Monday, May 23, 2016

Presenting Princess Shaw: from New Orleans to Israel, via the Internet

As one would expect from a Kibbutz resident, Ophir Kutiel (a.k.a. Kutiman) definitely considers music a collective endeavor. He is not such a believer in rights and clearances, but since he is sampling little-seen, self-posted youtube videos, most of the samplees are delighted to have the exposure and track-back links. Such was certainly the case for Samantha Montgomery (a.k.a. Princess Shaw) when Kutiman’s mashed together accompaniment for her a Capella song went viral. Former San Francisco Film Society Artist-in-Residence Ido Haar was there to document her sudden internet fame and her subsequent trip to Israel in Presenting Princess Shaw (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It started as a project on nearly anonymous artists using youtube as a public workshop and confessional, but Princess Shaw (her preferred professional billing) quickly took over. She has an earthy voice, but her idiosyncratic style is hard to package in a neatly defined soul or R&B boxes. Evidently, NBC’s The Voice didn’t get it, because they gave her the unceremonious brush-off (quick, name a previous winner without checking google). Shaw was scuffling harder than the average jazz trombonist when Haar started documenting her life. She was not making ends meet as an elder care nurse, but she kept plugging away at open mic nights to empty rooms. Unbeknownst to her (but as Haar very well knew), Kutiman was crafting his newest assemblage featuring Shaw as his diva.

When Kutiman drops it online, Shaw becomes an internet sensation. Unlike his other mash-ups, such as the infectious “Mother of All Funk Chords,” Kutiman composed music to best showcase her emotional delivery and revealing lyrics. The tone is not so different from late Billie Holiday, yet we can still hear Kutiel’s Israeli and Mediterranean influences. Soon, Shaw is traveling to Israel to properly record with Kutiman and his ensemble, even though her car is still up on blocks, thanks to the punks who stole her tires.

Presenting is a film McLuhan scholars and Warhol devotees will have a field day with, but it will outlive such in-the-now analysis because of the resonance of Shaw’s life experiences. A survivor of abuse, the nature of which is clearly implied but never explicitly detailed, Shaw tenaciously, almost quixotically pursues her dreams, despite her desperate circumstances.

It is also aesthetically pleasing to see the ease with which the scruffy Israeli hipsters and the resilient New Orleanian mix. You have to smile when one of Kutiman’s sidemen ducks out for a beer run as soon as she arrives at their Tel Aviv studio. Yes, it is nice to know musicians are the same around the world. In fact, an unlikely but significant personal friendship and professional relationship blossoms between Shaw the diva and Kutiman the mad genius at the control board.

Of course, this story is still developing. Shaw has not “made it” yet, but since Kutiman is producing her debut album, possible questions of exploitation really do not apply here. Shaw’s appearances on behalf of the film should confirm as much and why wouldn’t she want Presenting high on the public radar? Haar displays great sensitivity, even when chronicling her lowest ebbs, emphasizing her generosity of spirit during the lows and the highs. Recommended for fans of soul and experimental electronica, Presenting Princess Shaw opens this Friday (5/27) in New York, at the IFC Center.