It’s possible that if Diane Cluck had never found the Antihoot open mic night at the Sidewalk Cafe in New York City’s East Village, she never would have become a songwriter at all. She had been living on 6th Street between Avenues C and D, walking past the cafe for nearly two years before stepping inside in early 2000. “Finding Sidewalk was pretty much the best of everything,” Cluck says. “The opportunity to explore and express ideas and emotions within a community, and to create something that could be shared almost immediately.”
Cluck wrote poetry, and although she had always enjoyed singing, she hadn’t yet turned her poems into songs. The eleven years of piano training she received growing up in Pennsylvania were on a classical track that didn’t involve composition or improvisation. It was by immersing herself in the anti-folk scene at the Sidewalk Cafe that Cluck discovered many exciting and unschooled approaches to singing, playing, and writing, and an environment which valued honesty of expression over polish and chops. Over time, Cluck would pioneer her own form of folk music grounded in the idea of music as communication with spirit; she calls it intuitive folk.
The process of becoming a songwriter was a spiritual revolution for Cluck, both healing and powerful. Resisting the idea of record labels or having “snarky bros” involved anywhere in the process, she recorded and packaged her early records by hand, distributed them herself, and generally kept things private as she explored her voice and aesthetic language. “It seemed that the patriarchal slant had messed with my perception of so many things up to that point—sexuality, aesthetics, personal worth. So yeah, [I] began isolating, figuring things out, being super protective for a while,” Cluck recalls.
From 2000 to 2005, Cluck recorded five albums—four of them with just a condenser mic, a couple of instrument mics, and a little Korg D8—while living in a sparsely furnished industrial loft in Williamsburg with wooden floors, brick walls, and a metal ceiling. Her early recordings contain natural reverb and ambient background effects: the rush of trains and trucks passing by outside, the noisy clicking of her hard drive, the sound of a phone ringing and being picked up. They also featured the experimental use of various instruments including accordion, recorder, chord organ, harmonium, violin, piano, toy zither, and a handmade copper pipe xylophone-like instrument. Supporting herself as a waitress, Cluck managed to pay off her student loans and scale back her work hours to the minimum necessary to afford rent, leaving plenty of time for art and music. In late 2000, Cluck married another songwriter who was employed as a cab driver, and they alternated days off to allow each of them ample space home alone to record and practice. Cluck says having a stable home and work situation was crucial to her development as a songwriter.
She eventually came around to “some of the business-related things that help music move around,” and started working with Important Records, which she describes as a label “with great integrity, run by the awesomely dedicated John Brien. I’ve been both fortunate and careful about the labels I’ve worked with and have had great experiences so far.” After giving herself tendinitis making 900 copies of 2004 release Oh Vanille/ova nil, the album was picked up by Important, at which point Cluck agreed to switch over to commercial packaging. She continued to make smaller batches of Oh Vanille/ova nil to sell while on tour and estimates she has packaged several thousand copies by hand.
For the last decade, Cluck has been focused on setting up the support structures she needs to continue growing and serving as a musician. A lack of viable space for both practicing and recording in NYC led her to move to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she has a free-standing house in which she can practice and record. In 2019, Cluck launched a fundraising campaign in order to make her most recent studio album, pay her musical collaborators, and press the records herself. She has developed a whole roster of novel approaches to her artistic career: leading in-person singing and songwriting workshops; teaching lessons; selling original art (including illustrated lyric sheets to her songs); and even giving fans the option to host a living room concert or to have a song composed on the subject of their choice. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been teaching online workshops and improving her home to make it a welcoming place for traveling musicians once touring is possible again.
Cluck’s discography is the story of an artist who is moving closer to herself, which is also always a kind of moving closer to others, as well. Witness Diane Cluck’s marvelous flight towards creative sovereignty and collaboration.
By summer of 2000, Cluck wanted to start recording. Her sound engineer friend Ken Heitmueller, helped her shop for gear. Originally intended as a demo to share with friends and local clubs, many of the songs on diane cluck have been fan favorites for decades. The song “Monte Carlo” is spun from the time Cluck was gifted a classical guitar from a friend in Nice, only to be pick-pocketed by a gang of twelve-year-old boys who spent all of her money on candy. Her entirely singular style of singing, playing, and storytelling is already on full display in these early recordings.
Many of Cluck’s nights in the early 2000’s were spent at the Sidewalk Cafe immersed in the wild talent and creativity of Turner Cody, Seth Faergolzia, Dave Deporis, Adam Green, Jeffrey Lewis, Kimya Dawson, Barry Bliss, Ish Marquez, and many others. Exposure to these experimental and poetic songwriters led Cluck to want to focus on more literary lyrical composition. For macy’s day bird she concentrated heavily on lyrics—especially how they looked on the page. “The shape of things conveyed meaning and along with letting songs take on organic forms, I was practicing automatic drawing. A detail from one of these drawings illustrates the cover,” she says.
