Of all of the people I’ve had the chance to meet in 2015, none was I more honored to speak with than indie icon Eszter Balint… Okay, so maybe she’s not quite an “icon” in the traditional sense… In fact, when I ask her about what that’s like, she laughs and quickly corrects me.
“I could really go to town at that [laughs]. I was gonna cut you off right after ‘iconic.’ I mean, there’ nothing iconic about taking care of kids and things like that. I live a very low-key, anonymous life. In terms of being recognized, sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes not at all. It’s very periodic. When I was on Louie recently I got a lot of attention and then I didn’t and I’d been through that previously in life. Nothing I’ve done has been so successful that I can just comfortably relax and live a life of privilege or anything like that.”
Okay, so if you still haven’t figured out who Ms. Balint is, she plays Eva, the Hungarian teen, in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 absurdist classic, Stranger Than Paradise, alongside John Lurie and original Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson. More recently, 2014, to be specific, she reprised the role – in a way – when she played Amia, a Hungarian violinist and romantic interest of Louis C.K. in his sitcom, Louie, which she wound up being quite happy with, but tells me she had initial reservations about.
“The role I’m most known for is very similar, but it’s entirely different. I was wary. Do I want to do that after all these years? Do I wanna repeat that? But then I read the script and it was so good and I thought I had to get over it and do it. He’s obviously very smart and well-versed in film and I’m sure familiar with Jarmusch, so I think it was a little bit of a nod or a hint of an homage to that film and that director.”
In addition to playing some of the most famous Hungarians in indie culture (She’s from Hungary in real life as well.), Eszter Balint is also an accomplished singer/songwriter and musician. Her first recording was at age 15 when she played violin on a track produced by Jean-Michel Basquiat. In recent years she has appeared on records by Michael Gira’s Swans and Angels of Light. This August, shortly before we spoke, Eszter released Airless Midnight, her third solo album and first since 2004’s Mud, after which she decided she wanted to focus her energy on raising her son. Once he began school, though, she decided begin writing the songs that would eventually wind up being Airless Midnight, a process that took several years, but that ultimately produced a release that she’s incredibly proud of.
“This one took a really long time to get to the studio, but once I did I really felt ready. I felt readier than other times. I felt a little older and wiser and mellower, although I don’t think it’s a mellower release. I was confident; I really did feel that. I had a little more life experience. I was haunted less than previous releases.”
Airless Midnight, which features Eszter on vocals, guitar, violin, melodica, and mandolin, also features a number of long-time collaborators, such as guitarist John Cochrane, producer/bassist JD Foster, and engineer Andy Taub, in addition to a number of NYC’s best musicians. The sound of the album is elegantly morose, somewhere in-between the musical poets of the Bowery in the mid-70s and the abandon found in the ‘90s most intellectual singer/songwriters. My personal favorite track, “Let’s Tonight It” sounds a bit like Patti Smith fronting Throwing Muses. When I ask her how the track came about, Eszter tells me that she was definitely going for something a little more aggressive than she’s usually known for.
“I was looking for a lean, mean vibe, sonically, on that one, a more rock feel than I usually do. That’s where I was. Almost stupid — in a good way – Neanderthal thing. And lyrically, content wise — it may be something I was struggling with, or interested in/curious about exploring at the time, or saw near/dear ones struggle with, or all of the above — but I was interested in exploring a bit about the idea of impulse control, the lack of it, looking for instant gratification, and release, and not taking a pause. In the sense of satiating momentary desire, whether sensual, or doing something ugly and destructive in order to ‘release’ one’s energy. It is not meant as a lecture or judgment — I’m not so interested in preaching — just playing with exploring both the idea of temptation and that there are dark forces in there, and you will have to deal sooner or later.”
In general, Eszter tells me that for the songs on Airless Midnight she spent most of the time focused on the lyrical aspects.
“I took a longer time writing the words for this album. I have a general sense-memory that I wanted to tell stories more than ever before, that our finite human life became somehow more precious and meaningful to me in recent years (Boy does that ever sound like a cliché.) Perhaps through age, perhaps as result of graduating from some years in the ‘school of hard knocks, likely both, and certainly through my role as a mother. This all contributed to me feeling a rush of inspiration in wanting to tell very human stories with a certain urgency to them. So I’d say my biggest inspiration during the time between this album and my last was probably a bit more from a writer’s perspective. Musically I’m always all over the place. No rhyme or reason. I have things my ears will always gravitate towards and sounds I hear in my head and there is very little conceptual agenda except following my heart.”
Regarding recent inspirations, Eszter tells me, “I”m randomly inspired by tons of things depending on my mood and what I come across any given day, be it a sentence in a newspaper article, or a great book, a classic Stevie Wonder song I’d not heard in a while, or some tune by some New Kids on the Block I’d never heard about,” but she goes on to say that some recent works that she found to be exceptionally inspiring include the novel Making Nice by Matt Sumell, Tammy Faye Starlite’s Nico Underground performance, Faun Fables’ live show, the film Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, Swans’ To Be Kind, and Kid Cudi, whom she was turned on to by her son and his friend.
Eszter Balint recently played a show at The Living Room in Brooklyn and although she doesn’t have any upcoming dates currently booked, at the time of our discussion, she told me that playing around live is something that she is working on in the near future, in addition to a few other projects.
“I have two little films that I was in in small parts that are being edited now, but I won’t really talk too much about that. I’ve really just caught my breath with this record. I still have a lot of loose ends. If I could start playing a little bit outside of New York, that would be great. That would be what I really want to do. I love touring. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, but I primarily love it. I’m just starting to toy with bigger ideas and maybe I’ll be recording in the near future.”