Congo Norvell, comprised of singer Sally Norvell and guitarist Kid Congo Powers, blends melodramatic melodies with dark lyrics about outcasts and loners to achieve a uniquely gothic, mysterious sound. A reviewer noted in the Village Voice, “In their demonic torch songs, [Kid Congo] Powers’ playing is wily and wise, like he knows who did it and isn’t telling. [Norvell] belts and moans like she knows who did it, and it was her.” Powers was formerly with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Cramps, and the Gun Club, and Congo Norvell’s murky, dirge-like tempo reflects his past musical experience: the lyrics and presentation are reminiscent of Nick Cave, the offbeat campiness recalls the Cramps, and the hard-edged rock element recalls the Gun Club. Norvell, formerly with The Norvells, released an album with that group called Prohibition in 1980, which featured memberss of Glass Eye, Jesus Lizard, and Scratch Acid covering songs from the 1920s in an avant-garde manner.
When the duo wants to fill out their sound they enlist keyboardist Kristian Hoffman of the Mumps and Swinging Madisons, drummer Jim Sclavunos of the Lydia Lunch band, and bassist Mary Mullen of the Europe-based The Hesitations. Sandi Salina Messanaof the Los Angeles Village View described the band’s music as, “Campy and witty … an impeccably sweet vocalist backed by spare, atmospheric playing … mood-evoking music … sensuous timbres….”
Powers didn’t know how to play a guitar before the age of 18, but when his friend Jeffery Lee Pierce from the Gun Club, formally called the Creeping Ritual, asked him if he wanted to join a band, he said yes, and has since mastered the guitar. Powers started there as a guitarist and eventually moved on to join the Cramps within a year. He then moved on to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and contributed to the German instrumental band Die Haut.
Norvell and Powers formed their band in 1990 after meeting at a hospital where both were paying their last respects to the wife of a mutual friend, who was dying of AIDS. Each had been cast in a Wim Wenders film: Norvell in Paris, Texas, and Powers in Wings of Desire. Both also shared asimilar musicals background; Norvell founded The Norvells in Austin, Texas in 1979 and Powers had been in numerous punk rock bands dating as far back as 1979. In 1994, Powers told Option magazine’s Holly George-Warren, “The idea I had was to gather a bunch of true eccentrics and see how eccentric this music might turn out…. Sally and I wanted to do something that would affect people on an emotional level. Extreme melodrama seemed like a good start—we’re learning to be a bit more subtle now.”
Films influence the music of Congo Norvell, perhaps because Norvell had experience as an independent film maker, and both turn to movies for musical inspiration. Norvell and Powers like to imagine that their music would be the soundtrack for an imaginary film when composing it. Douglas Sirk, Roman Polanski, Wim Wenders, and John Cassavetes are their favorite directors. In addition to recording and performing original compositions, the band sometimes includes material by Louis Armstrong, Nancy Sinatra, and an eclectic array of other traditional musical icons.
Norvell finds inspiration in the music of Maria Callas, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Latin singer Mercedes Souza, Marion Anderson, and music of the 1920s; Mullen listens to Native American chant music; Powers to offbeat 1960s music; Sclavunos listens to Tav Falco; and Hoffman likes pop rock bands like Abba. Their wide range of musical influences contributes to their unique sound. Powers told George-Warren, “You put it all [the diverse musical influences] in a blender and it comes out like this—it’s not a sound any of us could have pulled off individually.”
The band released Lullabies, a four-song EP, on Fiasco with Kristian Hoffman, Mary Mullen, and Jim Sclavunos
For the Record…
Members include Sally Norvell , vocals; Kid Congo Powers , guitar. Occasional members include Kristian Hoffman (of the Mumps), keyboards; Mary Mullen (of the Hesitations), bass; Jim Sclavunos (of the Lydia Lunch band), drums.
Powers was formerly with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Cramps, and the Gun Club; he appeared in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. Norvell was formerly with the Norvells and released Prohibition with them in 1980; she appeared in the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas. Formed Congo Norvell in 1990; released their first EP Lullabies on Fiasco label in 1993; signed with Basura!-Priority Records and released Music to Remember Him By in 1994; recorded the unreleased The Dope, The Lies, The Vaseline in 1996; released Abnormals Anonymous for Jetset Records in 1997.
