The process for the creation of My Skin Craves Soil, a musical theater piece about experiencing nature within the confines of the city, was fairly simple; co-creators Ralph Gorodetsky and Weba Garretson simply ventured out into Garretson’s back yard in Echo Park, observed things, and then transformed those observations into music. “In 2011 Ralph came over with a beautiful guitar piece, and I pulled out a poem about my cat being eaten by a coyote,” recalls Garretson of the genesis of the piece. “It just took off from there.” A unique 18 song cycle about the urban wilderness where skunks, possum, hawks, and cats live side by side, My Skin Craves Soil takes audiences on a journey that’s at once panoramic and tightly focused; some songs burrow deep down into the soil itself – the piece includes a delicate love song to a slug — while others flit through the sky like a hummingbird. My Skin Craves Soil combines elements of classical, new music, modern harmony, and pop song, and is at once dissonant and unabashedly lyrical. It is, above all else, an immersive theater piece that incorporates video of flora and fauna of Garretson’s backyard shot by Mark Wheaton, projected drawings by musician Joe Baiza, and projections by Frances Garretson. Conceived for the black box theater, the song cycle has also been captured in a recording that conjures the delicacy and power of nature in all its facets.
Produced by Mark Wheaton, My Skin Craves Soil is part and parcel of the current greening of the arts, and is reflective of a general eco-consciousness that’s seeping into society. “People are shifting their focus, and this shift is fostering what could be described as a lifestyle movement,” say Garretson, who’s an avid gardener and serious cook. “Sustainable farming, urban gardening, and the growing awareness of permaculture are all about engaging with wildlife within tiny wedges of city. The fragility of those natural places reflects back on our own fragility, and our hope is that this piece will inspire people to see their environment in a different way. What may be dismissed as a weed is in fact part of an eco-system, and it has a place in the manicured existence we strive for. There has to be a blend of those edges.”
Gorodetsky’s feeling for a pantheistic view of nature has different roots, and he traces it back to an experience he had in 1992. “I was in Topeka, Kansas and I met a Potowatomi Indian who took me to the reservation where I was exposed to Native American philosophy and ceremony. I feel very fortunate that I was able to have that experience.” The Native America belief that every living thing has a purpose and a soul is one of the guiding premises of “What Must the Hummingbird See?”which premiered in March, 2014, at Automata, an alternative space in Los Angeles and is the basis of the CD My Skin Craves Soil.
Garretson and Gorodetsky began working together in 1993 when their mutual friend, drummer Danny Frankel, brought Gorodetsky to one of Garretson’s rehearsals. As it happened, Garretson’s then collaborator, Steve Stewart, was unable to make an upcoming show, and Gorodetsky stepped in, learned every note of Garretson’s music, and performed the show with her two weeks later. Shortly after meeting they realized that they ignited something in each other in terms of songwriting, and an enduring partnership was born. “Ralph was game,” Garretson recalls, “and what I was doing at the time was kind of unhinged in a way that made room for his contribution. So, we started writing nice little songs then pushing them out of shape.” There’s no set formula as to how they produce songs together; each of them writes both lyrics and music, and each song is configured differently in terms of who contributes what. “There’s a push pull because we’re so different,” says Gorodetsky. “I’m a little rough around the edges and Weba is more sophisticated, and that sweet-sour thing allows us to write well together.”
In 1995 the team recorded their first album together, Welcome to Webaworld, which drew on material from Garretson’s stage production, Weba World, and the following year they formed their first band Puttanesca, which recorded an album in 2006. In 1997 they formed the Eastside Sinfonietta, which created contemporary arrangements of classic songs from the Weimar Republic. The Sinfonettia was invited to be the featured performers in a production of the Brecht-Weill play, Happy End, that was staged at L.A.’s MOCA in 2003, and it led to the recording, Don’t Be Afraid, the same year. Subsequent collaborations include UTOPIA/Dystopia, a production of John Malpede’s Los Angeles Poverty Department that was staged at Redcat in 2007, and My Moby Dick, presented at the Broad Stage in 2013. Both Gorodetsky and Garretson continue to work independent of one another as well. In 2012 Garretson wrote and recorded a bossa nova record, Such is Love, without Gorodetsky; during that same period he became a member of grind-core metal band, Resistant Culture. Regardless of the independent projects that each may be involved with, they continue writing together.
For the past two decades Gorodetsky and Garretson’s working process for all these disparate projects has been to write songs together; give the charts to other musicians they were working with at the time; polish the songs through a series of public performances; and, finally, record the songs. My Skin Craves Soil is different, and is an expansion of everything they’ve done together thus far. “If you live in LA you throw a dime and there’s a brilliant musician,” Garretson adds. We could easily have involved other musicians, but we consciously chose not to.”
