The Violettes: An international musical bouquet
Wednesday 19 May @ 13:49:26
by Tom Hallett
"I always wanted to sing, even when I was little, and my mom said, ‘You can't be a singer, because they don't make any money.’ And she was serious, but I ignored her." Minneapolis singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Khan laughs—she laughs a lot, a light, half-nervous titter that's both endearing and infectious—but the weight of her statement hangs in the air long after her chuckles have subsided.
Khan, a Twin Cities native, did take her mother’s advice (sort of), and as a backup for her rock ’n’ roll dreams, studied philosophy and the arts at the U of M, only to find that her career choices weren't much more lucrative than the life of an itinerant pop singer were.
"I figured that out when I got out!" she laughs again, and continues brightly, "Right now I'm in my third year of law school. That might help the band, you know? It's good, actually, it works with my personality. Me and a few friends are probably going to start a firm when we graduate; Our own practice. And we'll do pro bono work for the arts and entertainment community, as well. It's kind of a way to give back to the community, because I think I understand entertainment in a way that a lot of other attorneys don't. And no one else will take (musicians) because they don't have any money!" (laughs)
The longer I talk with Sarah, the more I hear that hopeful, honest laugh, the easier it is to understand the almost tangible positive vibes running through her latest musical offering, 2004's self-released, Brian Hanna-produced album, The Violettes. Like a bouquet of the bruised, beautiful blue-ish-purple flowers it's named after, the band (Khan on lead vocals and keyboards, Scott Haughawout on drums, Mark Ilaug on guitar and sitar, and John Ancell on bass and cello) exudes a mysterious, exotic aura that flourishes just as well in bright sunlight as it does in dim, damp evening shadows. And Sarah, as both the centerpiece of the arrangement (literally and figuratively) and its chief nurturer, balances her roles with an ease and grace that suggests she was born for the task.
The law student/vocalist grew up musically influenced equally by her Pakistani father (a fan of both The Bee Gees and Indian pop), her love of Karen Carpenter's and Stevie Nicks' throaty pipes, and Neil Young's straightforward songwriting style, and those disparate forces eventually melded with her own inherent artistic leanings to create the completely original niche she and the rest of the band have laid claim to.
Her voice fills with pride when she mentions her father's impact on her musical upbringing. "My dad is from Pakistan. So I grew up with a very different musical ... I didn't even know who the Beatles were until I was a teenager. He listened to a lot of disco and Indian music, and that's what I grew up with. He remembers the names of all the Indian songs and groups, but I just remember the music. It's really old, not like the Bollywood music that you hear now, which I love, but my dad loves all of it. I picked some up in England a few years ago, and he loved it. He'd always tell me, well, this song is about a camel. (laughs) And I didn't really know what it was referring to, but I always enjoyed it. And he likes our new record!"
She got her first guitar at age 15, and immediately began trying to pen her own tunes. "I used to write poems, but I could never get them to work as songs! (laughs) Then I started playing with other musicians, and I started figuring out the whole concept of songwriting. I played a lot, wrote a lot. Me and Scott had played in a couple of bands together before. We were playing with this bass player, and he said he knew a guitar player. And Mark came down, and he didn't have a guitar, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, great guitar player, he doesn't even have a guitar!’"
(laughs) "So I gave him mine and he started playing and I thought, ‘Wow, he's really good.’ We eventually got rid of the bass player, and tried for about a year and couldn't find one. I had this bass that I used for writing, so I just plugged it into the PA and started playing. So I said, ‘OK, I'll play bass!’ And we played like that for about a year. I thought maybe I'd like John (Ancell) from the band Ruth Buzzy. And then when that band broke up, we had him over for beers, and there were only two beers. (laughs) And Mark and Scott asked him, ‘Will you be in our band?’ And he said yes, but now he always brings his own beer to practice!"
"I went through the grunge era," she recalls when asked about other songwriting influences over the years, "with Nirvana and Alice In Chains, then I got out of that and listened to The Verve, and The Jesus And Mary Chain, ... and actually, we did tour for our first two records through Chicago and New York, and the scenes were very different there. Kind of ahead of where we were. So I took a lot from that, and when I came back, I realized that Minneapolis wasn't the end of the world. I started paying more attention to independent music."
