If you've looked at the musical artists lined up to play at Phoenix Comicon next weekend, you may have noticed that one of these things is not like the others. That would be singer-songwriter Abri Van Straten
, whose picturesque acoustic folk songs contrast starkly with the Japanese pop (Toybox
), psychobilly (Deadman's Curse
), and hip-hop (Mega Ran
) dominating the music programming this year.
Originally from South Africa, Van Straten achieved some acclaim with his rock band, The Lemmings
, playing smooth adult contemporary songs that, as far as sonic similarities, fell somewhere between Hootie & the Blowfish and Toad the Wet Sprocket. His first solo record, Sunlight & Shadows
, sounds much more stripped-down and intimate. Many of the songs are simply vocal, guitar, and soft brushes on snare drums, but they're carried by diverse melodies and Van Straten's husky, rich voice, which has all the storytelling inflection of singers like Harry Chapin and Jim Croce, and a deep croon reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.
Van Straten lives in Los Angeles now with his wife, actress Kristin Bauer (who plays a vampire named Pam on the HBO series True Blood and will also be a guest at Phoenix Comicon). Many of his new songs tell tales of L.A., often turned inward. In "16th Floor," Van Straten sings, "Counting pigeons out on Hollywood Boulevard/What the hell am I doing here?" The song shifts from casual to haunting by the chorus, when Van Straten croons, "From the window of the 16th floor, I lose my grip/From the window of the 16th floor, my fingers slip."
Ghost are everywhere in Sunlight & Shadows -- as lovers on the avenues in "Sleepless," as phantom movie stars staggering down boulevards in "Living in L.A.," as forgotten ideas in "Lighthouses." We recently caught up with Van Straten to talk about the album, how he met Bauer, and his upcoming appearance at Comicon.
You grew up in an artistic household in South Africa, and started playing guitar when you were ten. What do you remember about some of the earliest songs you wrote?
Abri Van Straten: The songs I started listening to were singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. I thought that was how you did it. They take parts of life and look at them through song.
What is about the lyrics of artists like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel that you like?
If you look at the function of art, it's where people get their ideas from, and the ideas shape our reality. Everything around you started as an idea. Art and entertainment are not the same subject. Dylan and those guys looked at life, but also thought about the future.
What is your songwriting process like? Do you have a particular place you like to go, or time of day you like to work?
AVS: Into my own mind, and it doesn't really matter what time it is. I go into my head, and sometimes, I come out for coffee (laughs).
NT: How does your solo album differ from anything you've done with The Lemmings?
AVS: It's not too dissimilar, but especially live, there's a lot more rock 'n' roll energy to it. Solo is much quieter, and a more peaceful situation.
NT: Your acoustic guitar playing is very crisp and pronounced. Do you use a pick, or do you hand-pick?
AVS: I was classically trained, so I play classical guitar. I have long nails, which is scary for most women (laughs), but I'm just really drawn to the sound of guitarists like Jose Feliciano. I like that Spanish sound and color.
NT: What are the ideas and influences behind your song "Living in L.A.?"
AVS: Unlike New York or London, that have identities, L.A. doesn't -- it kind of morphs and shifts. And it's very haunted, as well -- it's literally crawling with ghosts, at these old hotels where people like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean used to stay.
NT: How long have you been living in L.A.?
AVS: Two years...I was there on tour, and I was hanging out in L.A., and Kristin [Bauer] called me and asked if I'd like to go have coffee.
NT: And now she's your wife.
AVS: Yes, now we are married. The universe was up to its old tricks again (laughs).
NT: How has your tour schedule changed since marrying Kristin Bauer? Are you playing a lot more fan conventions?
AVS: I'd never heard of these things until I met Kristin. There's nothing like them in South Africa. I think it's very much an American thing. But we had fun traveling the world last year and doing that.
NT: What can we expect at your Phoenix Comicon performance? Will you have any backing players, or will it be a solo show?
AVS: Just me on stage, naked, with a guitar (laughs). Really, I'm looking forward to it. I love Phoenix. I love the desert. I'm a desert person. It's really beautiful there.
Abri Van Straten is scheduled to perform at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 28, at Phoenix Comicon at Phoenix Convention Center. Visit www.phoenixcomicon.org for more information.