Address: Record company —Jetset Records, 67 Vestry Street, Suite 5C, New York, NY 10013; (212) 625-0202; Internet—www.sinner.com/jetset.
in 1993. A staff writer for San Francisco Weekly wrote of Lullabies, “The songs, ghoulishly and dramatically orchestrated, make the idea of a terrifying love seem mighty appealing. The sound is half troubled torch song, half tortured atmospherics, with ominous, dirge like drumbeats and great crashing piano chords urging on Novell’s vocals.” Mick Harvey, of the Australian goth-thrash band Crime & the City Solution and the Bad Seeds, produced Congo Norvell’s debut album. The Congo Norvell single “Angel” was written by Crime &the City Solution’s singer/songwriter Simon Bonney.
Congo Norvell released Music to Remember Him By in 1994 on Basural!-Priority Records, and recorded The Dope, The Lies, The Vaseline for the same label in 1996. Priority decided to fold its Basura! rock label—which included Congo Norvell on its roster. Their album The Dope, The Lies, The Vaselinewas never released, so the band decided to move to New York City and to switch over to the New York-based Jetset Records as a result.
Congo Norvell released Abnormals Anonymous for Jetset in 1997, with Mark Eitzel contributing vocals on five tracks. After the release of Abnormals Anonymous, Powers told CMJ’s Cella Holms, “I do think that we’re creating music that is more daring than what a lot of people are doing. We’re not using hip-hop beats. First and foremost I like things pretty classical, music-wise, sound-wise, and I’m always striving for beauty.” Abnormals Anonymous is about outcasts and loners. The single “Brother Jack” is about a musician who returned home after the death of his father, only to be rejected by his family members. Powers told Interview magazine’s Marcs Weingarten, “People always need a place to put their grief and anger, and they usually pick people who’ve chosen a path different from their own. I’ve had similar things happen to me.”
Neither Powers nor Norvell had formal music training before joining bands. Norvell’s mother encouraged her and her sisters to do whatever made them happy, and Norvell felt drawn to film and music. Powers played music by instinct. He told Entertainment ’s Steven Mirkin, “My roots are in very traditional kinds of music. Old blues, John Lee Hooker, Sunhouse, Howlin’ Wolf, it’s just instinctual playing…. I think that’s why Jefferey Lee Pierce, or Nick Cave, or ourselves, tend to go for that. It has a lot more to do with the emotional impact of playing than it does with any kind of technical proficiency.” Powers produced an album for aTexas-cum-New York City band called The Factory Press in 1998, and planned on playing drums and guitar with the band Bottleneck Drag.
Norvell had a son in the mid-1990s, and Powers became publicly outspoken about the fact that he was gay, granting interviews to the Advocate and Out magazines. He had always been frank with his band members about his sexuality—and they viewed his freedom as an asset—but it wasn’t until he and Norvell lost a friend to the AIDS epidemic that he decided to be outspoken about it. When speaking with Barry Walters of the Advocate, Powers said, “I’ve got the big blond woman singing. I think we’re also quite dramatic. In the same way that a lot of gay people relate to someone like Billie Holiday, I would hope that people could relate to what we’re doing.”
Lullabies (EP), Fiasco, 1993.
Music to Remember Him By, Basural!-Priority, 1994.
The Dope, The Lies, The Vaseline (Unreleased), Basural-Priority, 1996.
Abnormals Anonymous, Jetset, 1997.
Advocate, February 1998.
Alternative Press, March 1998.
CMJ, October 27, 1997; November 14, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, November 14, 1997.
Eye Deal, December 1997.
Guitar Magazine, March 1998.
Instant Magazine, November 1997.
Interview, December 1997.
Lollipop, December 1997.
Los Angeles Village View, April 5, 1997.
Magnet, January/February 1998.
Musician, February 1998.
New Music, November 1997.
New York Times, November 14, 1997.
Option, January/February 1994.
Out, May 1998.
Philadelphia City Paper, January 30-February 5, 1998.
San Francisco Weekly, November 20, 1997.
Time out, December 4-11, 1997.
Village Voice, January, 1998.
—B. Kimberly Taylor