Pop, it seems is back. There’s no doubt about it — the word became a pejorative for serious musicians and artists, particularly in the 1990s when it became synonymous with Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys-esque girl and boy-bands. It was all too often vacuous, disposable and overtly manufactured.
But the tide is changing. The likes of Gaga and Lorde are resurrecting pop’s bloated corpse and helping the world recall a time when — you know what? — pop was a perfectly acceptable label to throw at a muso. Here in SoCal, we have Jesika Von Rabbit, formerly of psychedelic electropop project Gram Rabbit, proudly carrying the torch.
“I grew up a child of the MTV ‘80s, and all kinds of great bands that were considered pop but weren’t looked at as empty and fluff,” Von Rabbit says. “They were good pop bands. My stuff is pop, but there’s also rock and psychedelic elements. I mix whatever I need to mix — whatever I feel like the songs needs. I could be doing a poppier song one moment, and the next one could be a Hawaiian song.”
It’s refreshing to hear an artist as talented, compelling and charismatic as Von Rabbit use the genre tag so openly, though she’s also keep to point out that her music is smart and far-reaching.
“Some songs are more poppy than others,” she says. “Some are more dark and have a haunting quality. It’s not empty, superficial pop music. I’d never want to make that. I like to write intelligent lyrics and I write tongue in cheek lyrics. I like humor a lot. So to be just a bubblegum pop princess would never be my M.O. I guess I don’t really premeditate all that much either. When I’m in the studio, I might have a line in my head and I just go with it. I never set out to be like, ‘I’m gonna write this kind of music.’ It’s just whatever’s inspired me at the moment.”
The aforementioned and highly-rated Gram Rabbit is on hold right now while Von Rabbit’s solo career is offered her full attention though guitarist/producer Ethan Allen of that band is currently playing with Jesika Von Rabbit (drummer Daniel Kashuck and bassist Lee Joseph complete the lineup). Gram Rabbit isn’t for-sure dead, Von Rabbit says, but it’s certainly on hiatus. Fans can be content that there are naturally similarities between the band and Von Rabbit’s solo work.
“The first album [2015’s Journey Mitchell], I went a lot more electronic,” Von Rabbit says. “The second one isn’t out yet but I’m getting towards the end of it. I wrote it all myself, while the Gram Rabbit stuff I wrote with Todd Rutherford, and Ethan Allen. So the difference is this is pretty much all my writing. It’s a little bit more electro. It’s definitely similar, but it’s all my ideas — I put the shows together and curate them. It’s not a huge difference, but fresh new songs straight from me.”
There are layers to Von Rabbit’s work too, perhaps starting with the carefully considered aesthetic. The singer and performer likes to put on a show — she likes to entertain — and considers the visuals a vital ingredient on the Jesika Von Rabbit experience, both live and with the music videos.
“The songs are important, but I like to provide some visual stimulation to go along with that,” she says. “It’s fun for the crowd and it’s fun for me. I like being on stage with a bunch of whacky characters circling around me. It invigorates the energy, and makes everybody smile and have a good time. My characters from the videos — I have them on stage with me. Not all of them, but I switch it up. I have a rotating cast. I have two main dancers who are always with me, but you never know who I might throw into the mix at the last minute.”
It might surprise some (though it shouldn’t) to learn that Von Rabbit took piano lessons for 12 years. Those classical influences can be found in the more symphonic elements of her music, while ‘80s pop, Nina Hagen, and contemporary rapper Kate Tempest are all in there too. But essentially, she’s her own artist, making the music she wants to make on her own terms. She’s grown as an artist since Gram Rabbit formed in 2003, and that organic evolution has informed her work too.
“I guess maybe I’ve gained a little bit more confidence, not that I was lacking tons of it,” she says. “But having to do everything on your own and having to be the main person in charge, I guess you just take on that boss lady role. I’m doing a lot of the same things but I’ve been doing it longer and have more responsibility. I guess I’ll leave it to the fans to decide if I’ve evolved or not. Some might say I’ve devolved.”
This weekend, Von Rabbit performs at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach with wonderfully ludicrous punks Fartbarf. Both acts perform in costume, and so Von Rabbit is promising plenty of eye-candy. And great music too…
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“Some catchy and weird dance and rock music,” she says. “Plus bearded gypsies, giant dancing mushroom girls, and dancing white poodles.”
You can’t ask for much more than that. After the show, Von Rabbit will be focussing much of her attention on her forthcoming second album, and the preceding singles. She has plenty to think about and a lot of work to do, but in this pop-friendly world, there are no limits to what Von Rabbit can achieve.
“I’d like to take it as far as I can,” she says. “ I’d really like to book a world tour. I don’t have a manager — that would be nice. As far as I could go with it, I’d love to go. I’m always looking for bigger and better opportunities, and whatever comes my way I’m up for taking it.”
Jesika Von Rabbit plays with Fartbarf and Devil Season at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 4 at Alex’s Bar; 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; 562-434-8292; $12; 21+.