When I received the Sepiachord Passport last month, there were a few songs that really stood out to me. “The Dance Master” by Veronique Chevalier was one such track, and I knew I had to interview her to further introduce her to you, my dear readers. Veronique Chevalier was kind enough to sit down with me and chat about her musical backgrounds, influences, and inspirations. I think you’ll find her as fascinating as I do!
**) Musical background, education, and influences. When and how did you start as a musician?
I am a classically-trained ballet dancer, which is the only formal musical training I’ve received. I also have a background in journalism, and I am also a “failed” poet. I have gift for rhyme, a skill that is not fashionable in the world of contemporary “Serious” Spoken Word.
In 2002, one of the numerous rejection notices I’d received from yet another failed attempt to gain admission into a respected poetry workshop, finally set me on the right course by suggesting that I pursue music. The letter writer felt that my works more resembled song lyrics than poems. It was the best piece of “bad” news I’ve ever gotten!
Not one to do things by half, within 6 months of that rejection letter, I dove into my very first musical accomplishment, which was to write and produce what I hoped would be a benefit for Planned Parenthood: a full-length recording entitled “Cabaret4Choice” (C4C) in 2003. I’ve always been an advocate for reproductive freedom, and wanted to create something that might enhance PPH’s organizational mission.
I was fortunate that there was a community of talented musicians around me in Santa Barbara, and I was able to entice ten very talented and committed people to help me realize my musical project, which was completed within 4 months. Unfortunately, due to internal politics, the local PPH affiliate chose not to endorse C4C, although their Advisory Board found much artistic merit in what my collaborators and I had created.
Although I was disappointed with the politics of the board’s decision, I was encouraged by their thumbs-up of the quality of my project, as well as the support of the wonderful artists who’d worked on the C4C record with me, including Burleigh Drummond, the founding drummer for Ambrosia, a band that had numerous hit songs in the 1970’s & 80’s. Determined to find a place for myself in the world of music, I moved to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara, a few months later.
Since I was a late-comer to “The Industry” (as it is euphemistically referred to here in LA), I was determined to accelerate my progress. In the Fall of 2003, I enrolled in a UCLA Extension course which presented an overview of the business of music. One of the major draws of the course was the opportunity to network each week with industry insiders who comprised the class’s various guest panels. I was very fortunate that the course instructor had chosen one of the songs from the C4C recording to present during the guest producers’ panel.
On the merit of that song play, one of those guest producers (who had numerous Grammys to his credit) agreed to listen to the entire C4C recording. Much to my surprise, within a few days, I received an email back from him with the following remarks:
“I am very impressed with the Cabaret4Choice CD. Each song conveys a different mood, musical quality, or character. You’re obviously very passionate about your cause – Bravo! The world should only be filled with committed people like you, who attempt to push the human spirit to the highest level.”
This email was from Joe Chiccarelli, who, as a young engineer, started out with Frank Zappa, and who is THE “Joe” of Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage.” Despite his busy schedule, he’s been great about checking in on me regularly, and has been very encouraging of my individuality as an artist. The life of a quirky performer is not an easy one, but I do take heart from the fact that there are some lovely people, such as Joe, who appreciate what I do.
As for my upbringing, I have no roots- no hometown. My father had a lifelong career in the US Armed Forces Radio and Television Network, so I grew up all over the world, and I attended something like thirteen different schools. My mother, also a creative sort, was born in Poland and grew up in Paris, where my father first met, and then subsequently, married her
I was introduced into their domestic mix in Fontainebleau, France, the “hometown” I’ve yet to visit as an adult. They decided one offspring was enough. My parents did not believe in reconfiguring their lifestyle to accommodate a child, and I was allowed to present myself at their adult gatherings only if I comported myself accordingly. Both of my parents were avid readers, so my closest childhood friends were between the covers of the hundreds of books they owned. Pops was into science fact, fiction and fantasy, and my mother devoured history, biographies and art books. I have yet to meet anyone else who was reading Philip K. Dick when they were 8 years old!
