Eszter Balint's Bar/None debut Mud falls partway between city and country, with Eszterís cool-as-concrete vocals in striking contrast to an austere roots-rock sound redolent of dank swamps and remote juke joints. Itís artful and mysterious and it draws you in like a whispered conversation from across a dimly lit bar. Call it Americana-gone-bad; if Gilliam Welch were backed by, say, Arto Lindsay, it might sound something like this.
This is Eszter's second solo effort, although her songs, voice and violin playing have been featured in film soundtracks on other artistsí CDs for years. Her previous album Flicker, released in 2000 on the Scratchie label, was met with critical praise in the U.S. and abroad, as were her live performances. The New Yorker called Eszter ""a warm and expressive singer"" and the New York Times described her songs as ""funny, weird and wise."" Time Out New York declared that ""Balint has a presence all her own: stumbling upon one of her shows might be like finding a wonderful singer performing in a shack at the end of a dirt road.""
Mud has an organic feel compared than Flicker, which employed more studio technology. As Eszter explains, ""I wanted to take more of a live approach, work a little faster, get more of a band sound on tape. Iím always going to have sounds in my work that are weird or ugly, but I wanted them to come from the spirit of the playing rather than from pushing a button."" She likes to explore the dark back roads of country and blues, as well as rock, in her work: ""I have no agenda or interest in being confined to any specific type of music, but I often find myself drawn towards elements of country and the blues. Thereís something in the sparseness and simplicity of those sounds that speaks to me. That music has a feeling of motion to it, like being on a train or driving from place to place. It has an openness, leaving plenty of room for individuality to come through.""
Eszterís own background is urban and international, and her early life was definitely full of motion, which is why one canít exactly pinpoint her sound on any geographical map or genre chart. Itís been shaped into something unique by wide-ranging travels, extraordinary experiences, chance encounters. Eszter was born in Hungary. At the encouragement of her grandparents and her mother, who had studied harp and piano, she took up violin at the age of six. Eszter's parents were part of a theater group, which later became known as Squat Theater. Though their work was not overtly political, in a time and place where celebrating the spirit of individual expression and freedom is the most political statement of all, the authorities put the group under constant surveillance and prohibited any public performances. When Eszter was ten, she and her parents, along with the rest of the company, moved to Paris where Eszter went to school for a year and a half. During this time she also traveled with the theater all around Europe.
In the late 70's, following an invitation to a festival in Baltimore where Squat Theater won a prestigious award and many new fans, the company set up shop in a four story building on West 23rd Street in New York City, next door to the legendary Chelsea Hotel. (What remains of the original landmark building is merely a ghost, one of three torn down structures where the 23rd St. Cineplex Odeon now stands.) Here the group made a name for itself with its Obie award-winning plays, many of which featured Eszter, and which were staged in the ground floor storefront. The performances amazed some, outraged others, and amused many, particularly the spectators/unwitting participants passing by on the street.
During these formative years, Eszter partook in a sort of lifestyle of the hardly rich and somewhat famous, where glamour, adventure, grit, and day-to-day struggle existed side by side. During her teens, when Squat wasn't performing, the theater space would be transformed into a nightclub, and Eszter would DJ, spinning an eclectic mix of No Wave, funk and blues for the musicians, filmmakers and artists who frequented the venue. The club was homebase to many groundbreaking bands of the period, including James White and the Blacks, The Lounge Lizards, Defunkt, Sun Ra, DNA and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Eszter made her recording debut (on violin) as a young girl on an early rap track produced by artist Jean Michel Basquiat and featuring rapper Rammellzee. Around this time she also appeared in a cameo role in the film Downtown '81, a now-legendary chronicle of New York's music scene. At age 15, Eszter was spotted in a play by director Jim Jarmusch who asked her to star in his film Stranger Than Paradise. Following its premiere at The New York Film Festival, the movie garnered Eszter international acclaim and led to subsequent starring and featured roles in several films, alongside the likes of David Bowie (The Linguini Incident), Woody Allen (Shadows and Fog) and Steve Buscemi [Trees Lounge]. For Trees Lounge, Buscemiís directorial debut, Eszter co-wrote and performed ""Color Of Your Eyesí with guitarist Smokey Hormel (Tom Waits/Johnny Cash/Beck). Eszter also contributed ""Almost Gone"" to the soundtrack of the 2002 indie hit Lovely And Amazing.
Along with Flicker, Eszter's recorded history to date includes performing vocals on Marc Ribot e los Cubanos Postizosí Muy Divertido!, Marvin Pontiacís Greatest Hits by John Lurie and Michael DuClos' Lustro, which also featured Kristin Hersh, Deborah Harry, David Lowery and Robert Quine. She recorded a duet with Ribot for Great Jewish Music: A Tribute To Serge Gainsbourg and contributed her version of ""Mambo Sun"" for Great Jewish Music: Tribute to Marc Bolan, both on John Zornís Tzadik label. She appears as a singer on the Kropotkinsí Five Points Crawl and plays violin on Dayna Kurtzís Postcards From Downtown and Michael Gira/Angels Of Lightís Everything Is Good Here, Please Come Home.
The simplicity, sophistication and haunting ambience of the songs on Mud should be further proof of Eszter's emergence as a singular artistic voice.