When musician Weba Garretson arrived in Los Angeles in 1979 she was a young girl of twenty-three standing on the brink of what’s proven to be a fascinating career. Garretson is a classically trained singer but she has a wild streak, and her music has moved in daring directions. From punk rock, to Kurt Weill, to performance art, and avant garde jazz, she’s able to bend her talents in any and all directions. Her voice is pure as a bell, her nature a bit eccentric, and her knowledge of music deep and wide, and over the past three decades she’s taken her voice to the far shores of the experimental world. Now, with Such is Love, an album of Bossa Nova inspired music, she takes it to the realm of melody and romance.
An original song cycle with lyrics by Garretson, and music by Steve Stewart and Nate Scoble, Such is Love is a lilting celebration of quotidian miracles — blueberry pie, a kiss, a walk on a warm summer evening. Eschewing chorus-verse-chorus structure, the songs unfurl as a kind of wistful, linear narrative that interweaves themes of sadness and joy; as is true of classic Bossa Nova, this is music written from a place of maturity. Produced and engineered by Garretson’s husband, Mark Wheaton, at Catasonic Studio, a recording facility established in by Garretson and Wheaton in 1997, Such is Love synthesizes samba, jazz, and human experience into a gorgeous pastiche of sound.
Born in White Plains, New York, in 1956, Garretson was seven years old when she began lessons on piano, clarinet, oboe and guitar, but it wasn’t until she was fourteen, and began singing, that she found her instrument. She didn’t know that yet, though, and in her mid-teens she studied dance with choreographer James Waring, who was part of Judson Church’s community of experimental artists of the 1960s. In 1971 she began four years of study at Simon’s Rock College, where she majored in dance and theater, and in 1975 she transferred to Sarah Lawrence. It was becoming increasingly apparent to Garretson that she was a singer, among other things, and it was there that she met her first significant collaborator, Richard Hochberg. Together they produced Bruce and Lois, a musical docudrama that chronicled the rise and fall of a love affair; it was with Bruce and Lois that Garretson established her ability to straddle the worlds of experimental theater and music, and everything she’s created over the past thirty years is positioned somewhere between those two poles.
When Garretson arrived in southern California in 1979, the local music scene was dominated by punk and new wave bands, and it didn’t take her long to make her way into one of them. Responding to an ad in the classifieds section of a local paper, she found herself working with local musician Steve Stewart, leader of the Pearls, and together they wrote and performed music for Sport of My Mad Mother, which was directed by David Schweizer. Garretson’s performance in the play led to further collaborations with Schweizer, composer Jerry Frankel, and actor Philip Littell. The first of them was The Weba Show: A Lounge Act for the 80s, an avant garde vaudeville show that ran from 1982 through 1984 at L.A.’s Lhasa Club in L.A., and was also staged in New York. During this period Garretson also began working with performance artist Donald Krieger, and between 1982 and 1993, she appeared in several of his pieces including Boys Life, Magic Radio, Island and North.
In 1986 Garretson became a member of the SHRIMPS, an eight-person performance art featuring Martin Kersels, and she worked with them regularly for more than a decade. In 1989 she reteamed with Steve Stewart to compose and star in two nightclub musicals, Come to My Heaven (1989), and Adventure Amour (1990), both of which featured her combo, Weba & the Wailing Turbans. Singing in a sultry voice evocative of Julie London, Garretson explored the exotic lounge music genre. The shows were well received and well attended, and they prompted L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art to commission a piece for their Territory of Art series; the result was Humans Making Love as Gods, a collaborative work created by Garretson, Mark Wheaton, and Steve Stewart.
During this period Garreston began performing in video artworks, and in 1990 she was featured in A Conversation From the Grave, an experimental video written by James Krusoe and directed by Patti Podesta. In 1993 she formed a trio with Ralph Gorodetsky and drummer/percussionist Danny Frankel, and together they developed a style that incorporated elements of spoken word, funk, jazz, and punk. Soon she and Gorodetsky began working with guitarist Joe Baiza; and in 1995 she recorded and released her first album, Welcome to Webaworld, which was followed a year later by her second album, Puttanesca.
In 1997 the director of the West Coast Bertolt Brecht Centennial, David Catanzarite, happened to see Garretson performing with the SHRIMPS in an outdoor festival at UCLA, and felt her voice was well suited to the music of Brecht & Weill. Catanzarite gave Garretson the seed money to assemble the Eastside Sinfonietta; together they created new arrangements of classic songs from the Weimar Republic. The Sinfonietta made its debut on Brecht’s 100th birthday, spent the next two years touring with the music and went on to star in a production of Brecht & Weill’s Happy End, jointly produced by MOCA and the Goethe Institute. Subsequently they released Don’t Be Afraid, an album of music from the play. Among those who caught one of the shows was internationally acclaimed video artist, Bill Viola, and in 2000 he cast Garretson in one of his video works. Since then, she’s appeared in more than a dozen of his pieces.
Garretson began falling under the spell of Brazilian music in 2003, but it took her a while to figure out how to make it her own. After earning a Masters in music at California State University, Los Angeles, in 2011, she decided it was time to jump in with both feet; now, two years later, she gives us Such is Love.
Other People Have Said…
“Garretson’s singing voice is pure buttah–sultry true, almost delicate–yet her speaking voice is full of brass, punctuating the songs with powerful, emotional bursts.”
–Natalie Nichols, LA Reader
“Her voice, suave and sultry, is one into which you can fall, and she works the audience like an old-time chanteuse with a bearing that is almost pornographic, but with taste and conviction in the moves. Watching her, listening to her, you know that nightclubs deserve a healthy comeback.”
–Sasha Anawalt, KCRW
“What keeps her on the top of her art is her ability to walk the fine line between danger and comfort. Garretson plays close to the edge, but the fortunate audience is cushioned by her commanding vocal talent and absolute assuredness on stage.”
–Tom Provenzao, LA Weekly