Sherman Baker, solo artist, and this month’s curator of the ‘What I’m Listening To’ playlist, is making a big change. The former folk singer is moving away from his old sound and towards the digital horizon of electronic music under the name Dahlia Fiend. “For a while now I’ve wanted to make electronic music. This year I buckled down and started developing my skills more a[s] a producer … This all sounds pretty typical,” he says with a laugh, “‘Oh no, here we go again with the folk dude making beats,’ but I’m really pleased with how the music is sounding and I think it really is deserving of a name other than my own. It is its own entity.”
What I’m Listening To is a series where we talk to exciting artists and musicians and get a five song slice of their current playlist.
“It goes without saying that I work to inspire myself first, but when I put out music I want it to have an effect on people beyond my chin scratching musician friends.”
Baker got into music reluctantly. He was forced to take piano lessons as a child, and like many children compelled to play an instrument, hated it.”[I]ronically, I love piano now,” he says. He escaped the ivory keys at sixteen by switching to guitar lessons and played in garage bands in high school. “[I] secretly wanted to be a singer but I ended up studying theater and acting for about six years until 2001 when I committed to music fully.”
He would go on to form a number of bands before becoming a solo name. Though he admits he has not played much as a sideman, he would like to someday remedy that and perhaps become a producer. In the course of his career so far, Baker has played with many musicians including Adam Wade and Nick Swimley before they formed The Golden Cadillacs. “My last band and easily the best group I’ve had was Sam Coe on drums, Julie Meyers on bass and Steve Randall on guitar.” Although he says his “favorite odd collection of musicians” he has ever played with was at a show he did at the Torch Club with Jackie Greene on the drums and Joseph Davancens of Tycho on guitar.
Then last year, Baker’s life took an unexpected turn when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. “I noticed early on in the year that something was drastically wrong, at first I thought it might be related to how much cycling I was doing,” he says with a laugh. “I was very familiar with Lance Armstrong’s story though and sadly I lost a friend to testicular cancer about five years ago so it was a very scary thing to realize.” Once he went to the hospital, his condition was quickly diagnosed and a few days later they removed his left testicle. “[Y]ou would think, as a man, that nothing could be more painful. It wasn’t very much at all and I was home a few hours after waking up from surgery.” Unfortunately, the cancer had already spread to his stomach. “This meant chemo. Specifically a kind of chemo that has an effect on hearing and can cause numbness in the hands and feet. Not great news for a musician.”
While searching alternatives, Baker discovered that as a cancer patient, in addition to fighting the disease, you also have to be very thorough when researching treatment options. “You absolutely have to research your illness in detail and find out who the best doctors, specialists … etc are. Failing to do this results in either death or a drastically compromised treatment plan.” So he contacted Lance Armstrong’s former surgeon through Facebook and eventually went to the UCSF hospital in San Francisco for the second phase of his treatment. He met with an oncologist and then with a surgeon who performs a difficult five hour operation called RPLND. RPLND or Retroperitoneal lymph node dissection is a procedure that removes the abdominal lymph nodes. “In my case, they discovered that the operation had about an 85 percent chance of eliminating the cancer and need for chemo. The flip side was it could affect my ability to have children. I decided to take my chances.” The surgery went successfully and without incident but was very painful. “I woke up sobbing in pain. I cried the first time I tried to walk across my room. Long story short, I have been in remission since late last year and statically my chances of recurrence are pretty low.”
“The whole experience seems very weird and distant to me now,” says Baker, and he is unsure whether it has affected his music at all. “People go through all sorts of horrible trauma and come out not much better or different as artists than they were before. It makes for a good press release perhaps.” However, it has made him more focused on his music and less on the “exterior life stuff that musicians, and people in general can often get caught up in. When it hits you that your time on earth may be expiring, it does have a dramatic effect on what and who you value. For some, that might be their kids or their profession. For me, it’s my music. Everything else is secondary. Except for my cats. They come first.”
