Casey Dienel is stirring when she speaks of the first time she ever visited a strip club. This all happened in Portland, while she was visiting, barbequing with the distinguished head honchos of Hush Records, the quaint indie label that offered us The Decemberists long before the big label goons came sniffing around the barn. The 21-year-old Dienel is enchanting speaking of the night she threw gold coins in lieu of dollar bills onto the stage, just as she would be ruminating about her first Halloween costume or the first time her mother tied her hair off into pigtails. She's universally enchanting, is what I'm saying, whether she's talking about pole-dancing or the conventional cutenesses that grandmothers and kindergarten teachers tell the neighbors over the fence or over lemonades. Her pretty jejune bangs of blond hair and a shy, delicate smile that sparkles like a lake when she shows it (which is almost continuously), give off the adorable sense of youth uninhibited. And it is, but it isn't. There is, within her that genuine tug of worldly wonderment that somehow becomes jaded with age, but there's also within her a real tenure that can be seen as wisdom beyond years. You can't believe she's telling you about a strip club visit (or more exactly a fictitious stripper named Sugar in her song "Better in Manhattan") and yet you know fully well that she probably knows and has thought more about strip clubs than you ever have.
The song, a new one, finds Sugar being beckoned by her patrons - their only source of warmth, and consumed by thoughts of a trip to Big Sur, a place she's never been.
"I don't write a lot of songs specifically about me," Dienel said from her parents home in Massachusetts, which is acting like a day spa for her after a long nationwide tour with Tigersaw, a band she also plays piano in. "Autobiographical songs are about the last stop. When I went to that strip club, I was watching all of these strippers and there was something about them that was really human to me. There's so much that's been said about their profession, all this heresay - that's bad, this is good. On my flight home, I just started thinking about this one stripper, who was really sweet looking. Instead of thinking, 'Oh, it's so sad that she has to use her body to make a living,' I thought something different. I just felt that times are tough for a lot of people. I started thinking that this girl really loved her job."
In David Foster Wallace's latest book, "Consider the Lobster," a collection of essays culled from the his magazine work over the last eight years, he writes about the Adult Video News Awards he was commissioned to cover in 1998 for Premiere magazine Foster Wallace meets one of the industry's foremost porno critics who tells him a story about a 60-year-old Los Angeles Police Department detective. The man is "happily married, a grandpa, shy, polite - clearly a decent guy," and appreciates hardcore films in the same way Dienel appreciated that one sweet looking stripper in Oregon. His description applies to many of the characters that populate Dienel's beautifully woven songs that recall more of John Cheever and Richard Yates as opposed to the Regina Spektor comparison she typically gets and doesn't get herself. Somewhere in all of these characters of questionable belonging is a good person just like everyone else. As she puts it, "I think the big thing for me is that I don't ever see things in black and white. It's just a wash of colors for me. Even serial killers have mothers and fathers. Life's not a piece of cake and that's okay because it's not a piece of cake for anybody." It's the humanness that pokes out of her every sketch no matter how sorry or destitute the person actually seems. Out of the dark and the stylized posturing of some of these characters - as they seem from the outside - come the glimpses of "real people" as Wallace calls them.
Quoting the essay "Big Red Son," "Sometimes - and you never know when, is the thing - sometimes all of a sudden they'll kind of reveal themselves' was the detective's way of putting it. 'Their what-do-you-call...humanness.' It turned out that the LAPD detective found adult films moving, in fact far more so than most mainstream Hollywood movies, in which latter films actors - sometimes very gifted actors - go about feigning genuine humanity, i.e.: ;In real movies, it's all on purpose. I suppose what I like in porno is the accident of it.'...It's true that occasionally, in a hardcore scene, the hidden self appears. It's sort of the opposite of acting. You can see the porn performer's whole face change as self-consciousness (in most females) or crazed blankness (in most males) yields to some genuinely felt erotic joy in what's going on; the sighs and moans change from automatic to expressive. "
Most of the characters that Dienel puts her stamp on revel themselves in a half-dozen different ways in the course of a song.
"I think a lot of them are trigger points in reality," she says of her characters that range from crazy, turpentine-smelling doctors to a beggar who swears there's an Indian summer in him to Frankie, a failed cheese salesman who runs off with his love to get married and rob at gunpoint. "Sometimes I get lucky and I don't have to make up anything. All of the people now grew up with TVs and our generation doesn't work for success and making money, but for getting recognized and being famous. And I always think, 'Is that why we do things? Why would they do that?'
"I never condemn my characters. I wouldn't ask my characters anything I wouldn't ask myself."
Dienel kind of tripped into the performing arts. She never saw herself performing for a living even after having done some local comedic theater as a high schooler, playing in a productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" and others, getting the toss-away roles. She found that she was able to be a different person on stage than she was off of it. Instead of being shy and reserved, she was lively and engaging.
"I wasn't a shy person at all on stage. I would get up there and I'd get an adrenaline rush from getting over being afraid. It was frustrating to me that I could be like that, but when I was being myself, I couldn't be this charismatic person I was on stage," she said. "I never thought I'd be in the performing arts. One day, I woke up and I just started playing shows. One of my friends told me I should do it, but I wouldn't play open mics because that was too scary. I used to never even talk at my shows. I love that you can make something and a week later put it on display. On stage, you're this weird social enzyme."
She began writing pop songs when she was 14 and was always hearing her father's advice as that little birdie in the back of her head.
"He always told me, 'Casey, if you want to be a songwriter, the first rule is that you have to have a great hook. As long as you have a great hook, you can say whatever you want,'" she said. "So every time I was starting to write a song, I would think, 'My dad said I need a good hook. Now, I've just got to figure out what a good hook is.' Even now, when I'm writing a song, I always start out by writing the hook first."
Dienel's father used the hooks of his favorite singers to parent. He still does, copping the words of David Crosby and Jackson Browne to help his daughter through any and all problematic situations.
"He's a paraphraser," Dienel said. "I called the other day because we were having car trouble and he was quoting me Gram Parsons. He loves music a lot. He's really good at memorizing quotations. One time, when we were having a fight, he quoted Jackson Browne saying, 'Don't confront me with my failures, I have not forgotten them.' He uses a lot of them in rotation and now I know who they are. I just tell him, 'Stop it. You can't use Jackson Browne every time you screw up.' I think he does believe, to some degree, that he's imparted great wisdom on me with those lines."
But it's the hook that Dienel has lived by and when she sings, "Sugar, sugar, sugar come here/Dance a little closer/I can almost feel you," with her hands beating against her piano like she was taking an elbow to it in defiance, you're pleased her father drove the point home because you can't go from one hour to the next without blurting out that refrain about a sweet looking stripper.
"I do that with Stevie Wonder. I love Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye. I've never been able to have a bad party if that music's playing," she said. "Or Carole King. I feel it's effortless for her. She has a hook for every day of the decade. She could barf a good hook."
One tends to think that if Dienel were to barf, it would be the same.
[Dienel is back home, resting along the beach, visiting friends in Boston, driving more than she'd like to, getting cavities filled ("they had to give me two shots of Novocain because I'm really sensitive"), performing upkeep on her parents' house, looking like a boy with weird bruises and scabs all over her body, but she is sleeping in nice beds, not floors and showering more frequently. She's always preparing to record a split EP - duets-style - with her friend Sam Rosen - and a nice new full-length record this fall/winter.]