Deena Shoshkes said that she has been expressing herself in song “since the get-go. My parents told me I used to rock and sing in the crib.”
She and her husband Jon Fried, best known as founding members of the indie-rock group The Cucumbers, have been making music and releasing albums since the early ’80s, when they were part of the nascent Hoboken music scene. More recently, they have been part of the collaborative band, The Campfire Flies. They left Hoboken about 30 years ago to raise their family in nearby Milburn, not far from where some of their bandmates also moved to raise families.
Now — after a long, lonesome pandemic — they’ve found a silver lining in the chores that occupied them while they were homebound. Cleaning out a desk drawer, Shoshkes discovered unreleased songs from 1988 to 2005. The dynamic couple are releasing, today, The Desk Drawer Tapes, a collection of these recovered tunes, as a digital download via Life Force Records. The songs will be available at deena.bandcamp.com and other streaming platforms.
This album (recorded with a revolving cast of bandmates) reflects their diverse styles, including party tunes recorded in 1988 (“The Boss’s Song,” “Do It Yourself,” “You Are the Match”) and hypnotic rock (“I Am So Ready,” an outtake from their 1996 album Total Vegetility). Fried sings lead on “The Boss’s Song” (see video below).
“Do It Yourself” started with “a fun jam session” with drummer Yuergen Renner and bassist John Williams, Shoshkes said. “Then I added the lyrics and melody. It was written well before ‘DIY’ became a thing, or a phrase, or an initialism. Without realizing it, we were part of that moment. Also, I’m always combating my own laziness and Jon is super-energetic and always wants to work and I was describing how it felt at the time. He was always trying to get me to go ahead and do things even if I didn’t feel like it. I did realize and come to agree that ‘anything’s better than nothing.’ ”
Renner and Williams, who both played on The Cucumbers’ eponymous 1987 album on the Profile label, appear on some of the tracks, while drummer Dave Ross and bassist Kurt Wrobel join Shoshkes and Fried on other songs.
The collection also features Wrobel and drummer EdNo on songs from 2002, including the catchy and compelling “What Would You Do,” the haunting “Beauty From Afar,” the playful and clever “Our Love Is What We Are,” the pensive “Handle With Care” and the country rock-infused “How Far Can You Go.”
“Beauty From Afar” (see video below) is a favorite of mine, and Fried’s favorite Cucumbers recording, too.
“I think we captured a mood, and Deena’s lyrics are so full of mystery,” he said. “And our old friend Roger Moutenot did such a brilliant mix.”
“Mystical love and soul connection are ongoing themes and sources of inspiration for me,” said Shoshkes. These themes inspire this majestic song. Is there anything more important in art or life? I’d answer that with a resounding no.
“I think it’s a song about the closeness and distance between people, especially people romantically involved,” said Fried. “For the video, I wanted to capture the contrast between the idea of beauty from afar and the intimacy of the song, so I used close-ups from around the house. Stuff we see all the time but never notice. No doubt it’s a COVID-era video. We’ve been at home looking at the same wallpaper, carpets, curtains and doorknobs for a long time now. I exaggerated the colors and, in some cases, completely changed or reversed them — to keep it interesting, I hope, and also as a comment on how different things appear when you really look at them.”
Shoshkes usually sings lead vocals with her gorgeous, bright, sunny voice, but Fried traded places with her in their 2005 song “True for Me,” accompanied by Wrobel and drummer Steve Villano. Shoshkes sings lovely harmonies to back up her beloved Fried, whom she met as a first-year student at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Another 2005 song made it on this collection: the soul-influenced “Still Thinking of Midnight,” featuring sultry playing by trombonist Ben Williams, trumpeter Dan Sugarman and saxophonist Brett Ollerenshaw.
