By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
By Alex Rendon
By Terrence McCoy
By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
When it came time for Miranda Sex Garden to acquaint itself with the road, it did so at the behest of Mute's fattest cash cow, Depeche Mode. But the partnership put a strain on the band, not the least Blake, who still recounts the 1993 tour as "one of the most extreme experiences in my life." The experience reached a fever pitch in Germany, where fun for Depeche Mode fanatics involved trying to force the support act from the stage.
"We played in Nuremberg, in front of 22,000 people who were holding up their tickets in the air with what looked like a Nazi salute, chanting 'De-Peche Mode!'" Blake recounts. "This guy threw a bag of shit at me, and our drummer threw it back, where it burst into the audience! It was really, really full-on. Kind of like war."
It took Blake six years to complete 2000's Carnival of Souls, the most recent MSG record. The group exists concurrently with Mediæval Bæbes, sharing members and intertwining ideas. "Miranda Sex Garden is a rock band," clarifies Blake. "Mediæval Bæbes is a choir. Neither are traditional in that genre, though; Miranda Sex Garden's a pretty fucking weird rock group, and Mediæval Bæbes is by no means a traditional choir."
Yet the first Mediæval Bæbes record, 1998's Salva Nos, was steeped in somber traditionalism. Just in time for the holidays, Salva Nos ("Save Us") collected wintry madrigals and ancient Gaelic and English hymns like "This Ay Nicht," perfect for an evening on the bearskin rug in front of the hearth with a mug of mead. With its chilling, cathedral-like emptiness, the album's multitracked vocal purity caused a sensation, reaching the top of the European classical charts.
More percussion-based was 1999's Worldes Blysse, which sold nearly as well as the debut had. But the Mediæval Bæbes took a near-fatal misstep in 2000 with Undrentide, electing John Cale to produce. "I had a misguided fantasy that it was going to be an amazing collaboration, which, quite honestly, it wasn't," Velvet Underground fan Blake complains. "We didn't see eye to eye, and he basically took control of the album out of our hands. Took it away to New York and brought his jazz mates to come in and noodle all over it... And I was outraged." She laughs again anyway.
Somewhere along the way, Blake and her clan gained a certain notoriety for enjoying festivities befitting more stereotypically hard-living rockers. "Personally, I'm a bit of a party animal," she says before another rollicking chuckle. "I just can't stop partying. I'm one of the more extreme hedonists in the band! But we don't party as much as we used to. The first two years were like a Bacchanalian orgy -- a really good excuse to hang out with your female friends, get drunk, and sing some songs. But in time, people calm down a bit and see it as more of a job rather than a sort of party on wheels."
Inasmuch as Mediæval Bæbes make music for suppertime, they shouldn't be out of place at the Renaissance Faire's re-creation of a 16th-century British village, complete with wenches, turkey legs, blacksmiths, jugs of mead, pints of ale, dungeons, and dragon slayers as well as jousters, jesters, and jugglers.
Also lending credence to the ladies' free-spirited reputation is Songs of the Flesh, a coffee-table book released in 2000 featuring soft-core photos of the Mediæval Bæbes. Flaunting equal parts reverence and ribaldry, Songs of the Flesh captured the singers in various stages of bodice-ripping bliss. In highbrow quarters, the exposure did little to lend the group artistic credibility. "We got many bitchy reactions, really," Blake recalls. "But we did it because it'd be a fun thing to do." Likewise, the fact that Blake put herself through Purcell by dancing for dollars in the evenings didn't go unnoticed by the press either.
"My policy with that is to be honest," she says. "I haven't anything to hide. I have a past, it's certainly been very colorful, and I'm not embarrassed by anything I've done. Stripping was a good experience -- it meant that I could support myself and start the Mediæval Bæbes without having to get a full-time job. Which was quite healthy, really."
Humor and sexuality mingle happily and healthily on The Rose, the new album from the Bæbes, its title in reference to the quintessential medieval symbol of love. An Irish-flavored, classically pastoral, instrumental dance piece is called (heh, heh) "Lick the Maypole." On "The Sour Grove," a gently plucked zither helps narrate a delicate ode to the ageless power of pussy; penned by Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain sometime around 1490, a portion of the extract from "Cywydd Y Cedor (The Female Genitals)" translates as "a girl's thick grove, circle of precious greeting, lovely bush. God save it."
Such liberties with convention give rise to accusations that the Bæbes are cheapening -- instead of reverently resurrecting -- historical music. Yet it's hard to point to anyone presenting classical music with more spirit.
"The fact that we're called the Mediæval Bæbes betrays the fact that we're not deadly serious," Blake confesses. "Obviously, we're very serious about being good and professional, but in ourselves, we're quite lighthearted and playful, and it's nice to keep that side of it alive. People say I'm a very serious, pretentious person. Well, whatever. Maybe I am pretentious. But I'm a complete hopeless romantic."