My father’s early career was in radio, and he used to record just about every piece of music he could lay his hands on at the station, onto reel-to-reel tapes, which he’d then bring home. (You might say he was a pre-Internet pioneer in what would later be termed “illegal downloading”). I literally grew up listening to just about every musical genre then known to humankind. A single tape might contain anything from Wager, to Simon & Garfunkel, to Mirielle Mathieu, to folk music from Mozambique.
Dr. Demento’s show was a factor in the development of my eclectic taste in music, and was a favorite during my early teen years- (anything to annoy the parents, right?) The quirkiness of the Doctor’s featured artists (Frank Zappa among them) on his show truly inspired me, though I never would have imagined then that someday, one of my own compositions would be aired on his show. (The Doctor played my send-up of polka drinking songs, “The Beer Hall In Hell”).
While I’m on the subject of demented music, I have been fortunate enough to have connected with yet another set of collaborators & fans, via a wonderful online community, TheMadMusicArchive.com. Through my participation there, I met Kyle A. Carrozza, who has a comedy music project he calls “TV’s Kyle.” He’s also a wonderful cartoon artist. On his profile, he’d posted an adorable animated short he’d created for a contest sponsored by an ice cream company. I fell in love with the way he combined his “Spumco” drawing style with his sly sense of humor, and I made up my mind to approach him about creating the video for my song “Internet Date.”
Dr. Demento’s airing of my “Beer Hall” song is what I believe finally gave me “street cred” in the realm of mad music, and shortly thereafter Kyle agreed to create the video, with an animator friend of his, John Berry. The two of them collaborate on an online comic strip called “Frog Racoon Strawberry.”
It took them about six months from start to finish, because they had to fit their work on “Internet Date” around their respective schedules. It was well-worth the wait, however, since the video is getting a lot of hits on YouTube, and it is also being officially screened at this year’s Seattle International Cabaret Festival. I am very grateful that Kyle was able to complete my video shortly before landing a full-time job as a staff artist with Nickelodeon, or he would have been much too swamped to work with me.
“Internet Date” on YouTube-
**) Why did you choose Steampunk as your genre or choice? What attracts you to Steampunk? Can you tell me a bit about your work with Sepiachord? How did you get involved with the effort to create the Sepiachord Passport? Where can fans purchase a copy of the album?
As I said earlier, I’ve been very fortunate to have attracted the interest of some really wonderful people, who have been instrumental in keeping me going as an artist. One of those people is Jordan Bodewell, founder of Sepiachord.com. The fact is, that Steampunk found me. Or more accurately, Jordan stumbled upon the “Cabaret4Choice” MySpace music page in 2007, and chose the track, “Contraceptive March” as one of his “Sepiachord Song Of The Day” selections. I only found out about it after-the-fact, when I saw he had posted a comment about it on my profile.
About a month later, I released the single “Vampire Surprise” and Jordan also promptly made that one of his songs of the day as well. Needless to say, he’d gotten my full attention by then! When I delved into the Sepiachord website, I was smitten, not only by his unapologetic passion for the music he loved, but also by the sense of community that permeates throughout. Although the artists featured on Sepiachord are an immensely-varied lot, we are connected by a spirit of inventiveness. This is very much a foundational concept of Steampunk as a literary genre, and as an aesthetic movement. It’s a combining of things in ways that are neither customary, nor commonplace. There may also be some referencing of the past, but with a contemporary sensibility.
Through this connection with Sepiachord, the performing opportunities at Steampunk events have unfolded before me. I met Josh Pfeiffer, of Vernian Process, on a music panel we were both part of, (along with Jordan), at the 2009 Seattle Steamcon, and from that encounter I was invited to join Gilded Age Records, a music artists’ collective Josh co-founded with Evelyn Kreite. Eventually, Jordan invited me to submit a track to his second compilation “A Sepiachord Passport”, released in October 2010, under the imprint of Projekt Records.
