal around the slinky guitar lines. Her first-ever polka, the Brechtian “Strong Woman has a Bad Day,” features the wry refrain, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you wish that you were dead.”
Another life milestone was losing her beloved mother in 2013. She closes the album with two spare, haunting songs dedicated to her mother: the Celtic lament “Jane’s Gone,” and the round, “Jane’s A Round.”
“I wasn't sure if I made it up or if I was channeling an ancient Irish tune,” she says of “Jane’s Gone.” I wrote it a few weeks before my mom's memorial and she was of Irish ancestry, hence the name.”
“Jane’s A Round” is an a cappela round for four voices. “I was driving home from seeing my dad right after my mom's death, and suddenly I was singing the line, which is the whole song!” she says. “I tried it as a round that night at a concert. It was clearly a gift from my mom. Sally Rogers, her husband Howie and our friend Jeff Davis helped me realize that form on the recording. It feels perfect, more of a dance than a dirge.
An artist of deep feeling and exhilarating talent, Schmidt’s rich poetry and playful humor have made her a formidable live performer.
“The best thing is a live concert, energies mingling, that arc of connection, the common space and experience,” she says. “I feel profoundly lucky to have spent so much of my life in that environment. I hope people keep wanting to come and share that experience.”