Those early road trips surely served her well, but she's charmingly self-effacing when it comes to her own natural talents—Khan's almost otherworldly knack for lyrically capturing a mood, along with her stunningly gorgeous voice, is only enhanced by the fact that she is, without a doubt, a genuinely good soul. And that's a powerful combination in today's lackluster, cookie-cutter pop world.
Drummer par excellence Haughawout, who's been playing with Sarah around the area for the better part of a decade (the band started as Jonas, but changed monickers after discovering that name was already in use by a California outfit), couldn't agree more.
"Yeah, it's definitely the most challenging thing I've ever played in. When you play for awhile you get kind of settled into things, and you miss the challenge."
The challenge with The Violettes being, of course, that the music is so complex, so vivid, and so uncharted, that even the band members themselves couldn't think of a genre tag name for it. Trip-Hoppin' Roll? Trance-International Dance Rock? Theme music for a Jarmusch film about a bizarre, post-apocalyptic space journey? One thing's for sure—this music is BIG—it's deep and driving, hypnotic and enveloping, and if it does nothing else, it'll make you feel.
Bass-player/cellist John Ancell, the last to join the band, was a fan of the other three before he ever met them. After moving to Minneapolis from Iowa with a former member of the locally popular outfit House Of Large Sizes, he came across Jonas quite by accident and was floored by their live show.
"[I was in a local band, and] we ended up playing a show with Jonas one night at the Terminal Bar. I saw them and I felt like Eric Clapton after seeing Hendrix, because they were such a great band, I was really impressed by them. They had a really amazing chemistry and sound, and they were just such great people. The first thing I thought was, why are these guys here? They blew me away."
The Violettes’ latest is a veritable cornucopia of sounds, styles and grooves, the quartet’s usual guitar/bass/drums/vocals approach augmented by soul-stirring sitar, eerie flute, mind-melting keyboards, tight, trenchant drum loops, and haunting, airy cello parts. The songs themselves run the gamut; from the in-your-face, power-rock blast of the opening track, "Blue Hearted Fool," to the dreamy, ethereal lushness of "Jugamuga," to the bass-thumpin’, booty-bumpin’ beats of "Heavenly White Roses" to the French dance-hall lilt of "1-2-3 Go!" right on through to the sitar-laden international flavor of the remaining tracks, the album literally holds something for fans of almost every genre of modern music.
I tell guitarist Ilaug that the addition of sitar to this batch of indescribably beautiful music takes the songs to an almost spiritual plane, and he's quick to agree.
"Oh, it’s a completely different thing. The only real similarities (with the guitar) is that there are strings, but as far as physically playing it, and the musical structure, [it] is completely different. Yeah, spiritual—that's a good way to put it. You find once you start playing Eastern music that it goes way deeper, way beyond Western music and definitely into a more spiritual thing that you take with you e ven when you're not playing."
The band plays both "Soft" (stripped-down gigs with acoustic instruments, cello, sitar, flute, and tabla) and "Hard" (full-blown electric rock sets) shows, and are currently performing around town in support of their new album. They plan to possibly do some touring in the fall, and are excited by the positive reactions of local fans, radio, and a reliable distributor to this latest collection. Khan has no illusions about the workings of the music biz, but is typically upbeat about the future of The Violettes and her songwriting career.
"Well, we're a working band, we don't have rich families or access to money. And I think it's hard when you don't know where to put your money (when you're in a band) and sometimes you put it in the wrong place and lose it. So this time out, we decided to put a lot of it into the recording."
She pauses, laughs that slightly self-conscious, infectious laugh again, and then continues earnestly.
"Because if you can't listen to the record and like it, no one else is going to like it. It's your record! I like this record. I can put it in and listen to it all the way through, and I don't feel like stopping. And I think what comes to a head on this record is that it's different than anything we did before. If you're going to spend this much money and time doing it, you should like every song."
I do, Sarah, and I betting that a lot of other people are gonna, too.
The Violettes “Soft Show” play on Fri., May 22, at the Kitty Cat Klub with Jessy Greene. 9 p.m. $5. 21+. 315 14th Ave. SE, Mpls. 612-331-9800.
They play again on Fri., May 29, at the Uptown Bar in a rare back to back performance of their rock and soft show incarnations. 9 p.m. $4. 21+. 3018 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls. 612-823-4719.
For more info on The Violettes, visit their official website.
Download an mp3 of The Violettes’ song Jugumuga.