The acclaimed singer, musician, actress and New York City original speaks with Rock & Roll Globe about her new theatre project premiering this Thursday in her hometown
Musician and actress Eszter Balint is in an upbeat mood as she lunches on a crepe and an iced cappuccino at Caffé Reggio, a charming longstanding restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.
She’s looking forward to putting on a show – her first in front of a live audience since the pandemic began – on August 5 at The Wild Project, a venue a bit further east in the Village.
“I would say the bulk of it will be a song cycle excerpt from this work-in-progress show that I’m writing called I Hate Memory!,” Balint says, “and it’s somewhat of a theatrical piece, but it’s all centered around songs, with monologues. I’ll also be performing some other songs, mostly off my last record, [2015’s] Airless Midnight, and maybe something new that I’m working on.
“A lot of my show deals with how I came to do what I do – my formative years,” Balint continues. This should make for an especially intriguing show, then, because she has quite an unusual origin story. She was born in Budapest, Hungary, to parents who were leaders in Squat Theatre, a celebrated avant-garde theater troupe. Experimental theater did not sit well with Hungary’s Communist regime at the time, however. Balint was eleven years old when her family – and the rest of Squat Theatre’s members – relocated to New York City in the 1970s, seeking a more open-minded environment for their art.
AUDIO: Nico at Squat Theatre NYC 1980
Squat Theatre soon became renowned as one of the most innovative experimental theater companies in New York. Balint began her acting debut in their productions when she was still a child. Counterculture stars such as Sun Ra, Nico and Kid Creole & the Coconuts were family friends and frequent visitors. Balint recalls “growing up with this incredible creativity all around me, and no rules except the rule to be original and creative and exciting. But the late ‘70s was pretty rough and tumble in New York. It was very dangerous. But amazingly, I always felt safe. There was a sense of community that doesn’t really exist now. I think we all felt a little bit buffered and protected by that.
“All that stuff is kind of what my show is about,” Balint continues. “It’s about New York at that time. It’s about being an immigrant. It’s about growing up around creativity. It’s about community. And it’s also about memory and my relationship to it.”
Balint says the show will also touch on her work as an actress. She first gained widespread fame in that capacity when she starred in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise. Notable roles followed in films such as Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991), Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge (1996), and in the television sitcom Louie in 2014. Despite this success, though, Balint felt conflicted about this side of her career.
“Acting was right on the edge,” Balint says. “When I was acting within the theater and was in indie films, it was very much a part of my essence as an artist.” As she got offered more mainstream acting work, however, she says she began to feel like she was “just being part of this industry and system. It did appeal to me for a minute and I tried it, but in the end, it didn’t work for me. I never fit. I felt like I was at the mercy of other people’s decisions. So it was not for me. That’s when I really found music as my main vocation.”
VIDEO: Eszter Balint is brilliant in Steve Buscemi’s 1996 directorial debut Trees Lounge
In truth, though, Balint has always been as involved in music as she was in acting. As a child, she studied classical violin. She went on to join bands as a teenager, playing in New York’s fabled downtown scene. Besides releasing her own albums (Flicker in 1999, Mud in 2004, and Airless Midnight in 2015), she’s also appeared on albums by Swans (and their later spin-off group Angels of Light), Marc Ribot, and Dayna Kurtz, among others.
With the pandemic easing up, Balint looks forward to getting her music career back in gear with I Hate Memory!, which will feature Balint on vocals, guitar, and violin, along with Chris Cochrane on acoustic guitar, and multi-instrumentalist Marlon Cherry. “Hopefully, it will make a little bit of a racket even though it will just be the three of us!” Balint says. She hopes that the August 5 performance will lead to more: “I hope to tour it. I hope to play it in New York at a residency to develop it more,” she says.
I Hate Memory! is part of a larger project that Balint is still refining, as well. “I have to say, it’s the most ambitious project of mine I’ve ever done,” she says, adding that she is looking to turn it into a film or theater show. Also, she says, “I’m recording the songs as an album. It’s been in fits and starts because of the pandemic, so availability in the studio and getting everybody together has been very tricky, but now it’s picking up. I think we’ve done 90% of the tracking. Just a few little overdubs left.” She plans to release that album later this year.
And then what will be next for her? Balint smiles at the question. “I keep my goals really humble, especially in this era of insanity,” she says. “My goal is just to keep reminding myself to keep making stuff, no matter what.”
Eszter Balint: Songs and excerpts from I Hate Memory!
Thursday Aug 5 – 8:00 p.m.
The Wild Project
195 E. 3rd St.
New York, NY 10009
VIDEO: Eszter Balint “Trouble You Don’t See”