The track I contributed is entitled “The Dance Master” which I created especially for this recording. In listening to the lyrics, you will notice some play with the words “pass” and “port,” but that’s the only thing remotely playful thing about the song. Although I am known best as a comedian, I also have a fierce, serious streak, especially when it comes to issues about which I strongly feel. (C4C features a number of tracks that take a weightier approach to the subject of reproductive freedom.)
“The Dance Master” is not done lightly- it touches on domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking- but true-to my mission of “odd”-itory madness, the production and arrangement of the song are definitely on the twisted and unexpected side, but in a noirish way, rather than a humorous one.
Having worked as an advocate of victims of domestic violence, and frail elders, I’d say the majority of abusers/bullies qualify as socio- or psychopaths. According to the book “The Sociopath Next Door,” by Martha Stout, approximately 4% of the general population can be described thus, and both males and females can be found among their ranks.
It’s not fully understood how these “heartless/soul-less” people are formed, if it’s Nature, or Nurture, or a combination of both, but they all share the commonality of being consummate manipulators; and they are notoriously resistant to rehabilitation. Call these faux humans what you will, but they are recognizable by their ability to use, abuse, torment, and even ruthlessly kill their fellow creatures- humans or animals, without guilt or remorse.
The smolderingly handsome and cruel Dance Master of my composition uses the glamour of social dancing, specifically Tango, as a subterfuge to lure naive young women into sordid lives of prostitution, drug addiction and worse. He is one of those dark creatures living among us, who appear human on the outside, but who lacks the essence of what makes us human: a conscience.
Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” and “Mack The Knife” characters are some of the better-known “intra-species predators” that have been immortalized in popular music, and of course there’s “Dexter” on television. I think these works are popular because they tap into our collective fear of, and fascination with, the “enemy in our midst.” No one ever admits to being a sociopath, but it seems few of us can resist their allure.
“A Sepiachord Passport” is available directly from the Projekt website.
All the songs from “Cabaret4Choice” are available as FREE full downloads on the website.
**) How would you describe your music to people who have never heard it before?
This is always a challenge. I don’t really have an “Elevator Speech” for what I do. I think the closest I could get would be to describe myself as a “Genre Jumper”, meaning I randomly choose various genres of music in which to work, for no reason, other than it pleases me to do so. I use obscure or currently unfashionable music to build my compositions- but I use original material, I don’t “sample”.
It really hasn’t been much of a hardship for me to compose, despite the fact that I can’t read or write music, and I am unable to play any instruments. The majority of my works start with lyrics, and then the music composition comes afterward, whether I am working with a composer, or creating the melody myself. I typically start a composition by reciting the lyrics aloud, until a rhythm reveals itself to me. Then I physically “dance” to the resultant rhythmic singsong as I vocalize it aloud, until a tune eventually pops into my head. I then record myself vocalizing the melody, and use that as a scratch track upon which to build an arrangement. Then it’s a simple matter of hiring a musician to listen to my vocal, and create a chord chart from that.
I purposely never follow the latest trends in commercial music. I haven’t been owned by a television in over 20 years, but then again, since I don’t live a hermetic existence in a Himalayan cave, it’s difficult to be completely ignorant of popular culture.
In addition to performing, I also write and produce “concept” collaborative recordings. I’ve already talked about C4C, which incidentally, was comprised of numerous different genres, although the subject matter within all of songs fell under the aegis of “Reproductive Freedom.”
My second concept project, for which I wrote all the lyrics, involved 17 music collaborators from around the world (some of whom I’ve still yet to meet- Oh the wonders of the Internet!), and is entitled “Polka Haunt Us: A Spook-tacular Compilation.” (PHU) It was released in 2008, and is based on authentic supernatural lore from around the world, in which most of the songs combine the indigenous music with polka.
For instance, the song “The White Witch Of Jamaica”, based on the most widely-recognized horror tale from that country (about a notorious female sociopath & serial murderess, Annie Palmer), combines reggae & polka. Gee Rabe composed the music and plays both accordion and steel drum on that track. “Blank Face Goblins (Nopperabo)” is based on mythical creatures of Japanese lore, and probably the first, and maybe only, Asian Industrial Gothic Polka, was composed by Kai Kurosawa, a Japanese bass and Warr Guitar virtuoso, who also performs live with Industrial band Collide.
