After the college-pop explosion of the late 1980s and grunge's assault on radio pop in the early 1990s, indie rock needed a bit of a well-deserved rest. Bands such as Low, Codeine, June of 44, and Ida began quietly popping up, making themselves heard with ultra-soft vocals and the subtlest of tones and textures. They concentrated heavily on melody and form, preferring sparse minimalism to anything extreme or harsh. Home recording, or at least four-track recording, was the norm for many of these bands, and shifting lineups with open-door policies was more than common.
Consisting of Elizabeth Mitchell, a kindergarten teacher, and Dan Littleton, a bakery employee, Ida formed in 1992. Although unnamed at the time, the duo began writing timid pop songs together in their Brooklyn apartment. Mitchell had previously played music with her Brown College roomate, Lisa Loeb. Both Littleton and Mitchell contributed vocals and music to Loeb's breakout hit single, "Stay (I Miss You)."
On a trip to California, they met Mitchell's friend's grandmother, Ida Machado Schaffer, a 92-year-old artist and clairvoyant who spent many of her later years traveling. Mitchell and Littleton were so taken with Schaffer's stories, which often blurred the lines between truth and fiction, that they decided to name their band in her honor, hoping that her sense of adventure and storytelling would rub off on the young couple.
Soon after their official formation, friend Rick Lassiter started playing bass with the duo and they recorded their first demo tape, Songs from the Ranch, followed up by a handful of shows in 1993. Along with their own haunting, original compositions, the band found they had a knack for full-on rock covers, especially enjoying Prince and post-punkers the Buzzcocks and Gang of Four.
Through a series of friendly passes, Littleton's friend Jenny Toomey of indie popsters Liquorice and Tsunami heard the band's demo and offered to put out an Ida full-length on her new Simple Machines label. Quickly taking her up on the offer, the trio put together Tales of Brave Ida in Brooklyn in the spring of 1994. However, Lassiter implemented the band's first lineup change and moved to North Carolina shortly thereafter. Littleton's brother Michael, a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, stepped in for Ida's first tour opening for Tsunami, and he ended up joining in on a full-time basis.
Things slowed down for the band the following year was as Dan went on tour with Toomey and Liquorice. Ida did, however, find time to record I Know about You, and in the spring of 1996 they assembled a new touring group that included Codeine's Steve Immerwahr on bass and Elaine Ahn on cello. But it was the fall of that year that saw Ida's most notable lineup change when Karla Schickele of Beekeeper was asked to join as a permanent bass player.
By 1997 a violinist with the lucky name of Ida Pearle joined the band, and while touring they recorded Ten Small Paces, also for Simple Machines. In addition, that year saw the release of three split singles with the bands Secret Stars, Portastatic, and Schickele's former project with her brother Matthew, Beekeeper.
With the threat of Simple Machines' closing looming large, Ida rethought their strategy, and when an offer came from Capitol that year, they signed with the promise of full tour support and a more than ample recording budget. "As a label, Simple Machines stayed true to their foundational principles from beginning to end. They shut down the label when it stopped being fun and fulfilling and when they wanted to do other things with their lives, not because the label was failing or they didn't love the music. They ended on a high note," Dan Littleton told Popshots.
They continued their rigorous tour schedule throughout 1998, opening up for Low and, for a short time, for Sunny Day Real Estate. During a Detroit stop on that tour, Mitchell and Littleton recorded a children's record with Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive. The album, recorded in Defever's basement studio in Livonia, Michigan, includes a few Woody Guthrie and Carter Family tunes. This recording session would eventually be released on the couple's own Last Affair label as You Are My Flower.
In late 1998, Ida finally began work on their Capitol full-length record with Trina Shoemaker, engineer/producer for Kristin Hersh and Sheryl Crow. Unfortunately, the major label deal didn't sit well with Ida as numerous changes at Capitol imposed stricter guidelines on the conditions of their record. The band tried for six months to break the contract and eventually won the ownership of the master tapes. Realizing that they had recorded enough material for two discs, they separated the recordings into two albums, Will You Find Me and The Braille Night.
In 2001 Littleton told Popshots, "I was always skeptical of Capitol, even when things looked pretty good. I'm not saying that I didn't have hopes or expectations, I was just skeptical. I was the least convinced of all of us about signing at that time. I always knew that we would be independent again, and I always believed that we could survive anything."
Fortunately, though, the experience didn't leave them completely jaded. "We didn't experience the kind of surveillance that a lot of bands on major labels do. We made the recordings we wanted to make. I know more about working in a studio than I ever thought I would, we got almost two full length records paid for, we paid everyone who played or worked on the recordings, and we own our master tapes," he indicated in the same interview. After all was said and done with Capitol, Michael Littleton left the band in 1999.
Despite adding Lassiter back into the lineup, the 1999 tour was the sparsest-sounding one yet. Many shows on this tour benefited Low Power Radio, a grassroots collective that aimed to protect independent radio from being taken under by the legal powers of commercial radio lobbyists. As well as touring with Defever and his One Hundred Years band, Ida did an experimental set of shows playing backup to avant-garde cinema such as the films of Stan Brakhage.
The new millennium brought even more changes for Ida, and they signed on with another indie label, Tiger Style Records. Finally, Will You Find Me, the record that they made on Capitol's dime, was given a proper release and received much critical acclaim. As per usual, the band toured incessantly with His Name Is Alive, Low, and Shannon Wright that year. During the tour, they finished the last touches of The Braille Night, which would see a release in 2001. And, as luck would have it, the following road outing saw the return of Michael Littleton on drums.
Other than 2002's remix disc on Defever's Time Stereo label entitled Shhh..., Ida decidedly took a back seat to the band's many side projects. Schickele split off temporarily to pursue her solo career under the k. moniker, releasing New Problems and 2002's Goldfish. And along with recording, she opened a record store in Brooklyn with Matthew Littleton.
Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Littleton, married in 1999, also found their hands full with the birth of their daughter in 2001. And having taken on the parenting role with full commitment, they also continued to play You Are My Flower shows for kids. Their side project, Nanang Tatang, released Muki in August of 2003 on Tiger Style Records.
by Ken Taylor