With Mazzy Star on hold, Hope Sandoval continues on her music journey -- with a little help from the Warm Inventions.
by Steven Klinge, Photography by Chris Elam
In her work with David Roback in Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval perfected a shadowy, gauzy style that was simultaneously intimate and remote. Beginning with 1990's She Hangs Brightly (Rough Trade) and continuing with 1993's So Tonight That I Might See and 1996's Among My Swan (both on Capitol), Sandoval and Roback crafted a world where the lights and the flowers are always blue -- unusually beautiful, but tinged with melancholy. Sandoval's haunting, ghostly voice in songs such as "Halah" and "Fade Into You" seems like it would wither if it came into contact with sunlight.
That intimate/remote dichotomy goes beyond the recordings; fronting Mazzy Star performances, Sandoval could seem idly withdrawn, barely acknowledging the audience, although her voice would be warm and seductive. Calling from a phone booth near her home in San Francisco, Sandoval was often reluctant to elaborate on her curt responses, leaving lots of silent pauses. Asked about the current status of Mazzy Star, Sandoval says that after Among My Swan, she and Roback "did what we usually do. After we finished our tour, we worked on music," and another Mazzy Star album may be ready next year. No other clues were forthcoming, though.
On the other hand, given the right subject, Sandoval talks enthusiastically. Her new solo album, which she recorded with My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O'Ciosoig, isn't a radical departure from Mazzy Star, although it's often acoustic and spare, with folk guitars and soft keyboard washes and Sandoval's evocative voice. Bavarian Fruit Bread (Rough Trade/ Sanctuary), credited to Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, features eleven moody tracks, beginning with a slow, lovely cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Drop" and ending with the long, psychedelic-tinged "Lose Me On The Way."
Sandoval met O'Ciosoig four years ago, about the time O'Ciosoig started playing guitar. Both O'Ciosoig and Sandoval had been working on music outside their bands, and, according to Sandoval, "we just compared notes and felt like we could work together." The Warm Inventions are O'Ciosoig's band, but the recording of Bavarian Fruit Bread, which took place over two and a half years in Oslo, London, and her home studio in San Francisco, was a collaborative process that included enlisting Bert Jansch, of the legendary British folk band Pentangle, for two exquisite tracks. Roles shifted in the studios, with Sandoval and O'Ciosoig trading keyboard and guitar parts. "We both just sort of go back and forth," says Sandoval. "If I can't get the keyboard part, then he can get it, or vice versa. I'd rather not play guitar, but sometimes because I write the songs it's really difficult for somebody else to play it, they sort of don't interpret it the way it's supposed to be. And if he writes the song on keyboards, it's best that he plays the keyboard part."
With Mazzy Star, Sandoval was credited primarily with the lyrics and melody lines. Many of the songs on Bavarian Fruit Bread, Sandoval wrote alone, but a few she created with O'Ciosoig. "Feeling of Gaze" grew from a happy accident. "We had a cello player come in, [Ji Yung Moon], and . . . basically what happened was that she was playing and she was tuning, and her bow sort of went backward on the cello and it hit a discord. It was recording, so Colm sampled it... It was a strange sound, but when it was sampled, it was beautiful. I was upstairs -- I have a studio in the basement -- and I could hear this sample being played over and over on a keyboard, which means it has different notes. It was just really beautiful, and I said to Colm, we should record this sample and add a different part to it on the keyboard and I can write a song to it. We did that, and I wrote "Feeling of Gaze" over it.
"When we recorded it, we asked [Ji Yung] to come back and imitate the sample, which was one of the hardest things to do because she's classically trained and her ear doesn't relate to that kind of sound; it's awkward. In order to get that song we had to have her play three different cello parts, and two of the cello parts were just discord all the way, and just sort of like awkward notes, like the crying of a donkey or something. But we needed it to be grouped together to make the sound that it made. She hated it; it was a nightmare for her because she didn't hear any melody, which there wasn't. There wasn't a melody until everything was done; but she came in and recorded the cello part. That's just one crazy example of how we work together."
"Feeling of Gaze" is a transfixing, indeed melodic, song, with odd intervals in the cello line and Sandoval singing, "going to play your favorite song, gonna play it all night long." She doesn't remember if she had a specific song in mind when she wrote it, but it's true to experience. "Recently I found my Donna Summer record -- I forget what it's called -- I can't remember but on the cover she's on a crescent moon [probably Four Seasons of Love]. There's this beautiful song on that record. I get in the habit of just playing a song over and over and over... When I wrote "Feeling of Gaze" I was making a reference to that. Not to her song, but just to one of those songs." It's not hard to imagine the moody and spacious "Feeling of Gaze" as one of those songs people could play over and over again, all night long.
On "Butterfly Morning" and "Charlotte," Sandoval enlisted Bert Jansch's expert guitar playing; it's an impressive coup for Sandoval to play with the folk legend. "About six years ago in London we [Mazzy Star] played a small show, and we mentioned to Geoff Travis from RoughTrade as just sort of a fantasy idea that wouldn't it be great if Bert Jansch could just show up and play the show with us, and Geoff, really confident, said, "Let me give him a call." [laughs] And we sort of laughed about it, but two hours later we get a call from Geoff saying, oh, he'd love to do the show, he just wants cab fare and a hundred pounds. And he came out to the show and he was amazing. And after that, when I was writing songs on my own, because I don't play guitar so well, I just though, what do you have to lose, I could ask him, the worst that could happen is he says no. So I sent him a tape and he really liked it and said that he would be into playing the songs. He flew out to Oslo and we did the tracks together and it was pretty amazing. He's an incredible musician. It was a dream come true for me. How many people can say that Bert Jansch appeared on their record?"
Sandoval hopes that Jansch can join her when she tours with the Warm Inventions.
While Hope Sandoval's style seems keyed in a relatively narrow range -- one that's not at all limiting or claustrophobic, but still one that's consistently downtempo, restrained, and whispery -- her own listening habits range widely, and not only to Donna Summer. It's surprising to hear of her affinity for old rhythm and blues. "I'm inspired by all sorts of different music. I recently got a videotape of Motown bands, like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, and I really love that. I love some of those Smokey Robinson songs. I get inspired by it. I mean if it's a good song, it's a good song, it doesn't matter if it's dance or whatever all these titles are for songs. I think good songs have the same basic roots. They come from rhythm and blues. Rhythm and blues really taught people how to write.
"I don't know if I could describe exactly what it is that makes a song great [laughs], but I have a feeling that one of the things that makes a great song is that it has those basic roots that rhythm and blues has, that it has a driving feeling. It's something that you can't help but express through guitar or drums or vocals or words."
Sandoval's music, on Bavarian Fruit Bread or with Mazzy Star, may seem far removed from traditional definitions of driving rhythm and blues, but it is compelling and heartfelt and driven by depths of emotion. "Well, I agree, if you hear those elements in the music. That's sort of what rhythm and blues is about. Even though the tracks are not fast and really full of heavy drums and that sort of thing, I think the basic feelings are the same. It's a deep feeling, a drive to make these songs that come from the heart." And, like the best of rhythm and blues, when a song comes from the heart, it can tough the listener's heart.
The blues in Sandoval's music are of the melancholy color rather than the twelve-bar variety. The rhythms are glacial or cyclical. But it takes only a little bit of stretching to call Bavarian Fruit Bread soulful.