“Kalkajaka Polka” is about a haunted mountain range in Australia, which is sacred to the Aboriginal people there, and combines didjeridu with accordion, and so on. (I jokingly refer to this cross-pollination of unlikely musical genres on PHU, as my “Sonic Frankenstein”). This record was a much broader project in terms of types of music combined, as well as universality of theme, than was C4C.
I also approached PHU with the idea that it would serve as a Halloween-oriented project, (because most people, who do seasonal music, choose Christmas), but it also works as World Music. It’s designed to be a trip around the world via spooky folklore, and just as C4C was intended as “edu-tainment” PHU, contains an informational aspect too. (“The Beer Hall In Hell” doesn’t quite fit that description, since I invented the scenario myself, but it seemed apropos to include something darkly satirical on the record, and since Halloween and Oktoberfest occur around the same, the tie-in works well).
If there was anything I learned when researching the tales on which to base the lyrics of the songs on PHU, it is that every culture has a rich history of horror tales. Humans the world over are fascinated with the macabre!
Find out more about Polka Haunt Us here (including links to FREE streams, or to purchase via iTUNES or CD Baby): http://PolkaHaunt.Us
**) What does a typical performance consist of? Do you have any live performances scheduled for the near future?
Vocalizing is but a portion of my live performances, which are comprised of songs with original lyrics & music (some I’ve co-written with collaborators, and some I’ve written myself), as well as numerous parodies (thus the moniker “Weird Val”), and twisted covers. Improv, ad-lib & choreographed movement, as well as the use of props, are also an integral part of what I present to audiences. (Much to my chagrin, I lack any aptitude whatsoever for playing any musical instruments, despite the best efforts of four different guitar instructors, two piano teachers and an accordion demagogue!)
I most usually perform with my trusty “invisible” accordionist Francois, but I have worked with visible musicians in the past. One of the advantages of working with Francois, however, is that he’s very easy to smuggle onto public transportation, so touring with him is very economical. I tend towards the droll, comedic and theatrical, but as a “Genre Jumpper” I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I intend to add more serious pieces to my live shows, both musical, as well as spoken word, to bring more dimension/dementia(n) to my shows.
In addition to the steampunk events, I’ve been well-received at burlesque houses, gay venues and underground clubs. What I most enjoy about playing to such diverse audiences, is that I can push myself as a performer and try new things. Although I memorize my lyrics, very often the narrative and schtick that I perform between numbers occurs right on the spot.
I feel that the greatest accolade I can receive as a performer, is to have a member of the audience come up to me afterward, and ask me who writes my material, or where I’ve studied improv, or who my vocal coach is. I’ve even had someone ask me why I don’t have Francois come out from backstage and introduce him!
Francois and I will be next performing at Mr. Bodewell’s (Naughty Nighttime) Cabaret, on Saturday, November 20th at Seattle Steamcon. I am very excited that I was invited back, and have been working on some new material for this year’s “Weird Weird West” Theme. I will be premiering yet another song about a sociopath- “The Devil’s Marksman.” (Bad boys are much more interesting than nice guys to write about, but not to get involved with!) And I will be reciting a spoken word piece (and yes, it rhymes), entitled “I Am Steampunk,” which was enthusiastically received when I premiered it earlier this year at “The Steampunk Bizarre” in Hartford, CT.
I like the idea that my Steamcon performance this year is at night, and there will also be burlesque performer- “Saloon Girls” on the bill, as well as Miss Mamie Lavotta and her band performing into the wee hours. Much as I like playing all-ages shows, it’s really liberating to play to only adults, so I don’t have to censor myself. The one down side is that the evening cabaret is scheduled at the exact same time as the Abney Park concert that night, but since the Con is larger last year’s, I am hopeful that we will attract a sizable audience of revelers.
I am also very honored to have been invited by couturier Kambriel to be one of her models for the Fashion Show and Tea, being held on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Steamcon.
