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Juliette Commagere's Vividly Orchestrated Art Pop

Commagère: Standing back to let the music happen
Joachim Cooder

You’ve perhaps seen singer-composer Juliette Commagère’s glamorous visage on local stages with her husband, Joachim Cooder, and their adventurous indie-rock combo, Hello Stranger. Maybe you’ve heard her singing or seen her Keytar-slinging exploits with Puscifer or Avenged Sevenfold. On her solo debut, Queens Die Proudly (Aeronaut Records), Commagère makes an especially savory kind of new pop, and all of the aforementioned interests combined perhaps hint at the uncliched gifts of the multihued Commagère, whose solo set is a vividly orchestrated pop-art gem.

In another, better world, Queens would slay all comers on its way to the top of the charts, given its memorable songs bestowed with evocative layers and twists via Commagère’s classically designed structures and sensual ’70s synth stylings. These songs gleam and sparkle, encourage fertile daydreams. A looping berimbau on the opening “Hearts” tantalizes with a kind of film-score Orientalism, which bursts full-blown into a synth-strewn trip to the moon. It just plain sounds different.

Queens’ brainy-sensuous experience is derived from numerous compositional processes that are somewhat explainable, though in attempting to offer glimpses, Commagère betrays the kind of near-blushing modesty characteristic of many of our most treasured artists. “I didn’t have any time constraints, really,” she says of her process, “and I really didn’t know what I was really even doing. The band had taken a bit of a break, and I just thought, I’ll just record a bunch of songs, and then it kept growing and growing. I was, like, Should I put this out?” She laughs. “It was a very free kind of experience.”

Take the song “Overcome.” Commagère’s multitracked voice, like a heavenly choir, eases into a sweet, simple melody, like she’s standing back to let the music happen — though Cooder’s Bonhamesque drums provide a wholly different texture. Crucially, she combines this ease and freedom with a forceful, very personal sense of symmetry, melody and harmony. The result is a tune that is somehow not just accessible but like something we’ve known our entire lives. Initially awash in hovering, twinkling keyboards, “Your Ghost” ventures, without warning, crash-boom into urgent synth pulses and whimsical detours through strange melodic alleys and ravines. Commagère’s finely articulated voice comes bursting through, reflecting with compressed passion (as she is wont to do) on loneliness, existence, time and mortality.

“It’s like my fantasy record,” she says. “I was, like, I don’t want to have any limits or worry about anything that anybody is saying. I wanted strings, I wanted horns, I just wanted to use everything.”

Which she does, in artfully crafted scores that could strike you as mere pleasant slices of heart-rending, toe-tapping pop were it not for the wildly strewn flying arrows of synths, guitar and drum parts, which typically clump together, dissolve into foam, then clump again to punch the air with defiance. “Nature of Things” builds on a slow, stately intro of brush drums over elegiac keyboard/organ, acoustic pluck and sundry wisps/strands/shards of evanescent sound; when the acoustic piano pairs with the lonesome wail of dad-in-law Ry Cooder’s coyote slide guitar, the hair on your neck stands up. And that Queens’ penultimate track, “Skyscraper,” hasn’t been declared Song of the Year at the Grammys or whatever is just wrong. This piece soars, cleanses, is a case study in perfect pop-song construction, a treatise on form and color. We’re sailing through the clouds: “We’re in, we’re in . skyscraper.” It’s a place you don’t want to leave.

The spaciousness of Commagère’s arrangements is relaxing but enveloping, an effect achieved mostly through her own calm charisma but aided by her expert sonic orchestration — knowing just how much to put in and how much to leave out. She achieves this in part from her background as a student of classical music, jazz and ethnomusicology at UCLA. Her father, too, is a classical pianist and producer (and her brother is singer-songwriter Robert Francis; her mother sang rancheras around the house).

“I’ve always been a good student,” she says with a laugh. “I was always able to sit down and study and do my homework, and classical music kind of lends itself well to that kind of study. You have to have a lot of patience for learning all that stuff.” She laughs. “This is the first time that I’ve actually been able to use what I’ve learned.”

There’s more than a hint of the melancholic in this music. One suspects that Commagère was feeling a bit, um, sensitive during its creation.

“I never really like to talk about depression,” she says with a shrug. “Whenever I feel like I write from that place, I don’t want to talk about it and sound whiny and self-indulgent — that’s something other people can do. I’ve always had trouble with that.” Yet she conquered her resistance. “It’s the first time that I’ve really written from that place and decided to not care what it sounded like. I just reached such a low point, for so many reasons. It’s just so hard being an artist, and there’re only a few options, and I just decided to try and keep my head up and write the songs and record them — I thought that would make me feel better.” She laughs.

It’s not that Commagère’s songs on Queens are bummers, by the way. She hits, consistently, a reflective, cathartic tone that puts the listener in a meditative place. Commagère uses the word patience to describe the process of putting her songs together, which is partially what’s striking about these compositions. There’s a serene persistence involved in their unfolding; everything is thought out; structurally, and on a purely sonic level, they drip with invention. That measured pacing of things — a “mature” way of making music — gives it a relatively adult feel.

“You know, I love rock & roll,” she says with a chuckle, “and I love when I see other people just being able to be completely free. But I have to honor what my strengths are, and that’s definitely with my ability to see something through, think it out, and put it down.”

Juliette Commagère performs every Monday in May at the Echo.


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