Former Gram Rabbit frontwoman Jesika Von Rabbit is one of Los Angeles’ great musical one-offs. She’s simultaneously pop and art, accessible and avant-garde. She’s a mass of contradictions in the most glorious way and her influences, which touch on everything from ’80s MTV pop to ’70s tie-dye psychedelia, betray that very thing. In the live environment, she excels. She’s part Berlin chanteuse, with dabs of Nico, and part performance artist. She’s also a force of nature, and a local gem.
Von Rabbit’s second solo album, Dessert Rock, is released on Sept. 14 on Dionysus Records (the label owned by her bass player Lee Joseph). Between 2003 and 2013, she put out six full-lengthers with Gram Rabbit — really wonderful, inventive psychedelic rock. But since going it alone, starting with 2015’s excellently titled Journey Mitchell, she’s developed as a songwriter, a singer and a performer.
“I think vocally I get a little bit more free with my voice as I get older,” she says. “I know how it works and I’m very confident. I don't know if it’s changed a lot, but I’m always open to trying out different voices that maybe I haven’t used before. Writing-wise on this album, it’s maybe more of a full band experience and not just an electronic album. The last one was a lot more electronic programming, keys, my voice and some bass and guitar but mostly just, like, me alone in a studio making everything. With this, I produced it with Ethan Allen [also of Gram Rabbit]. I demoed it all up here at Joshua Tree and then I brought it to Ethan in L.A., and he laid a bunch of great rock guitar on it, real drums, so it’s a much fuller, more expansive sound. So getting to be in the studio with him again definitely expanded the sound and made it more panoramic and full.”
Von Rabbit says, in fact, that Dessert Rock pretty much picks up where Gram Rabbit’s 2012 final album, Welcome to the Country, (and 2013 EP Braised & Confused) left off.
“The writing on this album, I’m all over the place,” she says. “I like a lot of different sounds and genres. I go from one genre to another, but I feel like I have an underlying sonic motif. I’m the consistent between every song. One has1960s organ, and then a little bit eastern Indian and hip-hop, then another one is more psychedelic. I don’t try to do that — I just write what comes out of me. Sometimes it’s all over the place, but it does work together when you find a way to fit it.”
That’s Von Rabbit in a nutshell. A mass of ideas and sounds that, in lesser hands, would feel forced together. A pile of stuff thrown into a pot with the hope that something tasty resulted. Not so here — Von Rabbit knows exactly what she’s doing. She has a magical ability to take seemingly incompatible elements and make them seem like comfortable bedfellows. It’s always been that way, though Von Rabbit says that there are differences between the music of Gram Rabbit and JVR.
“I think my writing was always a little bit more whimsical,” she says. “I do a lot of wordplay and I think I paint more of a picture with my writing. ‘The Mushroom Haired Girl,’ for example — I’m always from the slightly sillier side of things. I still have some serious messages in songs — 'Children of the Dust' is a post-apocalyptic song. I’m kind of a little bit more colorful and whimsical than maybe Gram Rabbit as a whole. The other writer in the band [Todd Rutherford] was a little bit more serious — deep and beautiful, but I would write the songs 'Bloody Bunnies' or 'Charlie’s Kids,' about the children of Charles Manson. I take serious matters but make them a bit more fun and cheeky.”
“Whimsical” and “cheeky” is right, but the yin to that yang is the undeniable depth that she manages to inject into everything. This new album is no different. The aforementioned “The Mushroom Haired Girl,” for example, is about a female singer Von Rabbit saw performing at the Joshua Tree Saloon.
“She had hair in the shape of a mushroom, and I just created this whole character in my head of who she was and wrote a song based off of that,” she says. “The song ‘Innuendo’ is about the political unrest of our zeitgeist. Everything’s a mess. The fighting. When is it going to calm down? We need to come together and love again. That was my little ode to the current state of the world. ‘Make Me Feel Better’ is another personal one about me and my struggles with depression or just life getting down on you. ‘Palm Springs Livin’’ is obviously an ode to Palm Springs because I love the city. It’s such a colorful place and this town makes me want to write a song about it. Every song has its story. I skip around from whatever is on my mind to whatever I’m inspired by at the moment.”
On Saturday, Sept. 15, Von Rabbit will host a launch party for Dessert Rock at La Luz De Jesus gallery inside of Wacko in Los Feliz. Prior to that, on Sunday, Sept. 9, she plays at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach. It’s a regular haunt for her — a room she returns to again and again.
“I love playing there.” she says. “The fans there are really enthusiastic. I believe in the numerology of where I’m playing because there are some rooms that, no matter how rehearsed the band is, and I’m set up to have a good show, that I can never have a good show in. Even though there might be people in the crowd that are like, ‘What are you talking about? It was great.’ I know my good shows from my bad shows. There are certain longitude and latitude points where I’m supposed to be performing at, and some I’m not. Alex’s Bar is one that I’m supposed to be at and hopefully I’ll keep that up. I really like being there — I really love Alex the owner, and he seems happy to have me back. It’s always nice to go where you’re wanted and liked.”
After that, the Los Angeles launch party will see the album played through a PA while dancers dance, desserts are served (in honor of the title, Dessert Rock) and projections are projected. There will be an acoustic performance, and CDs, vinyl and shirts will be sold. It’ll be a wonderful, arty circus. Considering it’s a Jesika Von Rabbit event, that’s entirely appropriate.
Jesika Von Rabbit plays with SPINDRIFT, Bella Novella and Rats in the Louvre at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9, at Alex’s Bar.