Jennifer Baron has gone on and off the radar musically over the past couple of decades. But she's never lost that drive to write and perform music — and it's one that goes way back.
"My first toys, for my brother and me, were always my parents' record collection," Baron says. "I think it goes immediately back to the source. Preverbal time was — we constantly had music and stereos and vinyl, and it was music that I've loved my whole life. I always joke around: We didn't go to church, but our holy trinity was Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young."
Baron, whose band The Garment District recently released its first vinyl full-length, If You Take Your Magic Slow, first made it onto the map in the indie world in the late '90s, as an integral member of the New York City-based band The Ladybug Transistor. She wrote and played (mostly bass, but also keyboard and guitar) with the band over a span of about five years, appearing on three albums, including The Albemarle Sound, which was recently included on PopMatters' list of 25 essential Merge Records albums from the label's first 25 years. Baron, who grew up in a number places around Pennsylvania, including Mount Lebanon, had settled in New York after going to college in Massachusetts.
For a time, The Ladybug Transistor as a whole was cohabitating in a house in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, and it wasn't an average indie-band setup.
"It was a band that was very much like a family unit, unlike a lot of other bands," Baron explains. "A lot of bands just say, ‘I'll meet you at the practice space.' We were going out to shows every night together. We were going out to dinner together. I don't think that's your typical band."
"We also benefited from having the recording studio in-house," explains Ladybug founder Gary Olson, who still lives in the Flatbush house, known as Marlborough Farms, and performs with the band. "The recording process was kept in-house."
After 2001's Argyle Heir, but before 2003's self-titled Ladybug album, Baron left New York for Pittsburgh.
"When we toured in the U.S., we'd always have these conversations — could we live in this city or this city for a while? And I was always one of those people who romanticized Pittsburgh from afar, I think. If you're from here or you're a transplant, it attracts you — it's like a magnet, it has a pull. I applied for a full-time job as education director at the Mattress Factory."
Early on after her return to Pittsburgh, Baron played organ for a time with The New Alcindors, a soul-inflected indie band. But she fell off the map for a bit in terms of performance in the mid- and late-2000s. Which isn't to say she went through a creative funk.
"Yeah, there was a time period when things were germinating, that led up to me putting out Melody Elder," The Garment District's first cassette-tape release, she says. "Maybe I wasn't actively producing or putting out music, but I knew I would get back to it eventually. I knew that I couldn't not do it, you know?"
Baron was involved in Handmade Arcade, the indie-craft fair in Pittsburgh, with her craft business, The Polka-Dot Life. (She also participated in the earliest Brooklyn edition of the Renegade Craft Fair, around the same time.)
"It was a natural extension, to go from the indie-rock scene to the indie craft scene," Baron says. "If you're in a band, you're designing and making your own T-shirts, making your own buttons. We were painting the stage sets we'd take on tour with us, then we'd sell them. Especially when we went on tour with Of Montreal, things always involved more performance, and we'd try to amplify those aspects."
She also helped put together 2009's The Pittsburgh Signs Project, a book of roadside signage from the Western Pennsylvania area.
But it did eventually come back to music — partly, Baron says, after a move to Dormont with her husband and collaborator, Greg Langel.
"I could actually assemble instruments that I had and that Greg had," she explains. "He had instruments in storage, and he had moved into my apartment in Friendship — you know that feeling where you're a little bit nomadic, things are in storage, and your mind can't open up and expand in that way. I think having the house, having a dedicated craft room and a music room, a place in our living room for a Hammond organ, a proper listening space for our albums — I finally started settling into having a place to call home."