On December 16th, I will be appearing at The Vortex Room, an intimate underground performance space in a warehouse district loft in San Francisco, for the launch of a new ‘zine called “Garage Organ”. The evening’s entertainment is being curated by Miss Oblivious, who is a creative dynamo currently residing in Seattle, but with roots in The Bay Area. She has been another great supporter of, and believer in, my work, and is also an accomplished film maker, photographer, and doll maker. It isn’t a steam-themed event, but I will be premiering some new material there, on the theme of “Automobilia,” some of the material which is very likely to eventually find its way into my steampunk performances.
I will also be performing at Wild Wild West Con, being hosted at Old Tucson Movie Studios, in early March 2011, where I will be an opening act, (as well as the MC for-) the Main Concert, which features Unextraordinary Gentlemen, and Abney Park.
I’ve been invited to perform at The First Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition in Toronto in late April/early May, and I shall be making some non-steampunk performance appearances in New York City, and possibly other East Coast cities while I am out there, as well.
I am still pondering some other invitations that have been extended to me from other Steampunk events in 2011, but the ones I mention above are firm.
I post performances on my website.
**) Can you tell me about Veronique’s Red Velvet Vaudeville Variety Show?
To me, all levels of culture, art and music, from the highbrow, all the way down to the lowest of the so-called lowbrow, are fascinating. Talent is talent, and I derive as much satisfaction from taking in Old Masters paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, as I would from attending a national custom car and hot rod show. They may seem worlds apart, but they share commonalities: devotion to creativity; attention to detail, and consummate execution. I admire and appreciate remarkable human achievement, no matter the milieu, or the medium.
Vaudeville-type entertainment is wonderful because it embodies the spirit of inclusiveness- a typical Red Velvet show might contain live music; a poetry reading; burlesque; a short film screening; magic; sideshow derring-do; circus performance, and once I even had a body painter working on a live model onstage. Presenting this sort of diversity in my show was my reaction against contemporary formulaic, narrow target-market-demographics-based commercial entertainment. I know I was not the only one who was weary of the sameness of mass produced music, art and entertainment, and there were other people presenting variety shows in LA before I began my Red Velvet Show in 2005, but as an audience member, I did not find these other productions particularly satisfying.
There seemed to be little interdisciplinary cross-pollination in those shows, and the ones that did attempt to mix genres were uneven- most of the acts were mediocre at best, with maybe one or two professional quality performers on the bill. But you know the saying, “You get what you pay for,” and since few of the other variety show producers paid their performers, their spotty production quality is hardly surprising.
I decided that I would hire only professional-calibre performers, and that I would pay them, no matter what my actual ticket sales were, even if it came out of my own pocket. I lost money by paying performers from Day One, but I consider that a “investment in my career” and it was a way to accelerate my inroads into a world that’d I’d been involved in for only a relatively short time. By starting at the top, as-it-were, my own artistry improved exponentially. I benefited greatly by having no choice but to raise my own performance standards to the level of my guest artists. I basically crammed my “thirty years of dues paying in show business” into the space of about a year.
Another thing that made my Red Velvet Show different was that I brought back the stage curtain. (Well, it was actually a white scrim upon which the image of a red velvet curtain and center spotlight were projected, and the scrim was raised and lowered, rather than parting in the middle, but it sufficed in creating the proper atmosphere).
To me it was a sad day for live entertainment when the mystery of the backstage was stripped away. There is nothing that destroys the magic for an audience more than having to watch stagehands set up and take down equipment between sets. The flow of a performance is just as important as the quality of the acts.
In keeping with the tradition of old Vaudeville, I acted as MC and olio (in between act) while the stagehands were doing their thing, hidden by the “curtain” behind me, so that the audience was engaged & entertained the entire time. Audiences really seemed to enjoy the more formal structure of my show- because it always ran seamlessly- I had everything timed down to the minute, and made sure the performers stuck to the schedule.