Musically, he is moving firmly away from his previous work as Sherman Baker. “Dahlia Fiend is entirely my focus now and probably will be for the next few years at least … I don’t think I have it in me to do the open mic/folk stuff anymore, honestly. I find that music boring and depressing both to play and to listen to.” Although the name and style is far from Baker’s previous work, he has no interest in creating a new persona around it. “I don’t care for personas or personality much. There’s enough of that going around in every facet of society now. I’m pretty sure Taco Bell has an Instagram. The more I see an artist doing that, the more I suspect a cover up for something that is missing musically on the talent/originality/output side of things.”
The name Dahlia Fiend is an amalgamation of interests. “I liked the word ‘fiend’ because I am very fiendish and obsessive in general. Dahlia Fiend sounded cool, [and] has associations with both a sad, tragic and macabre Los Angeles true crime (an interest of mine) and pretty flowers. We are surrounded by violence and beauty daily. I wanted a name that had both those things.” Despite being a veteran singer/songwriter/musician, Baker says the challenge he faces is “framing everything in way that the public will hopefully give a shit about to some degree. It goes without saying that I work to inspire myself first, but when I put out music I want it to have an effect on people beyond my chin scratching musician friends.”
So what is Sherman Baker listening to while he crafts his new works as Dahlia Fiend?
‘Betsy On The Roof’- Julia Holter
“There’s a lot to love about Julia Holter. Like most thirsty hipster dudes I’m in love with her physical beauty, but putting that aside … her voice is perfection. It’s the polar opposite to the corny, faux-bluesy bellowing that so many popular singers do nowadays. She’s clearly an amazing classically trained musician. What I love most about this song is how unpredictable it is but never in an irksome, gimmicky way. The progression and melody just feel right, familiar and inviting, yet I defy anyone to point to another song that resembles it.”
‘Come To Daddy’ – Aphex Twin
“Obviously Richard D. James is a genius. This is a dude that Björk and Thom Yorke look to for inspiration. The section at 4:20 is madness. The kick drum feels like a speedball induced heart attack. After listening to this I have to put on Selected Ambient Works two or three times before I can go back into society. It’s funny how a guy can make one of the chillest records of all time and then make something like this that shows absolutely no chill. Giving this a 10/10 on No Chill.com.”
‘Solar Sailor’ – Daft Punk
“This is from the Tron Legacy soundtrack. I have not seen either Tron movie but love this piece of music. Sounds like Daft Punk have been listening to Phillip Glass.”
‘Sing’ – Blur
“Damon Albarn has been been a pop music force for decades now. The way the piano sits in the mix, the persistent beat and the bass carrying the melody just does it for me. It’s amazing to listen to the janky demo version of this and compare it to the masterpiece that appears on Leisure. Huge difference.”
‘The World We Knew (Over and Over)’ – Frank Sinatra
“I started working on this for the Sinatra tribute at Harlow’s I was in last year but wisely chose to do different songs, I don’t think he ever even sang this one live. When you sing Sinatra you have to slow way down. He did not rush through a melody. He was a master. One of the most romantic songs I’ve heard. Credit to Ernie Freemen for the beautiful arrangement. I had wrongly assumed this was Nelson Riddle.”
Baker is in the process of finishing up studio tracking with Sea Of Bees producer John Baccagaluppi with plans to do mixing at Panoramic Studios this month. “I’ve been recording and writing daily for six months straight and am starting to feel a bit drained and stir crazy.” This amazes him as “this time last year I had cancer and could barely walk!” Once the mixing and mastering of the album, tentatively titled Devil You Don’t, is done, Baker will turn his attention to the joys of releasing, marketing and touring. “I’d really like Dahlia Fiend to be an exciting live band that plays a lot (not just a recording project) so it’s a matter of putting together the right musicians to help me with that vision.” But the line-up has yet to be decided beyond Baker and the drummer. “Sam Coe is playing drums on about half the record and I imagine he will be with me live as well.” Baker is planning to release Devil You Don’t early next year, but until then you can check out Dahlia Fiend here.
Words: K. Hules.