Living Dalle

A local singer/songwriter survives cancer and tours the UK with the Handsome Family

Larissa Dalle has had an eventful year. In February of 2002, the St. Louis singer/songwriter was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and she's currently taking a maintenance drug. If the cancer doesn't recur in the next five years, she is, in her words, "as good as anyone else"; if it does, she's automatically in Stage 4. "They monitor me and stuff like that," she explains, "but it's best to just go on about your life. If they found something, I'd have to go back and try more chemo. They try to find something that will at least shrink it or keep you stable, and really that's all they can do until they find a cure."

At 30, Dalle thought she was too young to get cancer. When she found a lump in her breast, she got a prescription from her doctor for a mammogram, but the staff at the hospital refused to give her one; as a young woman with no family history of premenopausal cancer, she wasn't in a high-risk category. Instead, she was given an ultrasound, which didn't reveal any abnormalities, sent home and told not to worry about it. But instead of following this advice -- which would have killed her -- Dalle went to another hospital. Although the lump she'd discovered was benign, the mammogram showed a nonpalpable form of cancer elsewhere in her breast.

"I think I just got lucky, only in the wrong way," she says, laughing softly. "As crappy as last year was, it gave me a new outlook on life. Some of the songs off my [forthcoming] album deal with coming to terms with your mortality, reincarnation, all kinds of thoughts that go through your head, like, 'How do I get past the fear?' It inspired me. I thought I'd have a lot of dark songs coming out of that period, but I think I'm a much more positive person now. I used to kind of obsess over dark things or think they were cool or whatever. But you know, after you go there, it's not that cool anymore."

It's quite a turnaround for a woman whose theme song, written before her diagnosis, features the inspirational chorus "Let us depress you/That's what we're here for/Give us an hour and you'll wish you'd never been born." Not to worry, though -- Dalle hasn't gone all sappy on us. "I was listening to a Loretta Lynn album of hymns all last year," she remembers. "Jason [Rook -- Dalle's boyfriend and the guitarist in her backing band] would come over and be like, 'You're not gonna find God or anything, are you?' I wasn't, but it just sounded really comforting to me. You have to find something: Mine was, I decided I was going to come back as a cat; I wrote a song called 'My Sweet Reward' about it."

In addition to swell afterlife plans, Dalle has another reason to be cheerful these days. In late April of this year, she and her band (which, in addition to Jason Rook, includes his brother Ed on bass and Dan Stuvland on drums) spent a week in the United Kingdom, opening for the Handsome Family. "Each place was bizarre in its own way," Dalle says. "We played on a boat in Glasgow. In Bristol we played in a church, and the church had a bar in it and was all decorated in red velvet. The first night we played at this opera-house kind of place in Sheffield, and it was the same building where they filmed part of that Bob Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back. And the Beatles played there, too; we were in the same dressing room that the Beatles had used! It was a true opera-house setup; we really didn't even need to use mics, though we did anyway. The audience was so appreciative; they were dead quiet through all the performances, and then they'd applaud. They listened to every little thing, they bought CDs and they even wanted me to sign them. I'm like, 'You don't even know who I am!'"

Dalle performs at Frederick's Music Lounge on Friday, July 11. Although her new full-length, Get on the Boat, won't be ready in time for the gig, she'll be selling copies of Mama's Proud, a limited-edition EP that includes two songs from the new album, two tracks that were recorded live in London and an acoustic demo. Get there early, before she runs through the hundred copies she's had pressed. Whether you're a fan of beagles, Warren Zevon or just Dalle's voice -- imagine razor wire glazed in maple syrup -- you need this CD.

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