It didn’t take long for word to got out to the performance community that I paid my guest artists fairly, and ran a tight ship. Unfortunately, the show ran for only 6 months, at which time the people from whom I’d been renting the theatre lost their lease. By then, I’d been invited to perform on the premiere season of “America’s Got Talent.” Participating in a so-called reality show was most instructional. It did not take me long to recognize that my cabaret act had been slated to be one of those ridiculed by the judges.
Although a few seconds of my show footage was used in AGT’s national ad campaign, my full appearance was fated not to be aired. The reason is quite simple- knowing I was to be buzzed, I figured I had nothing to lose, so I turned the tables on one of the judges. Dressed as I was in a Ralph Lauren bias cut velvet gown, a fox fur boa, and velvet opera gloves, I knew I cut a dashing figure. Thus emboldened, I sashayed up the catwalk to the judges’ station, stopped in front of Piers Morgan, and said, “Monsieur Piers, the French and the British have had our differences, but you may make up for it by kissing my hand.”
I instinctively knew that his being a former newspaper editor meant that he’d come from an upper class background, and that he would have been schooled in etiquette. I have a European mother, and I knew that a formally-trained gentleman will the kiss the hand of a lady who holds her hand out for him to do so. Sure enough, Piers fell for my ploy, and by the time it had registered with him he’d been duped, I had already triumphantly returned to center stage, and stood there with a look of boredom, awaiting the judges’ verdict.
It was obvious of course that I had talent, to have pulled a stunt like that off. That, coupled with my elegant attire, plus the fact that Hasselhof sided with me by showing his obvious pleasure with my cabaret act (I sang Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” as Edith Piaf might have presented it), as well as my guerilla hand-kissing tactic, had left Piers and Brandy pretty much speechless. It is fortunate that I am able to think quickly on my feet, and that I also have a very thick skin when it comes to performing, but I know a number of artists who have not faired as well on that show.
(BTW- I am a member of the “Artists Against America’s Got Talent” group page on Facebook, and encourage anyone who has been exploited by the show to join and post your experiences. The producers continue to find suckers for their pathetic spectacle by dangling that million-dollar carrot, but it can take its toll on the unwary).
Since 2006, I have presented pared-down versions of Red Velvet on a number of occasions at different venues around LA since that initial run, but it’s just not the same without the magic of the opening and closing “curtain”. I think I was also bit before my time, because now, 5 years later, new, professionally-produced Vaudeville and Circus- variety shows are finally being presented regularly in LA, by folks with ties to Cirque du Soleil, and other large-scale production companies, such as SupperClub. I sincerely hope that these new shows do well, because I believe audiences deserve high-quality, well-produced live entertainment.
As for what’s next for me, I am concentrating on developing my live solo act further, by utilizing more elaborate, and inventive costuming, and I am in the process of setting up my own recording studio. Thanks to recent advances in technology, a rig need only consist of a laptop, recording software, and a USB mic with a built-in preamp. I have a learning curve in front of me with the recording software, but I am not completely unfamiliar with engineering & producing, in light of all the studio time I spent working on C4C, and even more so with PHU. I am also inspired b the fact that Imogene Heap won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, (the first woman ever to win the category) in 2008.
Once I have gained a certain level of skill with the recording process, I will be able to help other artists with their projects as well. I have a friend who’s already asked me to produce, and record his next album, which would be his fourth. He felt steamrollered by the producer/engineers of his second and third albums, who seemed to care more about showing off their prowess with gear and FX, than they did about helping him express his own unique vision.
While it’s important for a producer to have technical mastery, it’s even more important that he, or she, be artistically sensitive. The former can always be learned, but the latter is innate. My friend has even gone so far as to suggest that I found my own label, which, if it does come to pass, will be down the road a bit. I already have my own music publishing company, so starting a record label wouldn’t be that far-fetched, I don’t suppose.
For now, though, I’d like to concentrate mostly on my live performance, and developing my producing skills. It certainly feels wonderful to know that my services are already in demand, before I’ve even engineered anything, and I look forward to this upcoming chapter in my music career with great excitement!
Thank you so much for inviting me to share some of my experiences with you and your readers. I hope to cross paths with you at one of the upcoming steampunk events!