Macy’s day bird was released at the dawn of the CD-R era in 2001, and Cluck worked on the packaging from home in the evenings, printing up covers on pink construction paper and stitching together lyric sheets.
Black with green leaves was a map to Cluck’s emotions at the time, the title inspired by the feeling of so much possibility that it’s like green leaves crowding out the sky. “As I moved more deeply into my creative life, it regularly wiped me out to the point that I’d get sick or wasn’t functional,” Cluck says. “I’d be lying on the floor with a thousand ideas in my head, feeling the potential of it all, feeling utterly overwhelmed about where to start or what to do next. The image I would get from that vantage point was like looking up into a bare winter tree, then watching it bud and leaf out in fast-motion to where it wasn’t even springtime beautiful, it was just too much. The sun couldn’t shine through the leaves—there were so many the sky was black. The crunched-out, overblown sound in this recording conveys those raw feelings.”
Years later, Cluck discovered that Little Wings’ Light Green Leaves was released at the same time as black with green leaves: an enjoyable coincidence, as there was “a kind of contrasting vibe between West Coast and East Coast folk-ish music happening in the early aughts.”
By 2003, Cluck had spent three years around the hub of Sidewalk in the East Village, but had branched out to start playing other small venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn—Tonic, ABC No Rio, The Pink Pony, Roulette, and Brooklyn Lyceum among them. “Pete’s Candy Store opened around the corner from where I lived and sometimes we’d wheel my piano across the street and into their back room. I’d started playing some out-of-town gigs and had gone on a couple of UK tours with Jeffrey Lewis,” Cluck says.
In June of that year, she spent a month at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula, California, which is where many of the songs on Oh Vanille / ova nil took shape. “At the time the retreat was still electricity-free, so I brought along a battery-powered cassette tape recorder,” remembers Cluck. “I had a cabin to myself—it was rustic and full of mice, and the main room was dominated by an old black coffin-like grand piano. The noise at the beginning of “Nothing But God” (which shows up on the Monarcana album, and as a motif at the end of “Sandy Ree”) was the sound of me pushing open the keyboard cover on that piano.”
She brought along a book on the Indian alternative medicine system, Ayurveda, which gave her “a lens for observing the qualities of anything and everything, so that relationships can be perceived and also brought into harmony from discord,” says Cluck. “There’s a saying that any substance can be food, poison, or medicine, depending on how it’s employed. This aspect of Ayurveda spoke deeply to me. I’ve been ruminating on ideas of stark goodness and badness for years, having been raised Catholic. But this spiritual aspect of Ayurveda emerged for me, asking me to explore and keep these questions open.” The influence of these ideas is audible through the album’s themes, perhaps best expressed when she sings: “Oh lord/ Nothin’ but God/ Nothin’ but God in the way of itself/ We are, lord, nothin’ but God/ But somethin’ that got in the way of itself/ Tryin’ to get out of the way of itself.” This is also a great example of the way Cluck often utilizes dual meanings of words or creates relationships between similar sounds in her lyrical compositions.
Oh Vanille / ova nil is the first record on which Cluck had production assistance (from jazz composer and musician, Todd Horton), and the title is derived from a sense that she felt the songs were lacking a certain excitement that existed in her earlier recordings. “Oh Vanille” is a reference to the music being “vanilla” while “ova nil,” meaning “no eggs,” indicates a life path that no longer seems fertile. She burned CD-R copies of the record for her friends, who initially agreed with her assessment, and Cluck temporarily shelved the project. Eventually, those same friends came back to say the songs were growing on them. One of them asked if he could bring some copies to Other Music in NYC to see if they’d be willing to consign it. Other Music began spinning it in the store, resulting in the sale of hundreds of copies of the album in its original handmade packaging, and piquing the interest of Important Records. A culmination of everything that was both inspiring and challenging Cluck at the time, Oh Vanille has maintained a slow-burn resonance with listeners since its release.
This record was made during a transitional time, after the Williamsburg loft space where she had made her earliest albums was sold, prompting a move to a new apartment where recording was not an option—all while her marriage was coming to an end. Cluck had just returned home from six weeks in Europe with Herman Düne and began the recording process in post-tour exhaustion. Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio loaned her an empty apartment on Kent Avenue along the East River in Brooklyn. She would bike there from Greenpoint and use the space as a studio, sometimes camping out overnight.
