Inara George, in a ’60s mini–shift dress with blousy gossamer sleeves, fluttered her false eyelashes as she sang and strummed softly on her bass guitar, a headband over her bangs and bobbed hair. She has the kind of crystal-clear, honey-toned voice that many singers would die for. Meanwhile, Greg Kurstin, in a crisp suit and tie, sat at his orange-painted Wurlitzer tickling out the tunes. The pair known as the Bird and the Bee were joined onstage at the Troubadour, for the release of their first full-length CD, by three backup singers — a blonde, a redhead and a brunette — all fresh-faced with ribboned pigtails, sweetly dressed in identical pale-orange baby-doll dresses. Something about the old wooden stage, the backup singers, the stylish look of the production was very Prairie Home Companion meets ’60s Brazilian electro-pop jazz. The band, known for its psychedelic, Burt Bacharach–inspired sound, was very put together, unusually so for something that started out as a mere back-burner project.
A lot of that polish comes from statuesque Italian designer Valerj Pobega, who happened to catch the band during their residency at the Silverlake Lounge.
“I thought they were fabulous,” says Pobega, raising a Sophia Loren–esque brow. She went home that night to check out their Web site and was so pleased to see them all dressed up in ’60s clothes. “The ’60s are my main inspiration, so I contacted Inara and Greg and told them that if they ever needed help, I’d be happy to do it.”
Pobega, who takes styling projects on a case-by-case basis, designs a line called KG363, a one-of-a-kind mixed-vintage collection that is sold at EM & Co., on Third Street. George’s dress and the backup singers’ baby-dolls at the CD-release show were the work of Pobega. That show also included a first-ever dress change for George so they could squeeze in one more Pobega design. It was a shimmery black frock with a plunging ruffled neckline.
“I had never done a costume change before,” says George, who now sits Indian style, dressed in skinny jeans, ballet flats and an orange sweater. She laughs because the notion is still foreign to her. It’s two weeks after that Troubadour show, and we’re hanging out in Kurstin’s new house in the Los Feliz hills. It’s modern and clean, with big glass windows and a high swank factor.
“When you go to a Bird and the Bee show,” explains George, “it’s kind of fun and the presentation is fun. I’d prefer to go to a Bird and the Bee show rather than one of my solo shows.”
Three years ago, producer/musician Mike Andrews introduced the pair, suggesting that Kurstin, who’s played with lots of artists, from Beck to Gwen Stefani, lay down some tracks on George’s record All Rise. Musically, it was love at first listen. After their very first rehearsal, they went through every old standard they knew.
“It’s fun going through songs,” says Kurstin, easing back in his chair behind the mixing board in his home studio. “It’s like this other language you know, and you converse during a sing-along.”
It wasn’t long before Kurstin started playing shows with George. “At the end,” he says, smiling, “we’d sneak in a standard, and that was really fun. We’d do a Prince song or an interesting cover. We were recording at the same time, but not really realizing we’d have a record out.”
The pair recorded off and on for three years. Last year, they finally decided to just finish the record. George (whose father, Lowell George, co-founded the band Little Feat and was a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) printed up a few CDs to give to friends and to send to indie labels. She created little packages, gluing on pictures and inking the paper with a Bird and the Bee stamp.
“Somehow,” George says, “it got to somebody at Blue Note, and they really liked it and wanted to sign us before we even had a chance to send it to the indie labels.”
Next thing they knew, they were on Leno. “I’ve never done anything like that,” says George, fiddling with the collar on her cowl-neck sweater. “It’s very nice, you feel very high on the hog.”
Kurstin sits up and adds, “Actually, it crossed my mind a lot of times, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’re doing this,’ because we just started. I thought maybe like five years down the road, maybe, if this thing grows, we’d be doing something like this. But I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.”
With the success of the Bird and the Bee, George has put her solo project on hold for a Bird and the Bee tour through the U.K. and the U.S. with Lily Allen, who was an early fan.
“She’s so cute,” says George of Allen. “She found us on MySpace — she had written to her fans about us, saying, ‘This is my new favorite band, you gotta check this out — this chick’s melodies and voice are amazing.’ ”
George asked Pobega to design costumes for the tour, more out of necessity at first. “It’s so hard to get everybody dressed when all you want to do is tune your bass and get ready,” says George. “So I called her up, and she already had some outfits made — the dresses we wore at the Troubadour.” Pobega has amassed a large collection of vintage pieces already for her line, and spent the past three years buying in London, Paris and Milan, then repurposing the pieces, mixing them into new ones. Shirts can become dresses and dresses become skirts.
“I used to get a lot of stuff from the Rose Bowl, but it’s not like it was in the beginning anymore,” says Pobega. “The best places here now are in Burbank or at the Santa Monica Vintage Expo.”
Pobega has a strong artistic eye. Her parents are ceramicists and artists — she started working with clay herself as a teenager — and, like her husband, Biagi, she was a model who left the business to explore her more creative side. She knew she had talent.
“I’d create my own dresses and wear them to castings; designers would always say, ‘That’s amazing, where did you get that?’ ”
She took their encouragement and enrolled at a fashion school in Rome.
“But it’s not really about school,” she says. “It’s about experience. What I do is more than a passion, it’s a lifestyle.”
George is loving having Pobega onboard. “It makes it fun. The music is fun and the presentation is fun. It’s kind of like World War II, when everyone just wanted to go see movies that made them feel good rather than bad.” She pauses and adds, “Maybe we are of our time?”
Kurstin laughs, and in a mocking, documentarianlike voice, he says, “The Bird and the Bee get political.” George laughs too.
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“When you’re playing music that comes from a personal place, to get dressed up might seem strange,” George says. “But for us, this is part of it. Our way of joining the pop thing. But we have a sense of humor about it. It’s a little outrageous rather than just being pop people. I guess we just really went for it with this project, but it’s just a costume. It’s not the way we are in real life.”
Kurstin sort of disagrees: “Well, I think there’s a part of us that is like that, and [the clothes] allow us to bring that side out. There’s a part of me who wants to be the guy who’s dressed up all the time.”
George concedes, nodding in agreement. “It ups the ante a little bit,” she says. “The more ridiculous it gets, the more fun it gets.”
Valerj Pobega’s KG363 designs can be found at EM & Co., 7940 W. Third St., L.A., (323) 782-8155. For more info on KG363, check Pobega and husband Mattia Biagi’s Web site, kg363.com. For the Bird and the Bee tour dates and other info, check www.myspace.com/thebirdandthebee or http://thebirdandthebee.com.