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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There have been a lot of outrageous characters in the history of rock and pop music. Here is another one - transsexual artist Baby Dee. Music journalist Christian Bordal has the story about her unusual life, career and latest album. It's called "Safe Inside the Day."

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: Baby Dee launched her musical career as a harpist in New York's Central Park in a bear costume.

BABY DEE (Artist): I just had this fuzzy picture in my mind of something sort of festive playing a harp. And I don't know, it just sort of came to me.

(Soundbite of song)

BABY DEE: (Singing) Bring me a whiskey, get me a beer. (Unintelligible) song I like to hear...

BORDAL: She was a street performer, but Dee also studied music more seriously and was so obsessed with Gregorian chant and the Renaissance that her conducting teacher suggested she just learn to play the organ and get a job in a church.

(Soundbite of music)

BORDAL: Dee thought that sounded like sensible advice. She'd been playing religious music for years, but the idea of actually working in a church had never occurred to her.

BABY DEE: Churches sort of creep me out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BABY DEE: So within weeks of him saying that, I had a big job up in the South Bronx that became my - what I thought would be my life's work.

(Soundbite of song)

BABY DEE: (Singing) Spill the milk, spill the meat, life is bitter and death is sweet. Oh, the bacon that a boy can eat. Come along with me.

BORDAL: What eventually changed Dee's mind about her life's work at the church was her sexuality. Baby Dee is a transsexual, and after years of living what she says was a life of pretense as a man, she finally made the decision to become a woman.

BABY DEE: It kind of mend the end of my career because I would have had to make like a big ridiculous mission out of my, you know, my livelihood. To keep a job like that and be tranny is like, that's a bit of a stretch. I mean, I know people. There was a guy like in Hobo who was a motorcycle cop...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BABY DEE: ...who was a tranny, and he decided, I'm going to keep my job. You know. I mean, it's insane. It's insane.

(Soundbite of song, "Fresh Out of Candles")

BABY DEE: (Singing) Father, Son and Holy Ghost stole the bacon and burned the toast. Fresh out of candles...

BORDAL: Dee says the sexual transformation, for which she had such great hopes, was emotionally devastating. Everywhere she went she was now the constant object of staring and commentary.

BABY DEE: You can go through a thing like that, and instead of having it make you better, you know, it can just embitter you.

(Soundbite of music)

BORDAL: After leaving her job at the church, Dee went back to street performing. But she was no longer a cuddly bear.

BABY DEE: It was like, if people are going to look at me all the time, I was going to give them something to look at, you know, and I was going to look back at them too. You know what I mean? There was like an attitude there.

BORDAL: She also ended up working in side shows on Coney Island.

BABY DEE: I was the Bilateral Hermaphrodite. I worked in like circuses, like the Bindlestiff Circus and the Kamikaze Freak Show.

BORDAL: And what did you do?

BABY DEE: That kind thing. Mostly music, just sort of joked around with people. I would - occasionally I would levitate a virgin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BABY DEE: You know, various things. Whatever was needed. I have - I lay on broken glass and have concrete slabs broken over my head. You know, the usual sort of thing.

(Soundbite of song, "The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities")

BABY DEE: (Singing) Bobby Slot and Freddie Weiss were not soulmates, but I like their names a lot. So I'll say them twice, Bobby Slot and Freddie Weiss...

BORDAL: Dee grew up in suburban Cleveland, across the street from two guys named Bobby Slot and Freddie Weiss. On her new record, "Safe Inside the Day," she tells the story of the day they decided to smash their old upright piano in the front yard. Dee was only four, but she remembers vividly how the occasion turned into a kind of block party, with all of the neighborhood men joining in the demolition.

BABY DEE: What I learned was that inside the piano is - there's a cast-iron harp that's really very hard to wreck. You know, you can't just hit it and it will break. You have to like saw away at it with a hacksaw, and that wasn't much fun for them. So everything else went to bits, but that cast-iron harp inside sort of stayed. And the garbage men wouldn't take it, and it sat on their front lawn for months. And I fell in love with it.

BORDAL: The song is called "The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities." And in it Dee uses the harp inside the piano as a larger metaphor for her own metamorphosis.

(Soundbite of song, "The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities")

BABY DEE: (Singing) Well, the harp and the piano, there's a girl inside that boy in my daddy's (unintelligible) his pride and joy.

BORDAL: About eight years ago, Baby Dee left New York and moved back to Cleveland to look after her ailing parents. Her new record, "Safe Inside the Day," is a happy career resurrection. The producers, intense folkie Bonnie Prince Billy and guitarist-producer Matt Sweeney, urged Dee away from her trademark harp and towards her piano music. The resulting songs burrow into some of the hard terrain of Dee's Cleveland childhood and then use it to reflect on the unusual twists and turns of her adult life.

In that process, she manages to grow a kind of sinewy, deceptively simple poetry that matches her fragile emotional core with bursts of toughness and joy and artistic fearlessness.

Baby Dee is not afraid anymore, if she ever was, to sound weird or out of the ordinary. She sings her outsized personality, and in turn her pain and her tremendous warmth and quirkiness all come bouncing and shining through.

(Soundbite of song, "The Only Bones That Show")

BABY DEES: (Singing) And these are the only bones that show.

BORDAL: For NPR News, I am Christian Bordal.

(Soundbite of song, "The Only Bones That Show")

BABY DEES: (Singing) I'm the only bones that show.

BRAND: Baby Dee's latest CD is called "Safe Inside the Day." And our Christian Bordal also has a new CD out with his music project, Emalazarus. That CD is called "7 Songs."

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