These Little Hands: The Craft of Lindsay Heath

Photo: John Barkiple

Few local musicians are as recognizable as Lindsay Heath. Her bleached-bone dreadlocks have been a singular feature of this valley’s xeriscape for decades. “I began drumming and playing strange chords 22 years ago,” Heath says, “and I started my first band when I was 15.” If a guy with a golden horn can serve as emblem of mainstream Salt Lake, then songwriter Lindsay Heath may well be our underground’s anti-Moroni—an unauthorized and unapologetic embodiment of everything that will get you uninvited to your cousin’s temple wedding.

I remember seeing Heath onstage with Redd Tape in the nought years of this millennium. I also saw her play synthesizer in one of the most harmonically interesting and criminally forgotten Salt Lake bands, Delicatto. “I couldn’t drum in that one,” Heath tells me, “because I had broken my arm skateboarding.” Additionally, Heath contributed drums to the earliest incarnations of Vile Blue Shades. Onstage, she was consistently a startling presence. A precocious and ferocious musician, she was a visual freak flag. All this musical Kid Madusa (one of her stage names) seemed to want for was a smelted boomerang and a pouch of human fingers. While it may be tempting to approach such strangers, one rarely does so with impunity. I was brazen enough to step into Heath’s ambit a few days after seeing one of her performances. As I recall, our conversation went every which way but forward. Still, it did initiate between us an acquaintanceship that lasted a couple of calendar years. Though I never could say exactly when, at some point I found I had won Heath’s trust.

My ongoing friendship with Heath has allowed me to follow her musical fortunes and take a keen interest in the various twists and turns, and ups and downs of her artistic trail. However, my relationship to Heath took a very unexpected turn when she asked me—at the same time this article was being planned—to play guitar in her latest project, which will play a series of CD-release shows in August. To take part in such events was an opportunity for which a fan like me could only vaguely hope, because, as Heath insists, “Finding the right accompanists is one of my very biggest challenges. Everything has to feel right.” Somehow, I got the call. Lindsay Heath’s current lineup includes Cache Tolman on bass, Skyler Arbon, Michael Sasich on guitar, Jaime Hunt on violin, Klaus OrNot on cello, Camilo Torres on drums and yours truly on guitar.

Heath’s song “Painted Queens” also reflects her passion for visual art. Her Painted Queens III emulate those by artist Cyclops.
Heath’s song “Painted Queens” also reflects her passion for visual art. Her Painted Queens III emulate those by artist Cyclops.

Though most readers will know Heath first as a drummer and only next as a keyboard player and singer, her first instrument was, in fact, the guitar. “I begged for a guitar,” she says, “and got one for Christmas when I was 6 years old.” It is hard to imagine Heath submitting herself to a teacher of any sort, and so it comes as no surprise that she is entirely self-taught. “No one showed me even how to tune the thing, so I stumbled into drop-D minor, which turned out to be standard tuning for the ‘90s. It was the Nirvana thing.”

For each new generation of musicians, there will be a band among bands that defines and embodies the era—what it is—and that issues a musical call to arms to all who have ears—Sons of Scotland, will you fight?! In my case, I was all but physically marked by my first encounter with Led Zeppelin. It was the hammer I never saw. Like so many songwriters of her generation, Heath’s discovery of Nirvana was her holy WTF moment. “It was not of this world,” Heath tells me. This fact might not have been noteworthy once upon a time, but in the present electronic dance hegemony, it has become genuinely possible to step into a room full of kids from Generation Whatever and find that not one of them has heard the name Kurt Cobain—astonishing, but true. Yet, to see Heath recall the urgent feeling of that moment brings to mind the words of the British poet William Wordsworth—“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” Upon such feeling, more than one great artist has founded a career. From Nirvana, Heath found her vocation.

In particular, Heath and I discussed our fascination with Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), who took part in the recent Nirvana reunion. In interviews, Clark has mentioned the lasting impact that the band had on her. I found it remarkable that the same band could so profoundly influence two artists with such different musical backgrounds. Clark, who possesses impeccable form, studied guitar under the tutelage of a world-class jazz musician (her uncle, Tuck Andress). Meanwhile, Heath developed her sound entirely without instruction. One wouldn’t know this upon listening to the new CD, Holy Medicine. “I kept the songs stripped way down,” Heath says, “so that the live performance would sound true to the original compositions.”

Unencumbered by any tawdry sonic bling, each song on Heath’s album is free to drift effortlessly in and out of safe and perilous shoals of melody and harmony. “They are all the result of fumbling around,” Heath insists. Mere flukes or not, many of the tracks evoke legendary bands, while nudging their signature sounds—as an art instructor might—toward possibilities even the very best, at times, lacked the skills or guts to achieve. It is easy enough to hear echoes of Pink Floyd in the nebbed-out vastness of “Crawlspace.” Rather than merely imitating a classic tune such as “Breath,” Heath modulates the chord progressions and warps the melody in ways that recall the untethered and reeling piano and violin concertos of Sergei Prokofiev. Far from simply imitating the masters, Heath comes wonderfully close to mastering them back.

Heath’s prodigious capacity to hear, mimic and alter melodies isn’t revealed in its bizarre fullness until she grabs her guitar to show you the actual process through which her songs come about. I sat with Lindsay in her living room as she lifted a becrudded old Ovation that might once have been pawned for beer money. I sat, stunned, as she proceeded to hook her thumb over the top of the neck, not grabbing only the fattest string like a gifted slacker (for instance, Jeff Beck), but rather thumbing an entire barre chord while somehow freeing a finger to engage the thinner strings from underneath. From my own woefully over-cultivated perspective, it was like watching someone eat a rice bowl with scissors. Sure, dood, it works, but come on! And yet, the results were undeniable. In response to my bewilderment, Lindsay announced, “Yeah, these little hands did all that.” Seeing this brought to mind YouTube videos gone viral. These showed amateur musicians from undisclosed regions of the undeveloped world, drawing astounding sounds out of North American musical-instrument detritus. This they did using calloused knuckles, prehensile toes or discarded flashlight batteries. The cunning methods these nameless everyday geniuses had devised while working with cast-off gear was not unlike the way they handled songs, salvaging scrap and reworking parts into wacky, new combinations that worked as if by magic. I began to see in Heath a sort of musical bricoleur, thrifting and matching on the fly, though “I am not a shopper,” Heath says. “I went to Decades today and was exhausted immediately.”