Sitek also loaned her a four-track cassette recorder and left a Victorian foot-pumped organ in the space. Her lack of experience with both of these tools led to happy accidents and experiments on Countless Times. The title, for example, comes from a song which never actually made it to the album. Cluck made a mistake bouncing tracks, resulting in a mashup of “Countless Times” and an improv around the phrase “my teacher died.” Deciding she liked the collage, she composed the song “My Teacher Died” to follow it. The rumblings of trucks on Kent Avenue are audible in the recordings, emphasizing the transitory energy of these recordings and this period of Cluck’s life.
Monarcana is a compilation of spontaneous songs sourced from a time in the early aughts when Cluck called friends or her own voicemail from payphones and used her digital 8-track as a way of holding onto musical ideas. She intended for these ideas to be further developed, but found upon re-listening that these sketches possessed a momentary energy that felt valuable to preserve. With help from a friend, she distilled these recordings down to make Monarcana. The title is a compound word combining “monarch” (feminine) and “mon” (masculine pronoun in French) with “arcana” (secrets or mysteries). According to Cluck, “monarcana” essentially means: “Welcome to my brain, this is how my creativity functions in its sovereignty.”
Eight years passed between the release of Monarcana and Boneset. New York was no longer a viable home base for Cluck. City life and the work she was doing to support herself had worn her down, and she had a strong desire to be somewhere sunny, warm, and close to nature. She moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, grew a vegetable garden, and began learning more about plant medicine and allowing more receptive forms of healing into her life.
She continued to compose and record songs, which led to the Song-of-the-Week project in 2012, a crowdfunded subscription platform generously designed and administered by collaborator Ken Garson. Four Friends is a 2020 release featuring songs sourced from this project.
Over these years, Cluck gave attention to her sexual energy and what it had to teach her. “In my experience, personal relationship to sexuality has everything to do with what we do or don’t give ourselves permission to express creatively. If you want to know how to sing, or write songs, or create anything, do whatever you need to do to clear old shame and other people’s judgments out of the way. Nature helps. For the first time I had a place to myself, with no shared walls, and I did a lot of experimentation with sound—wailing, playing drums, giving reign to whatever wanted to come through.” Cluck’s experience of her time in Georgia is storified in the song “Far Too Witchy.”
Cluck’s first album made in a studio, Boneset was recorded over five days at Trout Recording, an analog studio in Brooklyn. It includes collaborations with Anders Griffen—an expressive, jazz-influenced drummer Cluck had worked with for some years prior, mainly through touring older songs—and Isabel Castellvi, a cellist who became Cluck’s main collaborative partner around Boneset, touring these songs with Cluck for two years.
“I tend to work in bursts and then finish slowly,” Cluck explains. “I like to live with songs in my mind for a while, playing with them like clay before firing them in the kiln. I’ll hold lyrics until a theme feels ripe. Themes are important, sometimes for years. I like to run melodies over and over, tending to their shape. I’ll move accompaniments from one song to another and Boneset was made in this way. It was partly a result of having taken time away from making albums.”
Despite having a peripheral relationship to music business culture, Cluck was still nagged by ideas of annual productivity. Seeing Charles Burchfield’s Heat Waves In a Swamp exhibit at the Whitney in 2010 changed this for her in a big way: “I was astonished to see paintings and a visual language he’d developed as a teenager resurface in his 60s when he again had time to re-engage with them with new mastery. It supported the pacing of a lifetime over the schedule of industry.” Cluck sang the melody to “Sara” for ten years before the right lyrics found their way in.
Common Wealth was borne out of Cluck’s desire to make a record in Virginia with friends and local musicians in a local studio where she would have time to learn about studio production. She spent three sweltering weeks in July at White Star Sound in the rural town of Louisa, living in the band apartment above the studio and collaborating with musician, engineer, and co-producer Colin Killalea, whose fluid instincts and skills helped Cluck realize musical ideas she could not accomplish on her own. Both Cluck and Killalea play guitar, drums, and piano throughout Common Wealth, switching up throughout different songs. The collaborative nature of the project reveals something about Cluck’s career that might seem invisible from the outside.
“I’ve come to a place of feeling a lot of gratitude for what I’ve been able to do so far and for all the people who’ve supported me through what on the surface looks like a solo career,” says Cluck. “It started out as a solo careen—not knowing what I was doing but being compelled to do it: needing the medicine of music in my life. I wanted for this record to have a yellow-gold feel to it—a thank you to family, friends, and listeners who’ve supported my musical journey. Everyone involved gave the best of what they had to give and I think that can be heard and felt here.”