Daphne Rubin-Vega:
Rocker Brings Up Baby, Burns Down House

by Tony Phillips

“Make it sound like you’re a black man,” the bottle blonde in the white go-go boots and electric blue bra encourages her bass player. She’s crammed into the tiny white room with the rest of her band. She stands; they are seated. Her heels make minuscule impressions in the industrial gray carpet when she paces back and forth. There are gray triangles that soundproof the room. The de rigeur no smoking sign in the hallway is amended with the words “of any substance.” There’s a mirror on the wall where the audience would be if this were an actual gig and Daphne Rubin-Vega studies herself intensely while she sings. Right now she’s working her way through an Alanis Morissette-y number from her latest Redemption Songs with the lyric “I can’t take one more pill and I can’t kill you.”

Her index finger goes up with her voice on the high note as if she’s instructing not only her band but also herself. Something’s not quite right and she stops the band. “I love you guys,” she says, “I just don’t like you right now.” She somehow gets away with mothering the band while wearing a sheer black top knotted at her waist. Her approach is equal parts Madonna/whore. And no, not that Madonna. “I call them my bitches,” she begins over a margarita after the rehearsal, “I’ve always called them that. It’s completely affectionate. I’ve always wanted a pan-ethnic, pansexual band, but those members that I have there fit. They are my band. I write the songs. I know five cords, but I’ve written most of the songs. I’m the one that can’t play. I’ve had this band for five or six years now.”

I first met Daphne around about that time. Bush had just stolen his first election and she heard about a new column I was writing to remind people of that. She made a beeline over to me at a party at Joe’s Pub. “I’m keeping what I have down there shaved until he’s out of office,” she announced, “because I don’t want what I have down there confused with a Bush.” It became the column’s inaugural quote and I’ve loved her ever since. She’s the sacred and profane all rolled into one tiny package. Later that night, she got up onstage at Joe’s Pub and blew the roof off the joint. She somehow manages to straddle both Broadway and rock and roll at the same time, while actually inhabiting neither.

“I don’t really know how I do it,” she admits, “I don’t really belong in musical theater proper. It’s not that I don’t belong, but I have yet to work in a very traditional musical. If you live long enough, you can live down certain stereotypes. Or not, but I always thought myself too illegitimate for both. I mean, rock and roll and musical theater, yeah, they converge, and God knows I try to be there when they do, but they really are a contradictions in terms.” She gives it some more thought and then just shrugs, saying, “I always think, go where it’s warm.”

And reader beware, it’s about to get very warm. And fuzzy. Daphne wants to talk about her baby. But in case the shaved vagina anecdote hasn’t bought her enough wiggle room, let me just throw out one more before we depart for the land of Baby Einstein. When I ask her the question that’s usually answered, “I have a gay best friend and we love to go shopping,” Daphne says, point-blank, “I might not be gay, but I’m queer. I’ve also been told to shut up and been dismissed. I stand together with all outsiders, especially the gay ones.” And then she even ups the ante on the clichéd shopping response by adding, “They do a fierce eye. The gays taught me how to pluck my eyebrows.” It’s the depilatory as political. May we proceed?

“It scared the shit out of me to have a baby,” she admits, “but I waited long enough. I wanted to make sure that I did everything before I gave up my morning time and my sleep. Giving up sleep I thought was undoable, but it’s amazing what the body can do. You can intellectualize it, you can do your scheduling and your alpha mom routine, but there is a physiological transformation that happens which allows you to not kill a baby when it doesn’t let you sleep. And there’s just nothing like seeing you and your loved one’s cells form into another human being that you’re completely responsible for molding and that is so innocent. He’s a beautiful reminder.”

Fans that need a beautiful reminder of Daphne’s reason not to go all Hedda Nussbaum will get one on her new album. The track, like her son, is called Luca and almost everyone I know breathes a sigh of relief to learn it’s not a remake of that old Suzanne Vega track. When Daphne suggests running through it in rehearsal, her hot drummer Tony reminds her that the song takes a lot of work. “Yeah,” she replies, “and let’s just do it, we have 15-minutes.” Later, when the band loses their place, Tony says, “let’s take it from where the baby comes in with ga-ga-ga.” He’s taking the piss, of course, but little Luca does indeed appear on the record.

“He’s just a year old,” Daphne says of her son Luca Ariel who turns two next month, “but I see his inclination to want to sing along. He was in my belly when this record was happening and he’s been there all along. We started recording when he was six weeks old. If for no other reason, this CD is fantastic because it will buy me 45-minutes. When the nanny plays it, he quiets down if I’m not home. He’ll chill out for the duration of the CD. He’ll be enthralled for 45 minutes and I can run to the bathroom and get showered in the morning.” And okay, if it is getting to precious for you militant types, Daphne’s not all neurotic Cheerios in a Ziploc mom. In fact, when we’re on the phone setting up this interview, she drops Luca. When she gets back on the line, she simply explains, “that’s what people do with babies.” Are you getting all this, Britney?

But more than just a Mommy and Me soundtrack, Redemption Songs represents a year out of Daphne’s life, quite literally. “It’s been a heavy year from having a baby to taking a year off work and all the stuff that comes with that,” Daphne explains, “the garden variety insecurity that performers, and actors in particular, go through. They think they’ll never work again.” In Daphne’s case, these insecurities were compounded by last Christmas’ debut of the Rent movie. At the time, Daphne likened the experience of being one of the few original cast members not to appear in the film to “standing outside of a steakhouse looking in the window while all of your friends are sitting down to a really great steak dinner. You can smell it outside and your starving, but all you can do it look through the window.”

Of course, Daphne’s too much of a lady to say it, but a year later, with the commercial release of the film having tanked, it’s starting to look more and more like those steaks were served with a generous helping of E. coli on the side. “I always thought that it was going to happen,” Daphne says of her immortalization of Mimi on film, “but it was time to move on. I would love to have done the film, but that was many years ago. About four or five years ago, when they started talking about wanting to do a film, I desperately wanted to do it. Then when the light turned red on the project, I sort of let it go and thought, okay, you usually grow up with roles and they marinate in you, but they land in different places. In the case of Rent, we really meant it, so I figured I know the movie’s going to come around and I’m not going to do it. I’m too old.”

Still, what not appearing in that film made room for what was a stellar year on the boards. The two-time Tony nominee saw her return to the working world marked by such engagements as gracing Lincoln Center’s stage for a musical version of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and stepping in last minute for Annabella Sciorra to garner rave reviews in the off-Broadway hit Everythings Turning Into Beautiful. But her biggest surprise for the year remains up her sleeve when she opens this month as Fantine in the longest running musical in the world, Les Miserables. And filling the shoes of the legendary Patti LuPone, along with the once in a lifetime chance to belt the ballad “I Dreamed A Dream” would not have happened without Rent. She bumped into the director of this current revival at a noisy after-party for the tenth-anniversary concert of Rent.

“I can be so full of fear and trying to do things right,” Daphne admits, “but maybe with being a mother, I do what feels right at the risk of always trying to please people. You know, pleasing people never really got me anywhere.” Oddly, it’s also this newfound role of mother that’s helping her find the character of Fantine. “ I know exactly what it would be like to give up everything for my child,” she explains, “and that’s exactly what Fantine faces.” Of her own life, she’ll happily cop to being out of her training pants. “I’m not a kid anymore,” she laughs, “and what a fucking relief. It’s sort of taken me this long to be unapologetic about it. If you can’t beat it, join it. It’s so much more graceful to let go the things of your youth than to desperately cling to them.”