Delve into the history behind the expression torch singer and Abby Travis will give you dead silence. “I don‘t know where that term comes from,” the 31-year-old vocal stylist–instrumentalist says between puffs on a Gauloise. “Because they’re ever burning?” Seems the only things Travis has in common with those sultry femmes of yore are gender and piano accompaniment, and with as much chesty stamina as velvety come-on, she‘s more crooner than chanteuse. She does some great buh-buh-buh Bing Crosby too, but she doesn’t smoke a pipe.
Some have labeled Travis a Marlene Dietrich impersonator, not because her recent disc, Cutthroat Standards & Black Pop, sounds anything like the famed performer, but those peepers offset with kohl eyeliner and those Folies Bergere corsets do conjure Weimar-era decadence. “I‘m more into those who mention Julie London,” she says, “because she’s someone I consciously tried to emulate, the way she‘s not really trying at all and she’s very conversational. I love Marlene as a movie star, and her delivery is great, but she‘s not really a singer-singer.” A friend once advised Travis to think less about the tune and more about the words and who she was singing to, which planted the seed for her vocal evolution. “That really opened my head up and helped me to sing a lot better.”
Released on Travis’ own Educational Recordings label, Cutthroat is essentially a meditation on death and unrequited love, but this endless bummer packs heat. The album‘s loaded with pithy snatches of language, chewy nuggets such as the bloody valentine “Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun”: “I’d point it at your arms and make you wrap them around meI‘d point it at your eyes and you’d give me the look of loveAnd wouldn‘t we be happy?” That tune was penned by Brian Grillo (Extra Fancy) when he and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) were in the short-lived Lock Up: “Their version was a total rocker, but I thought it would be great to do it like [Peggy Lee’s] ‘Fever.’ Her version with the finger snaps in it is the most famous, but my interpretation is a kind of fantastic take on lust and predatory sexual behavior: ‘I’d shoot you right in the nuts.‘ Not that I wish I had a physical gun.”
Gulp. Now, besides Dietrich, you often hear Ute Lemper and Travis mentioned together, perhaps because Travis sings part of “Have I Got a Deal for You” in German. “I just like singing in different languages, and I love waltz times. Plus, I really wanted to do that classic cabaret thing for that one song, where it’s just the singer and the piano” (played by musical partnerco-producer Kristian Hoffman). Some have even called Travis a young Diamanda Galas, but Travis is more va-va-voom than doom ‘n’ gloom. “I‘m more aggressive than the traditional torch singer.” Yeah, like in the driving, Queenesque “The Hate Song,” where she spews venom at her detractors. Still, it’s more camp than kampf.
With influences from George Jones to David Bowie, Travis pulls off her greatest trick by making the torch mode work in any setting she pleases, whether it‘s “Sunday Is the Day for Love”’s bossa whimsy, a plinky mandolin in “Of Eyes Remain” that‘ll have you squirting tears by the second verse, the soaring violins on “Everything’s Wonderful,” or the Old World concertina buzzing through “Monster.” Even the album‘s hidden track is a lilting a cappella of such seductive power, you don’t realize you‘ve been listening to some 20 minutes of it. “I was baby-sitting my niece when she was about 6 months old, and I took some background vocals, put them in my MPC 2000 sequencer and wrote her a lullaby.”
It’s tempting to take Travis for just a highfalutin goth girl abandoning Bauhaus for supper-club chic, but that wouldn‘t be fair in light of all the dues paying she’s done. She went through her punk phase, having founded the Rails back in the day, and has done more than her share of spot playing with Beck, the Meat Puppets, Elastica, KMFDM and others. Call her alt-rock‘s busiest floater musician. “That wasn’t about trying to be with the in-crowd,” she says. “It was so I could do music full time and make money.”
When in hometown L.A., Travis normally has a seven-piece band (as she did at the Knitting Factory recently), but expenses keep her from bringing them on tour, so it‘s just her and Hoffman on the road, which hasn’t presented a problem: “Our songs are all written around the piano anyway,” she says, “but it‘s not a neo-cabaret revival.
”I just wanna do my own thing. When you hear my record, it’s not like, ‘Oh, straight-up ’20s music.‘ The way I write is a mix of stuff, and I’m not interested in defining it — too much analysis can stifle the muse.“
Abby Travis performs at Spaceland, Thursday, May 17.