Having appeared in films such as “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Shadows and Fog” and “Trees Lounge,” singer/actress Eszter Balint decided, in 1995, to focus her creative energies on music. She released her debut album “Flicker” in 1999 and followed it up with “Mud” in 2004. Now she’s back with her long-awaited third album, “Airless Midnight.” While making the album, Balint took an unexpected detour back to acting by appearing in a six episode story arc of the “Louie” TV series. As part of her role as Louie’s Hungarian girlfriend Amia, Balint improvised compositions, sang, and played violin (Balint is Hungarian herself, and her father was a founder of the avant-garde Squat Theatre troupe.) In an email interview, Balint discussed the new album, acting on “Louie” and more.
You took a break from making “Airless Midnight” to appear in a 6 episode “Louie” story arc. Do you feel that had any impact on the final album, in terms of taking a step away from it and/or being part of a different type of creative endeavor for a while?
Eszter Balint : Yes but in an indirect way. With every artistic endeavor I do, I try to access some sort of deep and real presence and connection to the material, my role, (as singer or actor) the other actors, or musicians, as the case may be. I relied on this even more than usual on Louie: I was nervous about rising to the occasion, as I hadn’t acted in a long time, so this was my one calling card I felt. There are always further degrees you can dial up this – whatever we want to call it. The good news in that the work never gets boring. I think it helped me indeed, with delivering in Louie, so that inspired me to turn it up a notch going back to the music. I know this is a very abstract reply to a simple concrete question.. apologies.
Having been focused on music in recent years rather than acting, what made you decide to take on that role? Was the fact that it was playing a musician a major reason for doing it?
Eszter Balint: Well that was an element which I liked for sure. I was conflicted at first; Louis had more faith in me than I had in myself, I think (thanks for that Louis . But fear of the challenge of it also pushed me into it. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve been pretty terrified of doing. I respected Louis’ work a lot so that was a big piece.. And when I read the script, I thought it was so strong; I couldn’t not do it.
What had made you initially start focusing on music rather than acting? Do you think that you’ll do any further acting in the near future?
Eszter Balint: I had some ambivalence about acting back then; it was something I happened into more than I chose. For a time I tried to rely on it for living, which was difficult. Another issue was it was never going to be enough for me, playing a role in other people’s creations. And there were some disillusionments in that as a business. Now I’d actually feel more free and inspired and open to doing it, in some ways,, than back when it was the logical thing for me to pursue.
Music has been a passion throughout my life as a listener, and I had also had been trained as a classical violinist early on, had taken music theory, classical voice lessons as a youngster. So it was there, always, as a passion, at times more dormant than others. Committing to it more fully felt like a very natural and organic transition to me. Writing words was also always a big preoccupation – which is a big part of what i do as a songwriter of course.
I’m sure that recognition from your from acting roles exposes your music to people who might not otherwise hear it. With so much music out there, that’s obviously helpful. But do you see any negative aspects to this? (perhaps people having preconceived notions before hearing the music?)
Eszter Balint: Early in my musical career I worried about this a bit, but not so much anymore. I felt an added burden to have to prove this wasn’t just a trendy new idea for me, as an actress, At this point anyone who’s seen me perform or hears my albums knows it’s for real, I have nothing to prove in that department anymore. But yes, I would say on my first album certainly, it haunted me a bit.
You play many instruments and also work with some notable musicians. I’m curious as to what your creative process tends to be like. For example, how fully worked out do you usually have songs before working with others in the studio? Are there any particular ways you feel that the material on “Airless Midnight” changed or evolved over the process of making the album?
Eszter Balint: I work a lot alone, I definitely lock myself into a solitary cave for quite a while with the material before bringing it out. In part it’s probably insecurity: I often feel a bit shy to present the material to the (truly amazing) musicians I work with, so I jump through all kinds of hoops alone to test if an idea works. That’s just been my process thus far – maybe it will change. So yes there is a lot of solitude involved in my writing.
The way we recorded Airless Midnight was absolutely ideal for me, truly the best of all possible worlds. I had 7-8 very solid songs, which I had performed, felt strong about, and then we fleshed them out with a full band and JD. There were a couple of tunes which were less fully realized, and I fleshed those out with JD in the studio, mostly just him and I, and very few other musicians. I knew from the start that I’d be looking for a bit less of a “band” sound on a couple of tunes, so this fit in with the overall concept. But the way it all came together was pretty perfect.The older songs and the band laid the groundwork and served as a sort of template for the vibe of the whole collection, and it gave me the confidence and freed me up to sort of color the other ones.
