The Garment District: Roots

Courtesy of Jennifer Baron

Jennifer Baron is a multi-instrumentalist and the innovator behind The Garment District: a collective of makers and musicians that have merged to become a band that redefines the idea of multi-media. The following is the first in a three-part series exploring identity, influence, the creative process, and all of the objects, obscure films, late night tv, and memories that have manifested themselves into the complex, enlightened entity that is The Garment District.

Julianna: Describe the musical journey that led to the formation of The Garment District.

Jennifer: Music has always been a constant in my life. I played in bands when I lived NYC for ten years, with The Ladybug Transistor (Merge Records) and Saturnine (Dirt Records). As a founding long-time member of The Ladybug Transistor, I played bass and also some guitar and keyboards, and was one of four songwriters in the band. We released albums on Merge and toured extensively in the U.S., Europe, and Scandinavia. We all lived together for a period of time in an incredible Victorian house in Flatbush, and made music so intrinsic to our communal lifestyle, especially since our recording studio, Marlborough Farms, was located—and still is—in the house.

Jennifer Baron Photo by Greg Langel
Jennifer Baron
Photo by Greg Langel

After I moved back to Pittsburgh, I played the organ for a while in The New Alcindors, an instrumental combo inspired by 1960s soul and garage music. At that time, I was working as Education Director at the Mattress Factory museum and became [a coordinator] with Handmade Arcade, Pittsburgh’s first and largest independent craft fair…

I [started doing] a lot more photography and was able to channel my love of vintage signs and roadside culture into the Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010); a grant-funded project I worked on with three other Pittsburgh artists, including my husband, Greg. But I was always making my way back to music.

I started writing new music and making demos as The Garment District around 2011. One night at a show at the Shop, I saw Wet Hair from Iowa City perform, which turned out to be wonderfully synergistic. I loved their music and spent time looking at the Night-People Records releases and connected with Shawn Reed, who also runs the label and creates all of the fantastic silkscreens, collages, and visuals for their beautiful cassettes and vinyl. I sent him some of my finished songs and works in progress and he wrote me back one night at 1:30 a.m. asking if I wanted to do a tape.

“I very much admire the aesthetic and community created via Night-People; Shawn’s attention to and respect for authenticity and the handmade process is something I love being a part of.” Jennifer Baron

It has also been [creatively and personally] rewarding to involve my cousin Lucy Blehar— …an actor in Los Angeles—in The Garment District. We are very close and she sings leads vocals on several songs on Melody Elder and If You Take Your Magic Slow, and also appears in some of my music videos. Likewise, my brother Jeff (The Essex Green), of The Ladybug Transistor, contributed some guitar on a few of my songs.

Melody Elder on tape Courtesy of Jennifer Baron
Melody Elder on tape
Courtesy of Jennifer Baron

Julianna: What inspired the name Garment District?

Jennifer: I came up with the name to reflect my love for vintage textiles and fashion, sewing and crafting, as well as my deep respect for the women—countless anonymous laborers—who toiled in dangerous conditions in specific parts of cities around the world (and still do).

I am a crafter, so the name also reflects my other artistic outlets. I am drawn to the way certain words sound and look, both when spoken/heard and when written as a typeface. For me, The Garment District implies a sense of making, creative labor, production, and innovation—as well as a distinct sense of place—that I hope is reflected in my music, songwriting, and videos.
I like the idea of taking an overarching concept or signifier of a place/space that has certain connotations, and that involved an unfathomable amount of human labor… on a mass commercial scale, and co-opting it for a project that is homespun, tactile and visceral, especially given that I release music on cassette and vinyl. On a more literal level, when I lived in NYC, I was obsessed with shopping for vintage trimmings and fabrics on lower Canal Street, in Chinatown and in Brooklyn warehouses.

Julianna: Tell us a bit about your upcoming performances.

Jennifer:It is a tremendous honor to be invited to perform at Carnegie Museum of Art’s Third Thursday: CELEBRATE with Meeting of Important People and Mars Jackson [on May 19th]. I love performing in non-traditional music venues, and finding ways to connect my music with multiple art forms, other disciplines, and spaces where live music may not always be expected. Pittsburgh undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis during late Spring, and the May happening will kick off the outdoor summer concert season in the museum’s Sculpture Court—which should create a unique sonic and visual experience—and will be paired with exciting programming taking place throughout the museum until 11 p.m.

Courtesy of CMOA
Courtesy of CMOA

The night has special significance to me because it also celebrates the new exhibition featuring Alison Knowles. Born in NYC in 1933, Knowles is a visual artist and poet admired for her sound works, prints, installations, performances, and publications. In the 1960s, she was a founding member of the seminal, international avant-garde group, Fluxus. With the renowned composer John Cage, she compiled an influential anthology of experimental music compositions entitled Notations (1969), and she also silkscreened Marcel Duchamp’s Coeur Volants (1968). The first-of-its-kind museum exhibition will feature interactive sculptures, sound-making objects, large works on paper, silk, and canvas; and a selection of Knowles’ own collected ephemera. Attendees will have the opportunity to explore sound in a variety of ways throughout the night. In the Forum Gallery, visitors can experience touchable, interactive works such as Bean Garden (1971/2016), a tactile encounter that creates a soundtrack for the gallery, as the rustling of dry beans underfoot is amplified throughout the space using microphones.

During the event, the artist is inviting participation in her iconic Celebration Red (1962), in which hundreds of Pittsburghers will contribute to a temporary installation of found red objects in the Hall of Sculpture. Attendees can bring a red object to the museum to contribute to the growing collaborative installation– Homage to Each Red Thing – can meet the artist, and watch the display transform throughout the evening.

The Garment District’s releases can be found at Mind Cure Records, Sound Cat Records, and The Attic Records.