“The band was born out of New Wave, and though we really have our roots in the singer-songwriter tradition, part of us always wanted to be a party dance band,” said Fried. “When John Williams brought his old buddies Brett Ollerenshaw and Steve Foreman on sax and trumpet for songs like ‘You Are the Match,’ we had such a gas. John did the great arrangement for the instrumental close-out of that track and I’ll always smile when I hear it.”
“The collection is a reminder that a band is a blend of musical personalities, a meeting point, and we were lucky to play with a lot of really wonderful musicians over the years,” said Shoshkes in a press release.
Although these songs were recorded years ago, they sound fresh and remain relevant. “We put a lot of energy into them at the time,” said Shoshkes. “A few may sound fresh because they had never been mixed and got the contemporary mix treatment by the extremely talented Rob Friedman. All the recordings got a little bit of extra sheen from the mastering process by Scott Anthony.”
Shoshkes’ musical approach has changed over the years, which mirrors the way some of us evolve from being young adventurers to wiser, post-50s empty nesters. Her songwriting now encompasses and reflects experiences of others’ private moments.
“Initially, writing was inspiration-based, straight from the heart, directly about my life and feelings,” she said. “Then I started writing for projects when a filmmaker friend asked me to come up with songs for films he was making. I found that writing to order like that was very freeing. At the same time, I began collaborating with lyricist David Graham. When writing to someone else’s words, a certain part of my ego left the process, and that was truly liberating. Now I do a combination of all of the above: writing when lightning strikes, writing with others’ inspirations … writing so much that songs just come through me and I don’t know where they come from.”
The Cucumbers’ popular 1987 track, “My Boyfriend” (see video below) — a song that cleverly voiced both love and frustration — was initially a diary entry. Shoshkes wrote about Fried, her boyfriend back then, and never intended that her words would become lyrics.
“I loved him but he wasn’t perfect. … I was just writing about what I was going through,” she said. “We had recently moved in together and we were working on the adjustments you have to make. I wrote those lines in my journal, which at the time was a pile of typed notes. I kept my old manual portable Olivetti typewriter at the ready. After jamming with a friend one night, Jon grabbed that page and started singing them over some music we’d recorded.”
During the pandemic, she spent some time cleaning out her drawers and found diaries from the 1980s. They were “filled with youthful emotion, shock and awe … Now enough time has gone by so that those feelings and conflicts are well in the past,” she said.
Shoshkes plans to make an acoustic, folky Cucumbers album. “Jon and I have been playing lots of duo shows over the past year, via livestreaming and now in person as we return to live performances,” she said. “I’d like to capture that sound.”
She would also like to record an album with her writing partners — friends “from around the world.” And an album of her “quirky experimental home recordings — perhaps the nearest to my heart.” Before the pandemic, she and her Campfire Flies bandmates had an album’s worth of material arranged. Now they plan to finish it and release an album.
Fried is finishing a novel of historical fiction about “some of the colorful characters in my family tree,” and has another novel in progress. He also writes short stories.
“I am very grateful to Deena for keeping my music life alive,” he said. “As compensation for being her roadie and driver, I get to back her up on banjo and background vocals these days … she continues to write amazing songs and I get to play them.”
Shoshkes says her mother was her greatest influence, adding that she was “an artist and an intellectual and went back to college to study design when I was in nursery school. She always worked and stressed independence and delighted in all things creative and constructive.”
Through music, Shoshkes has found her own place among her three accomplished sisters (she is the youngest).
“They are great role models — a scientist, an architect and an artist. In many ways I chose music because they had a lot of the bases covered already. By example they paved the way for innumerable possibilities.”
Shoshkes and Fried will perform on Quimby Street in Westfield, June 25 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The appearance is sponsored by the Township of Westfield. Visit westfieldtoday.com.
Sept. 18 at 7 p.m., Shoshkes will perform with Rebecca Turner in “The Sound of Our Town” House Party in Westfield. For information, call Rob Galgano at (845) 661-8932 or email him firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on The Cucumbers, visit thecucumbersmusic.weebly.com.
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