Born into a life of art, Eszter Balint has been a musician, an actor in both stage and film, and a witness to the vibrant art scene of New York since the late seventies. Known to many for her role in Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise", her deadpan performance as John Lurie's cousin Eva encapsulates a beat mentality that together with Lurie and Richard Edson create the fascinating trio that's the backbone of the film.
At the age of 10, the Squat Theatre group for which her parents were members was exiled from their native home in Hungaria after angering the authorities. Wandering through Europe and performing in abandoned spaces (hence their name), they eventually moved to New York in 1977.
With encouragement from her grandmother and mum, she took up the violin at 6 and the passion for music would foment during her teen years when the Squat Theatre's New York home would transform into a nightclub for which she would DJ. During this time, she made her recording debut playing violin on an early rap track produced by Jean Michel Basquiat and featuring rapper Rammellzee, made a cameo in Basquiat's "Downtown 81", and featured in Jim Jarmusch's classic "Stranger Than Paradise".
In addition to her musical work, she also made appearances in other films over the years, most notably Steve Buscemi's "Trees Lounge" (1996) and Woody Allen's "Shadows & Fog" (1992).
This interview was conducted shortly after the release of her latest album, Mud, in 2005 and is part of the Ramble Rocket archive. It is also significant in terms of SiouxWIRE in that Eszter was the first person for whom I requested an interview and her enthusiasm has to a great extent remained with me to this day.
SIOUXFIRE: It's kind of strange. Before getting this set of questions together, I read a lot of reviews for your albums Mud and Flicker. It's this kind of thing that makes me think I'm not listening to the same thing or I'm in an alternate reality. A lot of reviews describe your voice as harsh and the music as "heavy". (Your music is uplifting to me - Mud is like sitting in a cabin in a bayou drinking cognac by candlelight where you can smell the wood and earth, and friends are all around) What do you think about reviews and some of these descriptions they
attribute to your music?
ESZTER: Well, I'm not entirely sure we're reading the same reviews. I love the way you describe Mud, that's just fine by me, lovely in fact. Thanks. But there were a number of reviews here that did seem to hint at something similar. On Flicker I think my voice probably is a bit
harsh, harsher than it has since become, so that may be somewhat deserved. (I've worked on becoming a more relaxed singer. And still have a ways to go, it's an exciting and probably never ending process.) I don't recall reading that so much about Mud, but if the words harsh and heavy popped up, it maybe because my lyrics, musical sensibilities, and well perhaps even my vocal delivery has a bit more edge than a lot of the material these reviewers listen to within the so-called "singer-songwriter" genre. Which, for better or worse, is the context in which they're going hear me; obviously what I do is not hip hop, or a punk-rock thing. For a generally earthy, warm, somewhat rootsy, and very much song-driven record, Mud has a few harsh and maybe even heavy touches. (Honestly I am not thrilled with the word heavy, but if it means the opposite of light, well, I can live with that)
SIOUXFIRE: I read an article recently where these scientists watched people put together puzzles. Some put sides together and worked their way in, some made little islands and then joined them together, and some just started with one piece and worked their way out from there. How do you go about putting your songs together?
ESZTER: Funny you mention puzzles. Putting songs together is very much like a puzzle to me. But sort of random at the same time, which sounds like a contradiction, but it's not really. The process is certainly not linear. i think at the start it's kind of random and abstract, and then
these random abstract elements, pieces of music and words, fit together in a way that finally has to feel inevitable, like a puzzle.
SIOUXFIRE: What time of day/night do you work best?
ESZTER: Right after waking up and at night. Before and after the bullhsit of the day. But it's not always feasible to get the perfect times, so lately I'm challenging myself to rise to the occasion when it arises. It just takes longer and more concentration to get to that sort of neutral, other place during the day.
SIOUXFIRE: Do you get itchy feet?
ESZTER: To be on the move? yes. To work? yes. To dance? Not really.
SIOUXFIRE: Are there any instruments that you don't know how to play, but would like to try?
ESZTER: I have so much work to do on the instruments I do play. Or pretend to play. I would love to actually play the piano (or any keyboard instrument) for real, for instance. I can play simple melodies and stumble my way around basic chords but that's it. And I have so much to learn on the guitar, which is what I tend to write on. And working on my singing is a lifelong project (but in a good way.) And just to maintain my abilities on the violin, which is a very unforgiving instrument, takes work. And I'd like to write on the banjo which I can barely pluck a few notes on. Thankfully I think I'm fairly musical and have enough basics down to figure out a simple line on a number of instruments. But as you can see, I have my hands full - so no, I don't want to take up and master a brand new instrument.
"In a very unfriendly music business where most anybody trying to do decent work is out on their own, the digital breakthroughs have quite simply made the difference between being able to afford to do your work, or not."
ESZTER: I'm not very militant about it, but I do think there is a warmth and depth, an extra dimension to the analog medium which I tend to prefer. I can usually hear or feel it, but that said, that whole subject takes a major back-seat to the work itself. Just to state the obvious. And
the never ending advances in the digital realm make me shy away from any final verdict. Getting closer and closer. In a very unfriendly music business where most anybody trying to do decent work is out on their own, the digital breakthroughs have quite simply made the difference between being able to afford to do your work, or not. I did my last record as a combination, basics and mixing in analog, overdubs at home on digital - It was still expensive and difficult but ultimately the happiest compromise, I've no complaints about it sonically whatsoever. I'd probably like to do it the same way again.
