os Angeles' Lavender Diamond has been causing quite a stir since the early 2005 release of their self-pressed The Cavalry of Light EP. Over the course of four songs, vocalist Becky Stark revealed a tender, angelic voice that carried equal gravity in supplication and condemnation. With her crack backing band, Jeff Rosenberg (guitar), Steve Gregoropoulos (piano), and Ron Rege, Jr. (percussion), Stark created an alternate universe where peace, joy, and love are the rule—a genuine ray of light in the hipster-laden L.A. music scene. Stylus caught up with Stark during one of Lavender Diamond's rare forays to the east coast—opening for the Decemberists on their Fall Peace Concerts tour.
What was the extent of your classical training?
I grew up in Kensington, Maryland. I was in a children's theater, and after a play, a man approached me and my mother and offered to be my voice teacher. We didn't have any money for singing lessons, but the man, Richard Hartzell, offered to put me on scholarship. I was thirteen. I studied classical singing for five years and I devoted myself to that study—it meant the world to me. I studied musical theater and I entered classical singing competitions. The only thing is, I'm physically small to be a classical singer, and my ribcage is too small to sing professionally, and I had asthma. My teacher told me this when I was seventeen—that I would probably never make it as a classical singer because of my physical limitations—and I took it really hard. But he gave me some recordings and told me he thought I could be a pop singer, and I was pretty mad about that.
My family moved to Rockville, Maryland and I had some friends who were into the punk scene and they took me to see Fugazi and Nation of Ulysses.
I went to college at Brown in Providence, Rhode Island. I'd always really longed to be part of a music scene on a local level, and I'd lost my love for classical singing and music, so I put it aside for a little bit.
Did that happen between the time your teacher told you that you couldn't sing and the next four years?
Over the next year or two. It was like I'd lost my voice. I wanted to sing, but there was something about being a classical singer and using my voice to instrumentalize words that didn't necessarily have any meaning to me. I just didn't want to sing that way anymore. I had invested all this energy into being basically an instrumentalist, like a violinist or a pianist. I had invested all this energy into being a vocalist. Suddenly I had a political and spiritual awakening that I didn't want to sing songs that didn't have a real meaning for me. Seeing bands in DC that were singing songs that had meaning for them like Fugazi and Bikini Kill—for those bands, the music had a specific, present meaning. I could feel that. In classical music, it was almost like the bottom fell out. So for a couple of years when I went to college I didn't sing. But it left a hole inside of me, so I started a jazz quartet in Providence and started singing in a restaurant. I really need to sing for my health and wholeness, so I started singing jazz.
There's a really amazing scene in Providence. I owe Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson from Lightning Bolt and Fort Thunder so much. Brian Gibson and I became friends, as he went to RISD when I was at Brown. I was in school from 1994-1998. I met Brian Gibson at a restaurant where Jeff, our guitarist, was a waiter. Brian was always trying to get me to start a second Bauhaus movement in Providence. I didn't even know what Bauhaus was, but he explained to me about the unity of art and craft and how we'd have students. It was really inspiring to me. The first time Lightning Bolt ever played, I went to see their show and was so inspired—they were the most kind people in the world and there was a really beautiful spirit in Providence at the time. I had such a strong yearning to begin singing again and write music, and the first time I ever wrote music was under the influence of that community. I started writing crazy story operas, the first of which was called The Well Wall. About ten people came, but it was the first time I had been singing in a long time and I remember feeling so liberated.
I feel so thankful for being able to be in that community. Whatever crazy thing was going on, it was totally accepted and embraced. There was a circular tribal feeling, that creativity was the way of being human. Anybody's creativity was a powerful and positive way of being. I realized that I can write music and sing my own songs. I can utilize my skills as a classical singer and put that in the service of whatever stories I want to tell. I feel like now with this particular project, Lavender Diamond, it's a very fortunate confluence of circumstances that makes sense on a practical level to sing songs that have an energy and feeling and meaning of love and joy.
Do you feel like if you hadn't met those people in Providence that you wouldn't be writing your own songs?
Absolutely. If I hadn't ended up at Brown and been involved in that community with the artists at RISD and particularly the music community with Lightning Bolt and Black Dice and those experimental musicians—the noise scene—I wouldn't have found out about certain types of music. I was involved in the theater community, but it was not as open-minded.
How did you end up in Los Angeles?
