It was like exhuming her father’s body. After singer-songwriter Poe watched her dad succumb to illness, she and her brother, writer Mark Danielewski, discovered a small storage closet that contained the last of her father’s stuff. The two rummaged around, reconnecting with their pseudo-famous dad—Tad Danielewski was an award-winning documentary filmmaker. What they found amongst the rumble floored them both: a stack of cassettes containing lectures and journal entries he’d made over the years. “Talk about resurrecting a ghost,” Poe says. “I had been in so many places with that voice, at first I didn’t know what to do.”
In fact, Poe barely listened to any of the tapes for a couple years, unable to face what was on them. Not that she didn’t have other things on her mind. Her debut album, 1995’s Hello, had inched its way into the charts. Her breakthrough hit, “Angry Johnny,” had her awash in media attention, with Poe being touted as one of the soldiers in Alanis Morissette’s alt-rock angst-chick army.
After all the touring and scrutiny, Poe (real name: Annie Danielewski, once a Provo resident) finally settled down and listened. The more she heard, the more Poe knew she had to find a way to make peace with that voice. Her method: Do what she’d always done—make music. She started sampling bits and pieces of her father’s words, weaving them into her songs. Each verse was a eulogy and a bloodletting, Poe having to deal with all the feelings she had buried for years. “There were moments making this record where I was like, ‘Oh my God. I can make him into anything I want,’” Poe says. “I had all his words in front of me and I could twist them into whatever I wanted. I was waiting to get shot down by lightning or something.”
It took five years and 17 tracks, all of which were written in order, to finally leave her father behind. In fact, it’s almost like you can hear his spirit slowly floating off the deeper you get into Poe’s second album, last year’s Haunted. Early numbers like the empowering “Control” contain bitter lines like “You may be king for the moment/But I am a queen understand/And I’ve got your pawns and bishops and castles in the palm of my hand.” But by the time the end of disc rolls around, Poe is letting go— “The voice of my father is still as loud as before/It used to scare me but not anymore” (“Amazed”). In fact the last line on the album is a simple “I love you/It’s OK/You can go now.”
But the disc isn’t just a therapy session. Poe has crafted a smooth electro-barrage of beats and burps—the kind a thoroughly baked Trent Reznor might pump out for Madonna’s next album. Spacey samples and chilled-out guitars battle for attention. White noise slides up next to slinky melodies like a well-liquored frat guy stalking some barroom honey. Spliced together with Poe’s cathartic purge, the record almost feels like a Spielberg coming-of-age flick, a treacherously personal journey that evaporates into a universal soul-touching ending.
Yet the album almost never saw the light of day. Poe worked in virtual isolation for years, only sharing bits with her brother (a family tradition, Poe and brother Mark would trade material with each other, which inevitably tied Haunted and Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves, together like a film and its soundtrack). Her label, Atlantic Records, wasn’t even allowed a listen. It led to some serious friction, with Poe even shutting down production on occasion. “At times they just said they wouldn’t support me anymore,” Poe says. “I closed up shop and sent everyone home, hoping that eventually they would say yes. They finally did.”
For a while it seemed like a hollow victory: When the record came out, few even noticed. While Poe was getting a good response from crowds on a small bookstore tour she was doing with her brother, the debut single, the emancipation rant “Walk the Walk,” didn’t score any airplay. In a testosterone-dominated rock world, no one was interested in a woman and her emotions, no matter how funky the package. The label was ready to give up on the record completely, offering to send Poe back into the studio to do another disc. She wanted to give things one more try.
“I started calling program directors myself,” Poe says. “They all said the same thing. ‘Love the record; we don’t play women.’ I finally got one guy in Portland to agree that if I made some crazy remix he’d play it once.”
It gave Poe an idea. If stations weren’t willing to risk throwing a chick into the mix, she’d give one of her songs a masculine touch. She called her brother over. On the book tour the two had done a spoken-word version of Poe’s track “Hey Pretty,” Danielewski replacing her verses with a passage from House of Leaves. The two quickly laid down the track. Within a couple days Poe shipped the new version of the song to Portland. Soon after, it became a display of pure synergy. Portland played the track; phones rang constantly. A week later L.A. powerhouse KROQ was spinning a bootleg copy, quickly followed by a Boston station. Suddenly Poe had a hit for a presumed-dead record.
“It was this totally punk-rock thing,” she says. “It’s not supposed to happen this way anymore. The label didn’t have a copy of the track yet. One program director put his ass on the line for me and totally broke this record.”
It also broke House of Leaves. While the 700-page novel is more for grad students than the Best Sellers list, the success of Haunted has given the book a serious sales boost. “DJs are talking about the book and because it’s on the radio, kids are reading it and understanding it better than I do,” Poe says. “My dad would have laughed at the thought of this happening, but it is.”
And that ultimately gives her some satisfaction. She and her brother were finally able to surprise their father while still putting him to rest, finally seeing him as just another flawed human rather than dad. “Now I’ve made amends with that voice,” she says. “I see what he really was. I don’t have that confusion of a father-daughter relationship anymore. I can see him for who he was. And for that, I think he would be proud.”
Depeche Mode with Poe. The E Center, 3200 S. Decker Lake Drive, Monday July 23, 7:30 p.m. Tickets available through Smith’sTix: 467-TIXX, 800-888-TIXX and www.SmithTix.com.