Best enemies

Twin sisters Dana & Karen Kletter produce perfect harmonies.


Roni Sarig
May 6, 1998 7:48PM (UTC)

The Kletter sisters are seated together on an old couch in the dimly lit front room of Dana Kletter's house, each turned slightly to face the other. They are discussing songwriting. "Cranium, uranium ..." Dana says, with no apparent connection to the conversation.

"Let's play Scrabble," Karen Kletter answers, completing what is clearly an
inside joke and not simply a series of non sequiturs.

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Though they're identical twins, it's not quite a mirror image. Dana's wavy hair hangs down;
she's dressed casually in black. Karen is more put together in a neat vest;
her straight hair is pulled back.

There are differences, but far deeper are the things they can't help but
reflect in each other: They share the same rounded face and light complexion
of a Hungarian Jewish lineage that has been passed down, from medieval pogroms
and Central European assimilation, through the Holocaust and American immigrant
life. And as twin sisters, Dana and Karen's whole lives have been shared: the room
they shared for 17 years, the shared language they developed in that room, the
shared memories of childhood fears, of their grandmother's record collection,
of family secrets and tragedies, of vacations and long hot summers, and a
lifetime worth of bitter fights and inside jokes as well.

All this invested history makes Dana and Karen Kletter more than just the
latest perfectly harmonizing vocal duo. And the human connections they
draw -- between each other and to the listener -- make their music more than just
another self-indulgent pop confessional. Their album, "Dear Enemy," full of
classical piano and folk-tinged art songs, is the disarmingly touching
expression of two lives lived side by side.
As Karen begins to talk of her parents, Dana rises from the couch and walks
out of the room briefly. She returns with a black and white photograph. "This
is a picture of my parents on their honeymoon," she says, and adds with a
laugh, "two years after Karen and I were born."

"Aren't they perfect?" her sister asks, without looking. "That picture
captures their pure essence."

Their mother, an Auschwitz survivor who came to New York as a child, is
still young in the photo, though behind her smile hides a lifetime of
terrifying memories. Their father, a Runyonesque Lower East Side tough, looks
already middle-aged; straight-faced, he stands protectively behind his new
bride. Dana and Karen were born 38 years ago in Baltimore, where their father
sent their mother -- his mistress at the time -- to live until he'd separated from
his first wife.

Growing up in New York City and Long Island, the Kletter girls were
surrounded by their mother and grandmother's lost world, a culture that ended
in nightmare and continued to haunt their house. Karen and Dana dutifully
learned piano at a young age, "so we could play Tchaikovsky after dinner," and
fell in love with the stylized piano triplets in the work of Brahms. There was
popular and folk music in the house as well, but not the kind most kids grow
up with. "Our grandmother had the most amazing refugee music collection," Dana
says. "Every gypsy music album, the Barry Sisters, Moishe Oysher, show
tunes. We would hang out in our room, smoke Winstons, play Hungarian rummy
and listen to the Barry Sisters."

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At some point in Karen and Dana's childhood, their father -- who worked in
textiles and trucking -- was forced to go on the lam. For years they would see
him only sporadically, at secret locations in rural Pennsylvania, while they
tried to maintain a relatively normal life during the week. The song "Flight
Into Egypt" is a very literal telling of this period: "We were left to mend
ourselves while he went west alone to Bethlehem/And so he came to dwell in a
room in the Egypt Motel/And how he lived we cannot say/We only saw him on
holidays."

They coped through each other. "We always shared a room, and we always talked
about things," Karen says. "So whatever was happening, there was always
commentary. I think we had a culture of our room within the culture of our
house. We definitely had our own language."

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Most songs on "Dear Enemy" deal with family relationships, and given the
Kletters' turbulent childhood, it's easy to read most of them as at least
partially autobiographical. "Father Song" is a farewell to an aged father, who
is loved despite his failures. "Meteor Mom" examines the relationships between
mothers and daughters. "Anna O." tells of a woman who goes insane watching
helplessly while her father slowly dies.

For so personal an album, though, "Dear Enemy" is also respectful enough to
hold back on the more horrific details of their lives. Though the sisters use shared
memories to build universal songs, they don't write songs to exorcise demons.
"This was not a cathartic thing," Karen says. "There's no way it ever could
have been. The songs are about families, things that are really not that
unusual. We're not writing songs about mom waking up in the middle of the
night screaming about being in the barracks at Auschwitz. I don't think we
ever would."

"But all that stuff is in there," Dana adds. "It's just not necessarily
in the lyrics. I mean the presence of "Raisins and Almonds" [an old Yiddish
lullaby covered on "Dear Enemy"] has way more to do with our lives and the
Holocaust than anything else we wrote. Because that song is representative of
a lot."

