Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Stew and Heidi return with two new albums: Notes Of A Native Song and The Total Bent

The year’s end brought not one but two new albums of material by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, known professionally as The Negro Problem. Stew’s the wordman and Rodewald is the melodicist, arranger and additional voice in the mix. Both The Total Bent and Notes Of A Native Song are thematic works and the material is as wonderful as I remember: the songs were presented as work in progress at a San Francisco performance at the Curran two years ago. Here’s the audio for “Jimmy” from Notes Of A Native Song, followed by an interview I did with the pair in on the occasion of the release of their album Making It (2012), a pop chronicle of love lost.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, also known as the self-described Afro-pop, “Blackarach” band, the Negro Problem had it all:  Love, creative partnership and attention from a prestigious arts foundation for a stage musical that was eventually bound for glory – Broadway, Obie and Tony awards – and even a Joint by Spike Lee. Somewhere in that order of things, Stew and Heidi’s love hit the rocks, but the show must go on and the resulting musical, Passing Strange ran for 165 performances on Broadway before closing in July of 2008.

And then it got a stranger:  “The end of the play was when I could really hear the door slam,” says Stew, his voice reduced to a hush.  “The art had to end before I realized it was
over.”

For Stew, the nights on Broadway with bassist, vocalist and creative collaborator Heidi were rehearsals for the retirement of their romance. “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together which is pretty intense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Making It is largely about that experience…Not every song, but most of it.”

“Yea, it was a little bit of a drag,” is Heidi’s response to opening up the door on her and Stew’s life together.  “I mean, we didn’t decide to do the show, Stew decided to do the show, but I love that about Stew, that he can put into words the way I feel,” she says, though in the case of Making It (released on Stew and Heidi’s TNP label), he took that process one step further.

Explains Stew, “I showed her my part to ‘Leave Believe’ and asked her, ‘Do you think you could maybe write lyrics that are your version of that?’  And Heidi’s response was, ‘That’s exactly how I felt.’ Consequently they both sing the song’s sole lines – “It took a little while for me to see, you stopped believing in me/I wasn’t left
with much to do, so I stopped believing in you” – to stunning effect.

“Stew had starting saying that writing a show about us breaking up was like his therapy and I told him that therapy only works if you tell the truth,” says Heidi, who remains unsettled by airing the confines of her heart for art’s sake. And yet, when Stew turned Heidi’s jabs and other phrases into songs, he sweetened the deal a bit by arranging to open up some space in his word-jammed verses for her to sing the truth from her own lips.  Somehow, Heidi bought the idea and wound up on board with the project, and it’s her add that allows Making It to claim space on the continuum of great break-up albums, from Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights to Beck’s Sea Change.  Spitting her embittered lines (like “I’m tired of waiting around, for nothing to change” from the sweetly melodious “Love is a Cult”), there’s a power in the jarring rawness and fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Stew’s frankness is just as unnerving, even for someone whose stock-in-trade is walking the razor’s edge between life and art. But lest you think Making It is his diary of a mad artist, or exegesis on fame a la Kanye or Gaga, it’s not: Rodewald’s crystal voice simply doesn’t allow for Stew to wallow in too many teardrops.

Opening with a song about “Pretend,” and “stupid little songs that’ll make you break down and cry,” Stew sets the stage: “Plays are real if you pretend/you are too, until the end/trapped in a homegrown masquerade, costume’s wrong but so well made, curtain fell but who got played…”

“I had my fun,” admits Stew, about the immediate post-break-up freedom phase, “but the bottom line was, when the play closed, we didn’t know if we were going to continue together.”

Both parties were pained, as evidenced by the album’s set-piece, “Curse,” which sways as heavy as a funeral dirge as it proclaims, “You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse”.  But there’s more to Making It than the depth and drama of coming undone:  The double sword of trying to get over finds Stew rocking a litany of contentious real life subjects: “Pretend” feeds back into “Black Men Ski,” Stew’s impressionistic musings on the New Black and the so-called post-racial thing: “I have poems about sunsets, flowers, and the rain, I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain…” Other matters on Stew’s desktop are death and injustice, empire and war, subjects that get a good going over in “Suzy Wong” (featuring California-bred rhymes like “BART rider” with “brush fire”) and the exploding “Pastry Shop,” concerning “rage against coffee machines” among other crimes, all enveloped in strains of pain and desire (which when you think of it, isn’t so unlike breaking-up after all).