“The music isn’t weird or impenetrable and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been with something I’ve done musically,” Gorodetsky adds. “I like the fact that we’ve created something that doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. I also like that we took our time with it, that there are no other musicians on the recordings, and that it’s totally ours.” With plans for an expansion of the visual component of the piece, and a national tour, My Skin Craves Soil was born in southern California, but it’s definitely not regional theater; rather, the multiple musical traditions that come together in the song cycle, and the ideas and concerns that shape the piece, speak to us all.
Ralph Gorodetsky is a classic example of the autodidact. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Hollywood, he gravitated towards music as a child, and went on to become an almost entirely self-taught multi-instrumentalist. His initial passion was classical music, but his interests quickly expanded from there. As has been the case in America for decades, pop music stations were ubiquitous during the years he was growing up, and he remembers hearing his first pop hook – in Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky – when it was released in 1969, and finding it hypnotic.
An indifferent student, Gorodetsky attended an alternative middle school that had a band; they needed a bass player, so he got one, learned how to play it, and joined the band. During those years he was exposed to jazz, which continues to be an abiding passion, and as a high school student he joined the school choir, studied music theory, and played in a series of bands that combined elements of classical music with punk rock. Music was a bit more wide open during those years, and he recalls attending shows where varied concert bills would included everything from the Electric Light Orchestra and Slade to Iggy Pop on a single night. “You’d go to concerts with crazy combinations of bands, so you’d hear everything,” Gorodetsky says. “Every genre has its purists, but that’s never made sense to me and I find it suffocating. Music doesn’t break up into categories and genres, and all styles overlap and blend into one another.”
After graduating from high school Gorodetsky enrolled at Immaculate Heart College as a music major. It was a loose, unstructured school, and punk bands would occasionally perform in the cafeteria; this was the late ‘70s, when L.A.’s first wave of punk was just breaking, and the rebellion and experimentation of the music was tailor made for him. In 1980, after a year and a half at college, he dropped out and embarked on two decades of work with an ever-expanding series of bands including the Dissidents and Saccharine Trust. “I would play on punk bills in punk clubs, but the music wasn’t really punk,” he recalls. “It was punk guys playing hyper-aggressive, dissonant jazz that incorporated elements of classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky – it was basically free jazz.” He teamed up with Joe Baiza to form the Universal Congress, then teamed with Baiza again for follow-up band, the Mecolodiacs, which continues to perform. In 2000 Gordetsky began teaching yoga and tai chi, and he currently splits his time between various musical projects, and yoga studios throughout southern California.
Born in White Plains, New York, in 1956, Weba Garretson began lessons on piano, clarinet, oboe, and guitar as a child, and at fourteen she began singing. In 1971 she embarked on four years of study at Simon’s Rock College, majoring in dance and theater, then in 1975, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence where she met her first significant collaborator, Richard Hochberg. Together they produced Bruce and Lois, a musical docudrama that chronicled the rise and fall of a love affair.
In 1979 Garretson moved to Los Angeles and became the lead vocalist in Steve Stewart’s band, the Pearls, and together she and Stewart wrote and performed music for Sport of My Mad Mother, which was directed by David Schweizer. Garretson’s performance in the play led to further collaborations with Schweizer, composer Jerry Frankel, and actor Philip Littell. The first of them was The Weba Show: A Lounge Act for the ‘80s, an avant garde vaudeville show featuring the Pearls, that ran from 1982 through 1984 at L.A.’s Lhasa Club, and was also staged in New York. Garretson subsequently formed her own group, Weba & the Wailing Turbans, and during this period Garretson began working with performance artist Donald Krieger; between 1982 and 1993 she appeared in several of his pieces.
In 1986 Garretson became a member of the SHRIMPS, an eight-person performance art collective led by artist Martin Kersels, and she worked with them regularly for more than a decade. In 1989 she re-teamed with Steve Stewart to compose and star in two nightclub musicals, Come to My Heaven (1989), and Adventure Amour (1990), both of which featured her combo, Weba & the Wailing Turbans. During this period Garretson began performing in video artworks, and in 1990 she was featured in A Conversation From the Grave, an experimental video written by James Krusoe. In 1993 she formed a trio with Ralph Gorodetsky and drummer/percussionist Danny Frankel, and together they developed a style incorporating elements of spoken word, funk, jazz, and punk that she and Gorodetsky continue to mine. her second. In 2000 acclaimed artist, Bill Viola, cast Garretson in one of his video works, and over the past 15 years she’s appeared in more than a dozen of his pieces. As outlined above, Garretson’s fertile partnership with Gorodetsky has led to dozens of songs, recordings, and performances.