From Providence, my boyfriend moved to Los Angeles for a few months to write scripts for Roger Corman. I got really sick in Providence with pneumonia, as it was cold and wet all the time and I had asthma, so my boyfriend suggested I move to California because it was warm and cheap at the time. It was a totally relaxed lifestyle. The main reason I moved was my health, but I found another great music scene in Los Angeles. The main thing about the noise scene in Providence is that there's a hyper-masculine quality to it. My first record, Artifacts of the Winged, I made for Load Records, and they didn't want anything to do with it. On a certain level, they had an understanding of what my contribution to the scene would be, but on another level they had no understanding at all. In Los Angeles, the noise/punk scene was an evolution from the Providence scene. People were more open to my message in Los Angeles. I met Steve (Gregoroplouls) in Los Angeles and people were playing classical music and I could just improvise and sing whatever I wanted to. I really felt like Los Angeles did more to broaden my musical development. I found a community that encompassed folk, classical, electronic, and pop musicians. It's a different brand of broad-mindedness. I miss Providence and it's a magical city, but I was pretty let down. When I started playing folk and it was noise, nobody really listened. I was initially inspired in Providence, but I didn't feel like I had much support, but that's not true in Los Angeles.
Where did you learn how to play guitar and can you play anything else?
I learned to play guitar from a book. I'm not a really good guitar player, I know about five chords, but you can play about any song on guitar with three chords. If you know five chords, you can play tons of things. I know piano a bit, when I was writing music I would play piano and guitar. But with our band, I'll just sing into the air and hear the chord, because the chords that I can hear are much more complex than what I can play. I can sing it and they can play it. Steve and Jeff are great instrumentalists. Maybe I'll play guitar live someday, but I've devoted so much time to being a skilled singer that as an instrumentalist there's only so much I can do... you know?
What are you primary influences?
Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, the Beatles. The guys in the band make fun of me because I say I love so much music. Quix*o*tic, Ted Leo, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses. In Kensington, I listened to Top 40 a lot, I remember Boy George and Human League on the radio. Right now I'm listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye and all the Motown stuff. There's so much to love in the history of pop culture. But probably my primary influence, if I had to get down to it as far as singing goes, is Ella Fitzgerald. From a mechanical standpoint, the singer who has physically been my teacher and who I listened to more than anyone else is Ella. I listened to her all the time and used to sing along a lot. And Cyndi Lauper—I love her singing. Those are my two most major influences. I listened to Maria Callas a lot when I was in high school, too.
Are you ever going to release Artifacts of the Winged again? It's just you on that record, right?
It's just me. The first Lavender Diamond record is a seven-inch record. I think I printed 200 of that record. Lavender Diamond was a character that I invented that was a bird, with the idea of a healing resonance. So there were two Lavender Diamond records before this EP (The Cavalry of Light), and the full-length album will be the first regular release as Lavender Diamond. But I've been doing work as Lavender Diamond for a couple of years. Matador is going to put out the EP and the new record in the states, and Rough Trade will put it out in Europe and re-release Artifacts of the Winged. I thought maybe we should re-record the EP. We did the best that we could and there certainly is a lot of love in that recording.
There's a really funny story about The Cavalry of Light. I had written all these songs and the four of us had started playing together, and we were playing maybe our fifth show together, and it was with Deerhoof in L.A. Someone at the show came up to me and offered to help me get the music out to more people to invest money. Brian Kaneda and Josh Scutari invested their independent money to make the record. We made the EP that way—we intended to make an album and record it live in the studio, but after four days of recording I decided to just do an EP because we had a show coming up and I wanted something to sell at the show. It's interesting how things are perfect and imperfect simultaneously.
We've been working on the new album for about nine months and it's not finished yet. We're working with Thom Monahan as a producer and we decided to give ourselves a longer period of time. It doesn't matter if we spend a year working on it or two years, but we are putting all our love and attention to it, so that people can listen to it for years and years—that's our fondest goal for this record. Something that people can listen to every note, every word, every line of it. I had some problems with recording The Cavalry of Light EP since we wanted to do it live and it didn't work out. But Polly Jean Harvey, who is a part of this wonderful community of musicians in L.A. that we're a part of, told me, "That's the way it is sometimes. You have to take into account that times are the way they are. Songs might take you weeks to record or months to record and you can't give yourself any sort of hard line about it." I think that's a compassionate way of looking at things. The songs are written and recorded, it's just not mastered yet.
Did you play in DC when your first record (Artifacts of the Winged) came out?
We didn't come to DC when I made Artifacts of the Winged, I'm not sure why. I was thinking today how we had come through New York. It was my fondest hope to play the Black Cat, because I was really in love with the group Quix*o*tic. We went straight to North Carolina. We played at a children's theater in Carrboro, which was a fiasco because we were not designed for children's theater. We sang in front of 300 five-year-olds. We had created this theatrical performance with puppets, music, and storytelling. The idea was that there were two characters whose job was to invent peace on earth. We had this really beautiful set and elaborate costumes and grand vision that we could do it for children, but we'd only ever performed it for our host audiences. It was an important lesson for me—I learned you have to be mindful of who your audience is and to communicate with them in that creation. It makes me sad to think how we were unable to create a great experience for those children. But I think their parents were more upset than the children. It's kind of funny.
Lavender Diamond Website
Lavender Diamond @ MySpace
By: Dominc DeVito
Published on: 2006-12-11
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