Around Echo Park, it's easy to bump into Cecilia Della Peruti. She's always in the aisles of Lassens or ambling down Echo Park Avenue. Born in New Jersey, she's been ingrained in L.A.'s fabric since arriving at the age of 11. At her gig at Resident in downtown L.A. this past June, the room was crammed with friends from other bands. Sitting outside a coffee spot this afternoon, she's approached by a drummer who reacts as if she's seeing a long-lost childhood friend.
“Oh, we've never met before,” Peruti says afterwards. The pair follow each other on Instagram.
Turning up with a wet head and a sponge-bath brain today, she's recovering from a few weeks on the road as a guitarist for Beck, a last-minute gig too good to pass up. Though Peruti's reputation as a hired gun is stellar, that's a facet of her life she's trying to reform. Having released her debut album, Fast or Feast, last May as Gothic Tropic (a name she's recorded under since 2011), she's sworn to herself that all her energy is focused on her own music now. But there are some offers you can't refuse. “If it's Paul McCartney, I can't say no,” she says with a smile. “When I'm being the artist, that feels like my truth. But it feels stupid, too. I know logically it's dumb as fuck to say no to a job.”
When she talks about Beck, she seems unfazed. “I know people who take a jet and the band takes the bus. Beck takes the bus! He roughs it with us.” The gig came about because Beck was shown one of Gothic Tropic's music videos and invited her to audition. It went excellently. “I ripped a solo on 'E-Pro' and Beck turned around and went, 'Yeah!' And I was like, 'Cool! I think this is going well.'”
Fast or Feast is an enormous treat; it contains psychedelic freakouts (“If It Had a Body”), jangly earworms (“Stronger”) and classic '70s melodies (“Feed You to the Sharks”). It's littered with examples of how life can be shitty and then good again, before it pisses itself up the wall once more. It could have been called Sink or Swim and chimes with the experience of many 27-year-olds, checking in on where they're at before the big 3-0. The sound is unabashedly pop but with no linear influences. “I don't know what pop is,” she says, bemused. “Right now I'm listening to the SZA record, but I'm not gonna write a SZA album. Like — I love everything.”
Gothic Tropic was born years ago from a similarly unscripted place of love. “It was this side project for me to get my kicks,” she says — an excuse to play shows, the first of which was at the Echo Park Independent Co-op, a now-shuttered clothing store. “The point was that I could give it this absurd name and we wouldn't care about creating a Facebook page or whatever.”
Peruti put out a little Gothic Tropic EP, Awesome Problems, in 2011. Then the project lay mostly dormant. While touring with Børns for two years, Peruti had written enough songs to make a full-length. However, it took other people to make her do it. “I have negative ego,” she admits. “If you tell me something's good, it gets me closer to zero.”
One of those people was Todd Dahlhoff, her producer. She met him when both were touring in Night Terrors of 1927, a short-lived indie-pop project featuring ex–Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett. “He was like, 'I've never produced a record before but I'd love to.' I was like, 'I've never made a full-length record before but I'd love to.'” Whenever they were in L.A., they'd work on what became Fast or Feast. They had 19 days in the studio in total. Despite knowing deep down that she's proud of the results, Peruti remains anxious about putting her music forward — a habitual attitude she's had since childhood.
The Perutis are a musical dynasty. Mom was an opera singer, dad a jazz composer. Music wasn't Peruti's first love, though. “My forte was fine art forever,” she says. “My mom's a huge personality with a crazy ego. She's worn boas non-ironically, you know what I mean?” It seems odd at first that Peruti describes herself as being “shy.” She's a contagious personality — talkative, smiley, full of vim. But there was a time when she kept her music secret. “Maybe I thought I didn't wanna step on my parents' toes? It was totally irrational.”
When she was around 18, she told her folks she'd been making music in her bedroom for most of high school. “My mom cried,” she remembers. “When my dad saw me play in Gothic Tropic for the first time, he was analyzing my songs. He'd never seen anything like it. It was blowing his mind.”
She reasons that there's also a purism about her that's made her reticent to get serious about her own songwriting. “Music and I have this cathartic, gnostic relationship. I figured if I made it my work …” Her thoughts wander and she sighs. “This happens. It's happening right now a bit. It becomes harder to have clarity on songwriting and jamming. It fogs up your relationship. So much of growing as an artist is not letting that happen, finding the balance.”
There's a lack of orthodoxy to Peruti reminiscent of some of her peers who have had successful breakthroughs. Warpaint spring immediately to mind. “I can tell Emily [Kokal] approaches playing similar to how I do. A lot of women do. It feels like they have a wider lens,” she says. “Men have this technical approach. Women have a more holistic approach. You can always get technical after you've mastered your own cool thing.” Beyond watching YouTube clips of Television when she was younger, she's had no tutelage. “Really I've been getting away with it,” she says. “People think I'm a trained player, but you don't need to know anything to play solos.” For Peruti, it's all about feeling.
“The more you do the thing that you love, the more you learn about it,” she continues. Recalling one of the most important lessons she learned, she remembers a time in arts school when her class completed a massive project. “After we'd showcased it, the teacher said, 'OK, rip it up!' and we had to destroy it.” Many classmates cried but not Peruti.
“For me, it was like a drug, like, 'Oh my God, that is crazy!' But I got it. You can't be too precious.” Finally heeding her own advice, it looks like Peruti is ready to rip it up and start again.
Gothic Tropic's Fast or Feast is out now on Old Flame Records.