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From the archives: Phoebe Snow emerges from a long, wintry spell

The balladeer whose 'Poetry Man' launched her to stardom in 1974 has released 'I Can't Complain,' her first album in eight years.

September 01, 1998|By John Roos | Special to The Times

She had one of the more memorable voices of the early 1970s.

But Phoebe Snow, the pop-jazz singer-songwriter whose single "Poetry Man" climbed into the Top 5 in 1974, virtually disappeared from the scene during the 1980s and much of the '90s. Her latest release, "I Can't Complain," is her first album since 1989's "Something Real."

Snow, who took time out for family concerns, hasn't been completely static. In 1992, she toured with Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in the "New York Rock 'n' Soul Revue" tour. That was followed by some commercial jingles, guest vocal turns for other pop artists (including Jewel) and occasional touring in North America, England, Germany and the Far East. Last year, she performed the title track on "Time and Love," a tribute album to the late singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.

Still, Snow, who appears with her four-piece band Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, is hardly a contender for joining something like the high-profile Lilith Fair tour. She's been out of circulation too long for that, and she knows it.

"I lost interest in being in the public eye. . . . I faded away for awhile out of sheer necessity," Snow said by telephone from her home in Fort Lee, N.J. "In hindsight, I missed out on some good or productive years. On the other hand . . . I really made the only choice I could under the circumstances."

Those circumstances would force Snow to reevaluate her life. In 1975, she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie, with brain damage. Over the ensuing years, the physical and emotional demands of caring for Valerie--plus at times, her very ill mother--left little energy for her own music career.

"I am a very productive person when I'm up and running. . . . I just wasn't up and running," the 46-year-old singer said with a chuckle. "Sometimes when you're overwhelmed by a situation--when you're in the darkest of darkness--that's when your priorities are reordered."

Part of it, Snow readily admitted, was her own inertia. A cycle of codependent relationships kept the New York native from nurturing her own self-worth.

"All of my life, when things got too difficult, I folded up the tent and went to bed," she said. "I couldn't stand a challenge. . . . I was terrified of confrontation. I was very laid-back, and just wouldn't get involved or fight back."

What turned her around about a year ago, Snow said, was a comment from her therapist.

"One day, she says to me, 'Look at how efficiently and aggressively you fight for your child, and have fought for your mother. Why didn't you do that for yourself?' " recalled Snow.

"It was like a neon light went on right over my head. . . . I realized that I've lived half my life already, and it's time to believe in--and stand up for--myself."

Buoyed by this new outlook, and the backing of the House of Blues record label, Snow began work on "I Can't Complain," a 12-song collection that pays tribute to some of her greatest influences. Her rich, soulful contralto--with guest vocalist Michael McDonald joining her on two tracks--gives new dimension to songs by Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, Jerry Butler and Jackie Wilson, among others.

One in particular--Joplin's classic "Piece of My Heart"--seems to epitomize Snow's newfound desire to take a risk.

"Maybe a good alternate title for the record is 'Who the Hell Do I Think I Am?' " Snow suggested. "I mean, 'Piece of My Heart'? C'mon. Am I out of my mind?

"I think you have very mixed feelings when you cover a song because you know the definitive version has basically been done. But just being able to do some of those really landmark songs from my childhood and formative years--to try and put my own spin on them--is such a thrill. It's probably like every garage band that's said: 'We're going to do a Jimi Hendrix tune just because we have to. It's a love thing.' "

Snow's already thinking ahead ("I'm writing like crazy every day") to her next album, one which she promises won't take another eight years to make. Close to her heart these days are social concerns that have her seething.

"We're really obsessive as a nation . . . about things that don't really matter," she said. "This whole presidential [scandal] . . . I just ask myself, 'Why is this taking such precedence in our lives?' The media nowadays is so invasive and pervasive. It's a sad commentary on our ignorance, I suppose."

She's also disturbed by what she calls the "legacy of years and years of silently condoned child abuse." She cited a recent Chicago sexual molestation-murder case against two boys, ages 7 and 8.

"If this isn't a red flag that there's something dreadfully wrong with our sexuality in this country . . . and if we don't start coming to terms with it, I think you're gonna see things that will blow your mind," Snow said.

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