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Music Preview: L.A. punk rocker finds her inspiration in old torch songs

Friday, April 06, 2001

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

"Cutthroat Standards and Black Pop" is not the kind of record one would expect from Abby Travis.

Which begs the question: Who is Abby Travis?

Abby Travis

WHERE: Rosebud, Strip.

WHEN: Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $5; 412-261-2232.


She's a 30-year-old singer and veteran of the L.A. punk scene with a smoky diva voice and the look of a starlet. She started at age 16 in the all-girl band the Lovedolls and moved on to the power pop trio The Rails, before making a name as a bassist for hire. Her services came in handy at Lollapalooza '95 when she was on stage for back-to-back sets with Beck and Elastica. She's also turned up with KMFDM, the Meat Puppets and even Spinal Tap.

How then, when she went to make her second solo record, did it come out sounding like a modern take on '30s cabaret torch songs? Especially when it's populated with the likes of Stephen Perkins from Porno for Pyros and D.J. Bonebrake from X (on vibes!)?

"There was a myriad of things," Travis says. "Part of it was, I do really listen to jazz and standards and I do like this genre of music among 800 other styles of music. I felt for my voice it was a much better style."

And while bass is her main instrument -- and she loves "pumping out the massive frequencies" -- she does her writing on piano.

"I thought, I could take these songs and do them in a rock context like I did on my first album, which winds up sounding a bit more glam or Bowie-ish or Queen. This time I thought I wanted to be true to the essence of the material and also make the prettiest record that I could."

"Cutthroat Standards and Black Pop" has drawn comparisons to Roxy Music, Nina Simone and a gothic Marlene Dietrich. "Then I realized there's similarities to some stuff that k.d. lang has done, although I think," she says cracking up, "she's probably a little bit better of a singer than I am."

Travis compensates with a darker and delightfully warped sensibility. Mixed with frothy bossa nova numbers like "Sunday is the Day for Love" are more cutthroat new standards like "Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun" and "The Hate Song," in which she sings -- with apologies to R.E.M. -- "This one goes out to the ones I hate."

"It's kind of the way I see things often," she says. "They can be kind of dark and kind of funny, but kind of beautiful. That's sort of my personality in a way."

As for how she kept her punk-rock cast in check for the recording session, Travis says there's more to those musicians than fans might know.

"People get a general impression of a musician or an actor based on the work they've seen them do, which makes total sense. But D.J. Bonebrake has a whole band that's devoted to this vibraphonist, this jazz guy. He's really into jazz. And then Perkins is one of those guys who just loves every kind of music. He's also the only person I know who has a timpani, that could bring it over."

Although she plays L.A. clubs like the Viper Room with a seven-piece band, Travis travels as a duo with her collaborator, Kristian Hoffman, on piano.

"It's a lot more cabaret actually," she says. "In some ways, it's more fun, because when I play with the big band it's important that it's all streamlined and tight. When I play just Kristian and I, you never know what can happen."

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