Your previous album, “Mud,” came out in 2004. Had you been writing all along since then? If so, how much of “Airless Midnight” represents material written at various times over the past decade as opposed to more recently (specifically for the album)? Did any newer material inspire you to re-interpret old songs?
Eszter Balint: I took a little break after “Mud” from writing altogether. There are such different kinds of energy and mindset to tap into: executing the material well for the record, and also dealing with the business of having a new album, and performing the songs… It’s just too many hats for me to also immediately jump into working on new material. I sort of need to clear my palette; that’s my pace. I am doing that now as well, though I always tinker on writing “something” in some form, which will inform the songs.
I also had a young child at that time right after “Mud” came out which greatly preoccupied me. So I took a year or two off from songwriting, but then the desire started seeping back into my daily routine so yes, some of the songs here were based on sketches or ideas or even written quite a while back. “The Mother” is probably the oldest writing on this album. There was not that much re-interpretation. Maybe some fine tuning in approach, but the way I write, it’s (hopefully) got kind of a bit of a timeless feel to it, so it ages well. I hope.
You’ve worked with quite a few different artists and projects over the years (Michael Gira‘s Angels of Light being a favorite of mine); are there any collaborations that you feel have had a particular impact on your own music?
Eszter Balint: I think in the case of Michael Gira’s projects, there is a depth to his sound, including with Angels of Light, which is something totally inspiring to me. Probably hard to define as a direct musical influence, it’s more an approach. Likewise with Marc Ribot – performing with him (in Ceramic Dog, for a year) definitely had an impact on the way I approach performing myself. He gives his all and there is some slight danger element and total investment there. Which I relate to – perhaps from my early theater days – and so being exposed to it again really reminded me of the essential elements I need to cultivate in my own work. Again, probably a far more abstract reply than you expected. But the impact while strong was less directly musical.
Your father was a founder of the Squat Theatre – in what ways do you feel the experience of being part of that has influenced your work, both in general and perhaps specifically in relation to this album?
Eszter Balint: Yes so there too, there was an approach of seriousness, and risk. And by seriousness I absolutely don’t mean lacking in humor. I just mean not fucking around when you’re putting your art out there. I recognize this now as almost a kind of a physical, visceral body sensation..I absolutely seek that in my work, and I think the theater, and my father’s other work as well sought that. There are probably more general aesthetic sensibilities which got passed down to me. A constant thriving to build contrast: between ugly, beautiful, scary, fun.. and so on.
I know that you did an album release show over the summer, but are you planning on doing more shows or a tour?
Eszter Balint: I’d very much like to and working on that, yes. Booking agents, if you’re reading this, call me please.
What made you call the album “Airless Midnight”?
Eszter Balint: I was in quite a state about the title.. Just couldn’t find anything that felt true to this collection of songs, and I didn’t want to shortchange it. The writing, the stories, all felt to me this time around, as a collection, and I wanted to honor it with the right mood and sound. It was torture, no amount of efforting made it come, and I couldn’t settle on anything. I narrowed down to some ideas – taken from some phrases in the songs – which I knew were in the ballpark, and then just let it go. One morning I woke up with this in my head, and knew it felt right for the mood, and had the right ring to it. I have no idea where it came from; have to ask the muses I guess.
Have you thought at all about another album yet? Do you hope to have less of a gap between releases next time, or does it all just depend on when inspiration strikes?
Eszter Balint: I have some material left over, mostly in the form of lyrics, which didn’t make this album, in part because i didn’t feel they fit just right. So I have some things to build on, and looking forward to getting back into a more steady song writing routine soon. But I’m in that palette cleansing state for just a little bit right now.
“The Linguini Incident” may not be as critically acclaimed as your other acting work, but I remember finding it really entertaining – what are your thoughts looking back on that film?
Eszter Balint: I haven’t seen it in a billion years, ha. Probably afraid to watch it. It may not necessarily be work I’m super proud of, for myself. But what I remember is that all the people on that production were great. The whole cast, crew, the director, writer, it was a good spirit. I was pretty floored of course to meet Mr. Bowie, and got to spend time with him: he was smart, fun with a great senses of humor: a surprisingly easy, good hang.