Singer-songwriter Connie Converse is the indie hipster of the moment in Brooklyn, the indie hipster capital of the world, and she's poised to break out beyond the city limits with the release this week of her debut album. Her witty, plaintive songs, sung in a tremulous voice with acoustic guitar accompaniment, remind me of an older, grad-school version of Kimya Dawson (she of the chart-topping Juno soundtrack). Her look, plain but pretty with thick, horn-rimmed glasses, is classic geek chic. She's being written about everywhere from New York magazine to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that these recordings are more than 50 years old? And that Connie Converse is 85 - if she's even alive, given that nobody has seen or heard from her since 1974? Yes, there's the catch that makes Ms. Converse's music noteworthy even to people who could care less about folk music or what's hip in indie music this week.
Her talent is obvious. One listen to her CD of vintage home recordings, How Sad, How Lovely, makes it clear that she's a highly skilled, even gifted, songwriter. She manages to convey contradictory emotions within the same song, sometimes even in the same verse. Innocence and cynicism, sly humor and deep melancholy, chastity and passion, the ancient and the modern, all mingle and coexist in Connie Converse's world, seemingly without effort.
But talented though she may be (have been?), the question might not be "Why did it take so long for Connie Converse to be discovered?" as "Why did anyone bother discovering her at all?" This is an artist, after all, who never released a record or so much as played a paid gig during what passes as her "career."
As with any left-field success story, luck has a lot to do with it. Had Gene Deitch, an old friend of Connie's, not happened to play a recording of hers on the radio one day in 2004, and had two twenty-somethings, Dan Dzula and David Herman, not been tuned in to the station, the musical resurrection of Connie Converse probably never would have happened.
But Deitch played it. Dzula and Herman were listening. They were moved enough by the recording ("One By One," which appears on her CD) to track Deitch down and learn more about the enigma that is, or was, Connie Converse. They started a record label, Lau derette, in order to get her music to the masses. They put Connie and her story on Facebook and Myspace, and let viral marketing do its work.
And now the stars have aligned perfectly. Brooklyn is still the epicenter of cool, even if naysayers opine that it's passed its prime. A musical climate in which sensitive-delicate-and-moody is all the rage (think Bon Iver) helps to prime the pump for Converse's gently strummed ditties. And a legend is born.
All we need now to complete the circle is for Connie Converse to magically resurface - after all, her death has never been confirmed - and reap the rewards that have been due her for so many decades. But then again, if we were to see an octogenarian Connie Converse in the flesh and not in old black-and-white photos, would the mystery surrounding her music be punctured? Would the audience that's drawn to her myth be able to deal with the reality? And would we hear her music any differently? I've gotta confess, I hope we get to find out.