Angela McCluskey is gifted at creating environments. A country French villa in her former Los Feliz home; a tented songwriter’s retreat on the roof of the same; a poet’s muted boudoir in her New York City apartment.
She did the same at the Django in Manhattan’s Roxy Hotel. A 1920s speakeasy she called Time Warp, the event took place a few times, three of them at the already flavorful, Parisian ‘50s jazz club-like space. Her latest solo album, The Roxy Sessions, was partially inspired by these evenings, and named after the hotel which provided McCluskey a luxury suite in which to create, but there is much more to it than that.
McCluskey’s soulful voice, through which the ghost of Billie Holiday speaks, is endlessly piped through eateries of all kinds, as well as stores, hotel lobbies and on satellite radio. This is primarily from when she was the main vocalist for French electronic group Télépopmusik. That’s her on “Breathe” — initially made universally recognizable from the 2003 Mitsubishi commercial — and “Don’t Look Back,” later sampled (with McCluskey credited as featured vocalist) on Kendrick Lamar’s “Is It Love.” In recent times, McCluskey’s crackling tone has been burning up dance floors, on Morgan Page’s “In the Air,” Paul Oakenfold’s “You Could Be Happy,” and Big Gigantic’s “The Little Things,” which was featured on the trailer for season two of the hit show, Empire.
Before all this, McCluskey fronted Los Angeles-based folk-rock group Wild Colonials, with whom she released three albums in the ‘90s. The group will be reuniting as the support act for McCluskey when she headlines the Troubadour on this Friday.
“Every day, 10 times a day, from all around the world,” the Scottish-born McCluskey chuckles throatily, speaking of the messages she receives from friends whenever her voice is interjected into their daily lives. She quotes Michael Stipe's statement about her: “Everyone’s heard her voice, but no one knows who she is,” once again chuckling.
“I am not interested in being a pop star. It’s an awful life. You can’t really have fun. You have 17 handlers. You can’t buy a pint of milk. I’ve got very, very famous friends. They desperately want to have a great night out and go crazy, but it’s impossible. You have to keep up this weird perfection. You can’t do anything wrong.”
McCluskey isn't exaggerating when she says she has “very, very famous friends.” She’s godmother to Lily Allen as well as to Elvis’ granddaughter, actress Riley Keough. If you had the good fortune to attend any one of the musical salons at her previous Los Feliz home, the original speakeasy from which Time Warp got its inspiration, you could have bumped into anyone. From Moby to Alan Cumming, Daryl Hannah to Courtney Love, everyone was comfortable and themselves at McCluskey's parties, which she co-hosted with her husband and Wild Colonial bandmate, composer/multi-instrumentalist Paul Cantelon.
The Roxy Sessions got its start at this time, in spurts, with McCluskey’s longtime musical partner, Kiran Shahani (Supreme Beings of Leisure, Bitter:Sweet), with whom she began work on the album back in 2009. “When I look back on it, it’s like a document of my obsessions since 2009,” she says. “‘You and Me’ and ‘Paris to Hollywood’ is Françoise Hardy and ‘60s pop. Then I was into Ennio Morricone, so I’ve got ‘Big,” and then a wee bit more modern like Massive Attack with ‘What About Us’ and ‘Or Is It Me.’ ‘Electric Sky’ is my attempt at an electronic dance record. Then I did 'Don’t Mind the Rain' for Boardwalk Empire, which brought ‘Let’s Get Lost.’ James Bond inspired ‘Turn Out the Lights,' dirty ‘60s surf guitar inspired ‘Hit and Run.’
“After the whole thing was done, I thought, ‘How in God’s name is this all going to work?’” she continues. “Going from dub reggae to ‘20s electro-swing, the musicality, the stories, the genres, the way it winds in and out, it all ends up in the right place. It’s held together by my voice but also, it’s so joyful. All my solo records are melancholy and dark. I’m over that. There’s not a melancholy moment on this album, which is what I love about it. It’s my life story in music.”
It may be true that McCluskey is only visually recognized by famous people, but she's fine with that. “People say to me, ‘I can’t believe you never made it,’” McCluskey says. “I say, 'But I did make it.' I’ve made 12 albums. I got a Grammy nomination. I’ve met everybody in the world. I’ve spent my whole life singing. I’ve never done anything else. What’s ‘making it?’ Being Taylor Swift? I’ve managed to have it both ways. I’ve had my cake and eaten it.”
Angela McCluskey and Wild Colonials play the Troubadour this Friday, Sept. 30.