“Strange Fruit” is one of the most haunting songs in American music. It was originally written as a poem by Lewis Allen in 1937 and turned into a popular song by Billie Holiday.
Cape Cod-raised and Boston-based artist Naomi Westwater recently released her own version on all major streaming platforms. Proceeds from downloads of the song at www.naomiwestwater.bandcamp.com will be donated to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a national memorial to commemorate the victims of lynchings in the United states.
I spoke with Naomi via email about what this song means to her, what recording it was like and being a performer in the time of social distancing.
LV: Can you recall the first time you heard “Strange Fruit” and the impression it made on you?
NW: I don’t remember the first time I heard “Strange Fruit,” but my first semester at Goucher College, I took an English class, and my professor had us all go to the library and look at historic images of hangings of Black people. The pictures were horrible. I was very disturbed to see them, yet I felt it was really important to witness these events.
LV: What made you decide to cover it?
NW: I’ve been covering “Strange Fruit” for a while now, probably the last 10 years. While I was getting my master’s at Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain, I sang the song with the American Roots ensemble directed by Casey Driessen. Having the opportunity to sing the song live reminded me how important it is and that it’s a story that keeps needing to be told because it is still relevant. I recorded the song in 2019 as a part of an EP I’m working on called “Feelings.” All the songs are political, about race, climate change and my endometriosis. “Strange Fruit” just made sense to record.
LV: Your arrangement is really wonderful. How did you go about that, and who did you work with on the track?
NW: Mainly this song is all about the emotion. I can only sing it a few times in the studio because it exhausts me and sometimes makes me cry. I really wanted the song to start out of time. So there’s no rhythm to the first half of the song, so the listener doesn’t know what to expect next. When you make music this way, it really means that everyone has to be working together and listening to each other. I worked with Alex Chacon [electric guitar], Dana Roth [electric bass] and Francis Peña [drums], and I really encouraged them to be eerie with their instruments and do nontraditional things. Then the song builds, it gets louder, and the full drum kit comes in about the time lyrically the metaphor is very clear. The song is uncomfortable and dramatic; it’s powerful, it’s painful; and I wanted the instrumentation to lean into all of that. Dan Babai [engineer] and I worked on the edit and mixed together, and really subtly just leaned into that eerie, creepy feeling. Joe Miller [mastering engineer] was very gentle with the master. I rarely sing jazz anymore, but it was my main focus in college, so I drew on those skills for this song, too.
LV: Why do you think the song is still relevant today?
NW: There are still Black people being hanged today. So it’s still a very, very relevant song. When you think about lynching, it’s not just a way to murder someone, but it’s a way to terrorize and strike fear in everyone who witnesses it. So much of what the police and our government are doing today are strategic ways to terrorize people. Publicly choking someone to death with your knee and lynching someone from a tree are one in the same.
LV: How has the pandemic affected you as an artist?
NW: The pandemic has really shifted my focus. I haven’t been able to perform much, so I’m not making much money from music. When you take money out of the equation, I can just focus on creation. I’m producing and editing new recordings, writing songs and working on music videos, too. I’m able to collaborate with so many amazing musicians long-distance, which has been very special. However, I’m a very social person, and I spend most of my days by myself, so I feel my motivation to get things done is lower than usual. I’m just trying to be gentle with myself and letting the music come when it comes.
To learn about Ms. Westwater and her music, visit www.naomiwestwater.com.