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Those Darlins' Jessi Zazu hosts her first art exhibit

Real Wild Child

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"I make myself look as ugly as I feel, and once I can look at it and accept it, I move on."

Jessi Zazu can say heartbreaking shit. When she's fronting local rock band Those Darlins, her words are framed in the structure of a pop song, and that contrast ends up being kind of funny. But the self-portraits she draws in front of her mirror on big sheets of cheap copy paper don't have a melody to sweeten them. They're raw, and, as Zazu says, "It feels like standing there, naked, waiting for people to look at me."

She's the only girl in a family full of boys, and sexuality and gender figure pervasively in her work, whether it's musical — as in the line, "I may have girlie parts / But I got a boy's heart," which she snarls like a pissed-off punk over the twangy, upbeat "Be Your Bro" — or artistic. She's topless in several of these drawings, but her features are more grotesque than sexy, like an Egon Schiele sketch with rows of lines scratched around her eyes. In other works, Zazu has emphasized her masculine features — a technique she learned from her mother, Kathy Wariner, who is also an artist. (Zazu's full name is Jessi Zazu Wariner. She uses the surname Zazu as an artist, and adopts Darlin as a musician.)

In fact, both her parents have degrees in art. But Zazu's always known her family trade is music. Her uncle is country musician Steve Wariner, and her grandfather taught her how to play guitar when she was 9. Now 24, Zazu has just finished her third album with Those Darlins, who have been profiled in Rolling Stone, Spin and a 2009 Scene cover story.

For her exhibit Spit at Ovvio Arte, Zazu pulled dozens of drawings she swears she never meant to show anyone — mostly self-portraits, but also drawings of friends like Adia Victoria and bandmate Nikki Darlin. Could Spit be a publicity stunt for the forthcoming album? Sure. (Check the Scene's music blog, Nashville Cream, for a similarly risqué depiction of Those Darlins and the outrage it caused on a wall outside Grimey's.)

But Zazu, whose ongoing Hunting for Heroes series has already caught the attention of local art lovers, is genuinely talented. The sketches aren't masterworks, nor are they meant to be, but they hint at an obsessive creativity and an eye for what makes work original.

Spit's organization is purposefully haphazard, as though the work has been chewed up and spit against the wall. "I like the way it's clustered," Zazu says with a drawl just before the drawings have been installed. "It reminds me of the way I live my life. Everything's tacked up as I go."

"Some of the paper has wrinkles, some of it is ripped, there's fingerprints and smudges, and that's a big part of it for me," she says as she scans the drawings scattered across the floor. "I don't value it, except for the moment that I do it. I get everything I need out of it when I draw it, and the rest is not for me."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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