Natalia Zukerman photo by Shervin Lainez

Songwriting games (like these ones) can be a great way to stir ideas. Here’s the Brooklyn-based musician and painter Natalia Zukerman shares the story of how a prompt from fellow songwriter Willy Porter led her to the song “Jane Avril,” from the album Come Thief, Come Fire.

The story

I received a songwriting challenge from my friend Willy Porter: to write a song containing the words “feather boa” in one week’s time. I immediately thought of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and drawings of the Moulin Rouge in turn-of-the-century Paris.

Always intrigued by these paintings, by his refusal to depict what was accepted by the Academy and his enchantment with the “fringes” of society, I dug a bit deeper into these paintings. The woman he painted most often was named Jane Avril. Born Jeanne Beaudon in 1868, her stage name, Jane Avril, was only one of the many names she was known by—she was also known as La Mélinite, after a kind of dynamite, as L’Etrange (the Strange One), and Jane la Folle (Crazy Jane).

In and out of asylums her whole life, Jane struggled with mental health. She was characterized by fast and frenetic movements, and some believe she had a neurological disorder that is a precursor to what we know as restless leg syndrome. Unable to control these movements, Jane invented the dance known as the can-can. I was so taken with this notion of invention born of necessity. I was so taken by this tiny woman who took power in what was looked at as making her other or different. She also took power in her sexuality—as a sort of early form of exotic dancer, she had an incredible power over her audience and used this power to help her feel free in her own life to express her homosexuality and multiplicity of desire.

I had a lot of details written about Jane’s life, and I thought I would write a first person account from a visual artist’s point of view. Then I went for a run. The words “Yes you can can” kept repeating through my head and I thought, “That’s dumb. I can’t write that. It’s too obvious and silly.” But there you have it. It became the opening line and repeated motif.

The best work I think I make is when I start with my mind and then let my body take over. I have to FEEL what I’m writing or no one else will.

I also have to get out of my own way and trust my instincts. I do wish that I had come up with a more “French sounding” musical accompaniment, but there was a reason for this too—the kind of bossa nova feel of the groove is actually my fingers doing the can can. I found a way to let my left hand feel like the movements of that dance. If you watch closely, you may even see the silk stockings.

—Natalia Zukerman

The lyrics

Yes you can can, Jane Avril
Show them all how it’s done
One glimpse of stocking is still a thrill
When you don’t see how many times they’re mended

Yes you can can, Jane Avril
A feather boa and some fraying silk
You lift your skirt and their hearts stood still
You made them think this is what they’re missing

Oh, what we put on
You took it off so you don’t have to take it home

So you moved down to The Strip
Only way you could think to keep on dancing
All swaying body and bright red lips
You still find those lights enchanting

Sometimes you like it more than you know you should
Mostly it’s a game of grin and bear it
Sweaty, fat hands with dollar bills
A gold band should sit where those tan lines faded

Oh, what you take off
And put back on before you get back

What happens here stays here
The one who says that is never the one waiting
Je m’appelle La Malenite
Je ne suis q’un tout petite femme mais dans un feu immense

Oh, what we put on
And take back off before we get back
Oh, what you put on

You took it off so you don’t have to take it home
Yes you can can, Jane Avril
Yes you can can, Jane Avril
Yes you can can
Show them all how it’s done

More

Behind the song

The Complete Singer-Songwriter