SIOUXFIRE: Will you tour outside the States anytime soon?
ESZTER: No plans right now.
SIOUXFIRE: Have you ever heard music from Mirah or Tennessee Twin? (If not, I'm going to have to get you onto them)
ESZTER: No but I will check it out. I need something new to listen to.
SIOUXFIRE: I have you on a mix tape with Nick Cave, Bjork, Beck, PJ Harvey, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits. it's kind of my happy work tape. Does that sound offd? Do you listen to any of these people?
ESZTER: Yes I listen to all of them. I"ve spent less time with Nick Cave than with all the others. Thank you, wonderful company. If this is your happy tape, what's your sad tape?
SIOUXFIRE: I know you make music and act - do you paint, photograph, write poetry? Is that your art on the website?
ESZTER: I can't paint for shit. I haven't tried in ages, maybe I should again. I love photography but seem to have no talent for it whatsoever - can't even take a decent snapshot. I once took a snapshot of a weird dried up tree/root thing sticking out of the sand on the beach, somewhere in
northern California, about 10 years ago, it is the only cool picture I've ever taken.
Yes I write poetry, love poetry, and sometimes feel that's maybe what I should really be doing in the long run because I end up torturing some of my poems into songs when I need words. And I end up not writing many poems meant to exist just as poems, because I think I should be writing songs instead.
SIOUXFIRE: A coupleNew Yorkquestions. (I used to live there for a while) Did you ever go the Princess' restaurant onHouston Street? The Princess only ever had one table and no windows and she'd cook this amazing food. The reason I ask is that again, I'm reminded of it when I listen to Mud and I have this psychic vibe that you've been there...
ESZTER: Sounds great. I don't think I've ever been there, and I'm pretty sure it's no more. Sounds like the old New York.
SIOUXFIRE: That photobooth picture on the cover of Flicker - was that made at Little Ricky's in Greenwich Village? (I used to sit in that booth and think about the famous people who sat there - I was a real goof)
ESZTER: No, it's from a video arcade in Chinatown, Mulberry street I think. Actually, I believe this one is also history now.
SIOUXFIRE: Has New York changed a lot in the time that you were in LA? From a distance, it seems to have become a bit conservative.
ESZTER: See my answers above. yes, but it was starting before I even left. But more and more it's a completely new place with new people. I am not sentimental really, certainly not about misery, I just don't relate to the new version all that much. It costs like fifty bucks just to step on the sidewalk. But the garbage still stinks in the summer. And the construction workers are still at it on Canal street. So you see, some things never change - just not sure it's the best things.
SIOUXFIRE: This is all starting to sound a little too serious to me so I'm just going to say a random word.. Sandwiches.
ESZTER: Efficient. Perfunctory.
SIOUXFIRE: Just curious, do you read much? And do you ever read comics?
ESZTER: I've never gotten into comics, not even as a kid. Too bad cause it would be so much cooler if I could say yes.
I go through phases of reading. I wish I got around to more. I recently read my first Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, and honestly thought this may be one of the three best books I've ever read in my entire life.
SIOUXFIRE: A little about the films you've been in - what was it like for you when you were in Downtown 81? You were, er, 13 or 14? The credits of that film are like Who's Who of contemporary artists.
ESZTER: I was 14 or 15 in downtown 81. (which was actually shot in 1980 I think, or at least in part)
I remember being a little sad because in one version of the ever evolving non-script I was supposed to have a bigger part.
SIOUXFIRE: Have you every eaten a TV dinner?
ESZTER: Once or twice, when I was like 13. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, for like 30 seconds. I quickly outgrew that phase.
from Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch 1984
(Eszter & John Lurie)
ESZTER: No, had never heard of him.
SIOUXFIRE: How did you end up in Woody Allens' Shadows & Fog?
ESZTER: I auditioned for it. He wanted to see me, I think, but maybe I'm having illusions of grandeur. But at the very least his casting director requested me for the audition. which went as follows: i showed up in some extremely air conditioned and extremely dimly lit fancy uptown
hotel lobby, (the whole thing had this aura of a very well kept secret.) and Woody came out, greeted me and shook my hand, sort of glanced at the ground and said thank you. I went home and an hour later my agent called and screamed: He loved you!! True.
SIOUXFIRE: You knew John Lurie before Stranger Than Paradise - when did the two of you meet and how did Jim Jaramusch come along?
ESZTER: I met John when I was just a kid, I think I was 12. (and he'll never let me forget it either.) I was living at Squat Theatre on 23rd street, he had just moved to NY from Boston, I think, and did a performance there. This is pre-Lounge Lizards. Then he became friends with one of the members of Squat and started hanging out there a bit. I think he introduced me to Jarmusch much later - they knew each other just from the downtown scene, but I'm not exactly sure how. John may have been the one who suggested me for the movie.
SIOUXFIRE: What do you see in your crystal ball in say er, 5 or 10 years?
ESZTER: Hmmm, I'm not sure. I'm not really looking. Maybe because I don't want to set myself up for disappointment, or because I'm too busy trying to catch what life throws my way. Wow, that is such a personal question. kind of caught me off guard. Should I think about it?
SIOUXFIRE: Not sure. I haven't thought about it. Probably not.
Chicago Sun Times, Hedy Weiss - article