Of course, all the songs are threaded with the kind of wordplay that’s contributed to Stew becoming admired abroad, laurelled and wreathed on the Great White Way, and assigned by The New York Times to report from his trip to Kenya lastsummer.  And yet, he’s still one Negro who can’t get arrested in LA…

As the narrator of Passing Strange, Stew told the story of his character The Youth, who lives like a refugee in South Los Angeles until he gets wind of the idea that a black artist can live more free in Europe  (though when he gets there, he’s hipped to other realities).

As a theater piece Passing Strange is iconoclastic; an unlikely hit that contributed to rock’s new run on Broadway; the play is a timeless, coming of age drama with a killer score, largely informed by Stew and Heidi’s close to the ground relationship with LA rock ‘n’ roll.  Both were fixtures on the rock scene there, first as teens (Stew was conversant in Bowie and the Beatles and says he caught hell in his old neighborhood for it, while Heidi was a bassist from the ‘burbs who made her initial mark with the Paisley Underground-styled Wednesday Week).  As Mark Stewart (Stew changed his name officially when confusion reigned between him and the other Mark Stewart, of The Pop Group/On U Sound-fame), he motored around the city, taking in all
forms of live rock ‘n’ soul and connecting up with like-minded musicians who
understood the Technicolor nature of rock.  He formed the Negro Problem in the early ‘90s and debuted with Post Minstrel Syndrome in ’97.  When Heidi joined the group, he found the perfect collaborator for his whimsy as a songwriter.

Difficulties with their handle notwithstanding, TNP, as they are sometimes called, continued to release albums and gig, finding an audience among industry insiders, fellow musicians and the clubby KCRW set though they remained only a moderate draw at the black box rock clubs.  And so it was at mid-life, the pair set out for New York and something better – a second act, perhaps – where they might find a home for their sophisticated sounds and a space to work on their musical. The rare opportunity to workshop twice what became Passing Strange, once in 2004 and again in 2005 at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is what brought them into the orbit that landed them in theaters – Berkeley Rep, New York’s Public and eventually Broadway’s Belasco, where Spike Lee filmed the final night of Passing Strange and cut it into a film. By then the circumstances that provoked the themes of Making It were heating up like charcoal on a broiler.  An initial performance of the songs as a stage piece at St. Anne’s Warehouse became the springboard toward completing Making It as an album.

And while it’s a little frustrating for Stew and Heidi to have to explain to their newly converted theater fans that it isn’t really “going back” to rock since they never really left it, fans of Passing Strange as well as the Negro Problem may be interested to know that following the release of Making It, Stew and Heidi are scheduled to return to the theater. Their new musical, The Total Bent, begins a three-week preview run at New York’s Public Lab next month.  Concerning the journey of a gospel turned rock singer occupying “the complicated space from the sacred to the profane,” it’s set in a period of historic political and social unrest, “just south of the Twilight Zone.”

 It remains to be seen what awaits around the bend for Stew,Heidi and the Negro Problem, though from rock ‘n’ roll to theater, their collaboration is secure; they’re making it work.

“I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter by any means, but Heidi’s the person I thought I was going to grow old with,” says Stew. “In some ways she still is because we’re in this band. I’m hoping we are going to grow old together – onstage.”

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harlem, James Baldwin, Now Playing, , , , , ,

Stew and Heidi Rodewald, aka The Negro Problem, on Making It

Stew and Heidi Rodewald left Los Angeles for New York and Broadway where they found success with their coming-of-age musical, Passing Strange (now available as a Spike Lee Joint on DVD).  I spoke with them about their new album, Making It, and how their love got lost in the mix in the new issue of Blurt.

Filed under: Interview, new article, , , , ,

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