Sisters With Voices: The L.A. Ladies Choir
“We have restrictions in every other place in our lives, so I wanted the choir to be a place where there are no rules, where we just enjoy each other,” says Aska Matsumiya, one of the two leaders, along with Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark, of the L.A. Ladies Choir. “Actually,” she says, correcting herself, we do have one rule: “Sing joyfully.”
In a city crammed with noise, punk, metal and thug bands, the L.A. Ladies Choir seems downright radical: a group that is exactly what its name implies. But that’s the simple truth: They seem to have no ulterior motives other than to spread the proverbial peace and love. For real, a fluttering, unironic rainbow of pastel-colored vintage dresses, genuine smiles and beautiful faces. (This isn’t a requirement in the Ladies Choir, just some freakish accident.) Upon closer inspection, what becomes obvious is that each member’s beauty is a result of Matsumiya’s golden rule.
Formed in January after what seems to be a fated meeting, the choir gave its first performance, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day at the Aaron Rose–curated show “Passion for the Possible” at the California State University Northridge Art Galleries. The exhibit’s focus was Sister Corita, a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Order, famous for her antiwar lithographs during the Vietnam War. She serves as a powerful source of inspiration for the group. “If the Ladies Choir was a religion, Sister Corita would be our god,” says Matsumiya, who also performs in Moonrats, AsDSSka and Aaron Rose’s band, the Sads.
Like many magical things in this world, the L.A. Ladies Choir came into being, in part, inside a different reality, Stark explains on the phone while on tour with the Decemberists, for whom she sings background. “I had this dream. In it, I needed a female pianist and a place for the choir to rehearse.” Her band mate in Lavender Diamond, Ron Rege Jr., had been urging her to start a choir. She recalls him saying, “‘You know so many women. You all need to sing together. You need to start a choir.”
Rege organized a small singing group for an installment of Arthur Fest, and shortly thereafter Stark put together an event at the Silent Movie Theatre. “I set up this whole carnival environment: kissing booth, raffle, and a fortunetelling booth. We had a crystal ball, lace curtains, but no one wanted to be the fortuneteller.” She suggested everyone tell their own fortunes, but soon people started approaching her to describe these amazing sessions they had just finished. “So I walked to the booth to see who was doing the fortunetelling, and it was Aska’s amazing 5-year-old daughter, Babel. She is the most amazing child. Then later at a show, Aska walks up to me and says, ‘Hi, do you remember me? My daughter was the fortuneteller. I’ve been thinking of starting a ladies choir; would you want to join me?’ It all came together. Aska and I had been having the same dream!”
The choir added members, and currently consists of a bevy of notable musicians, including Anna Oxygen; Kitty Jensen from Portland’s Parenthetical Girls; Diva Dompe from Black Black and Pocahaunted; supermodel (and Flea’s wife) Frankie Rayder; and an ever-growing roster of talented, dedicated women, not all of whom consider themselves trained musicians. They now carry the message in all aspects of the group’s work, from charity functions for the downtown women’s shelter to simply hanging out and rehearsing.
Membership is pretty much open. “I actually met Becky in a coffee shop and we were discussing holiday woes, and she said, ‘Why don’t you join the choir?’ ” member Tracy Hood recalls. “I walked in and all these wonderful women were singing, and I just went, ‘Whew, I’m at home.’ ”
The choir has attempted to capture that feeling on tape. Its first EP, produced by the legendary Jim Scott (who’s worked with everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dolly Parton to Wilco, Tift Merritt and Lavender Diamond), is called Sing Joyfully, and will be released in the fall.
Stark was inspired to form some sort of choir a few years ago, after she’d finished writing music for the Tom Hanks–produced film City of Ember, which came out last fall. “It’s this story about an underground city,” she explains. Her friend, the director Gil Kenan (whom she’d met at the Smell), recruited her for the project. “[He] asked if I wanted to write postapocalyptic children’s hymns for this movie. And I just said, like, ‘Yes!’ ”
Stark speaks in excited gasps over the phone. “Making the music for that film was the most unbelievable experience ever, and it left me totally wanting so much to make music with a choir. The experience of singing together is so powerful. I had choral parts I wanted to try, but I wanted it to be a ladies choir for myself and for the world.”
Matsumiya mirrored Stark’s sentiments recently while eating a goat cheese–and–balsamic vinegar salad at Sunset Junction’s Casbah Café. Looking every bit the mercurial L.A. wandering-Gypsy musician, the striking Matsumiya says the goal from the start was simple: “We wanted to create this positive feminine energy, not against anything, but just this beautiful energy of strength and power for something, by women.”
She and her band, the Moonrats, moved to L.A. from Seattle three years ago. “I have a daughter,” Matsumiya explains, “and I wanted her to grow up in the sunshine.” As well, they packed a bit of the DIY Northwest. Her presence alongside feminist performance artist and musician Oxygen and the dozen-odd others, with Stark’s mantra of peace and love, make for an interesting swirl of women and ideas commingling and rejoicing in the same room. One of their performance staples is a cover of Yoko Ono’s “Sister O Sisters,” with the chorus, “O sisters, o sisters, let’s give up no more/It’s never too late to build a new world.” Not exactly an apolitical song, this contrast between politics and agenda and an innocent, unbridled enthusiasm offers a curious tension.
The bonus, adds Pocahaunted’s Dompe, is community. “I never really had a large group of women friends. I’ve played in bands with boys, but here, I really look forward to coming in and relaxing and being around everyone. Everyone is so different.”
And yet when they gather, the differences combine to create a single, beautiful voice.
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