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Many songs on "Dear Enemy" play like a scrapbook of the sisters' years
together: their strange childhood fears of the Virgin Mary and Marie Curie
("Maria Marie"), their annual trips to the Carolina coast ("Beach Song"), the
summer they spent in a sweltering basement apartment ("We Died in August")
and the everyday animosities, the unspoken love ("Sister Song") and the
coded, almost telepathic communications they shared ("Directions").

The songs span their entire life, and the record itself took nearly that
long to make. In the late '80s, Dana settled in North Carolina, where the
family had lived for a time and where she attended college. As part of the
blackgirls, an edgy female folk trio based in Raleigh, Dana first came to the
attention of Joe Boyd, famed folk/rock producer (Richard Thompson, 10,000
Maniacs, Nick Drake, Kate and Anna McGarrigle) and Hannibal Records owner.
While producing the blackgirls' 1989 debut, "procedure," Boyd met Karen, who was
then earning a master's degree in New York, but sang back-up on the record. A
sucker for sibling acts, Boyd asked Dana and Karen to make a record together
for Hannibal.

In 1990, Dana and Karen convened in their family's "ancestral apartment
on 79th Street" with a case of Molson and two cartons of cigarettes and
composed the first batch of songs that would make up "Dear Enemy." Dana, though,
was soon pulled away by a second blackgirls record and touring. By the time
the blackgirls disbanded in 1992, Boyd was embroiled in a series of business
and health problems that kept him from following through on the record.

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That year, Karen and her husband joined Dana in North Carolina. Motivated
in part by a need "to figure out a way to deal" with the historical
circumstances that so affected her family, Karen began researching her
doctoral thesis on anti-Semitism in medieval Europe. Dana, meanwhile, began a
four-year series of brushes with the mainstream music business that left her
broke and jaded. First, she was hired as back-up singer to "sweeten" the
vocals on Hole's 1994 landmark album, "Live Through This." Though significantly
diffused, it's possible to hear Dana's voice supplementing Courtney Love's
limited vocals on tracks like "Doll Parts" and "Violet."

"I learned all the words in three days," Dana recalls. "I got there and
we went over some pronunciation stuff, because the producers didn't want me to
stand out too much. Then they showed me to the vocal booth, which was
literally ankle deep in bloody, snotty tissues. It was Courtney's booth, full
of her essence. I did my stuff, it took me three hours. Then I walked back
through the trail of bloody, snotty tissues and went home."

Eventually Dana received a gold (and later platinum) record for her work,
"obviously the only one I'll ever have," she says. But right around the time
her gold record arrived, the royalty payments stopped. "That really irked me.
Even though the gold record is hanging in the kitchen and it's sort of
amusing, it's not that amusing. I could've used the money."

In 1995, Dana's new band, Dish -- which included "Dear Enemy's" multi-instrumentalist Sara Bell -- signed to Interscope and released "Boneyard Beach."
Though a critical success, the record failed commercially. "I got jerked
around in the most unbelievable ways," Dana says of her major label
experience. "I never looked at myself as a commodity, and when I did I was
very unhappy because I didn't think I made a good commodity. I thought I made
good records, but I made a bad commodity."

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By the time Dish broke up in 1996, Boyd was back in the picture. Dana and
Karen had never stopped writing songs together, and just in time for North
Carolina's senate race, they began performing at benefits and rallies for the
political organization MAJIC (Mothers Against Jesse [Helms] in Congress).
Appearing as Dear Enemy, a name taken from a favorite childhood book (by turn-of-the-century socialist author Jean Webster), they played protest songs as
well as their originals. Now their album title, "Dear Enemy" underscores the
love-hate tension in every harmony they share.

This connection is at the heart of what makes "Dear Enemy" so singular and
honest. The Kletters are not so much an act promoting a record, they're just
sisters with stories. They have no long-term career aspirations together, they
just have talent and a relationship. They don't talk at all about what lies
ahead musically; for her part, Karen plans to complete her dissertation.

"It's just, 'This is what we have, let's just do this and concentrate on
it,'" Karen says. "I believe it made the record better. 'The future, what's
that?' That's our motto."

"Dear Enemy" makes plain, though, how both the present and future are very
much tied to the lingering memories of the past. Still, the record exists almost in a vacuum; made simply because there was something to say and a beautiful way to say it.

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Roni Sarig

Roni Sarig is a regular contributor to Salon. His forthcoming book, "The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You've Never Heard," will be published by Billboard Books in July.

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