Inara George is fast becoming exactly what she never set out to become: a pop star singing about her fucking boyfriends.
Unlike Hilary Duff and Ashley Tisdale, though, George is finding her voice without a cavalcade of hitmakers or a high-school musical. She sings with Greg Kurstin, a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and classically trained piano prodigy, who's fast becoming the Burt Bacharach of his generation, having worked with Beck, the Flaming Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lily Allen, Gwen Stefani, Peaches and Sia, to name a few. (He's also becoming the go-to guy for quirky collabs.)
But Saturday at Detroit Bar, you'll get the chance to hear George and Kurstin's main thing: the bossa-nova-infused, French-sounding electronic-pop project they call the Bird and the Bee.
"There's a certain quality of bossa-nova singers, a quality I love, and I have the type of voice for that. I sometimes wish I could sing like David Lee Roth," she says with a laugh. "Or Chet Baker."
But she can't. She sings like some of the women she emulates in her new incarnation, Gal Costa and Astrud Gilberto, the latter of whom immortalized a girl from Ipanema. Kurstin's shared love of the high-hat-eights sensibility came from his years working on David Byrne's world-music label Luaka Bop under his Geggy Tah moniker.
The Bird and the Bee's breakout hit was the first blindside: the song "Fucking Boyfriend" became a No. 1 hit on Billboard's dance charts after undergoing a remix by Australian DJ duo Düosseüdo. It manifested when George was trying to move outside her comfort zone and deliberately craft a pop song. "How about 'be my boyfriend'?" she suggested to Kurstin during a writing session at his Echo Park home.
"How about 'fucking boyfriend '?" Kurstin naughtily replied.
And that's why theirs is such a beautiful working relationship: It fucking works.
George's sweet voice mixed with her sly, salty personality is a perfect juxtaposition with the "fucking boyfriend" stuff, so if you know George, you know that the Audrey Hepburn-esque exterior belies a wicked sense of humor. "If you listen hard to my lyrics," she says, "you can hear the dark and light. They usually work on two levels."
Long known as a Silver Lake buzz girl, George is only temporarily leaving behind her solo status, and she didn't particularly see it coming. Three years ago, when Kurstin started working with her on her acclaimed solo album, All Rise, the two discovered a mutual love for jazz standards and retro lounge. This led to a record deal on Blue Note's Metro Blue imprint, a tour with like-minded Lily Allen, and a huge following in Japan.
"They're very enthusiastic, but very polite," George says of their Japanese fans. "You play shows, and they're very quiet, but it's a sign of respect. People will know where you're staying. They'll know all the records you've done with other bands. If they're fans, they're really fans."
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But then, any time George arrives to play a town and strangers show up to hear her sing, she's taken aback. And she didn't even see a future music career during her formative years, despite being the daughter of Little Feat founder/guitarist Lowell George and spending her early years rubbing elbows with Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and her godfather, Jackson Browne. "I was introduced to musicians in a more intimate way than other kids, probably," George says.
Her father died of a heart attack when she was 5; it was 1979, and he was touring and playing music. So music didn't always permeate George's life-at least until she was in college and a roommate's guitar piqued her interest. "It was sort of an accident," she says. That led to a band she sang in during her 20s that gleaned more from her father's legacy before finding her own style.
What she inherited from her father, she says, is her musical curiosity and instinct not to play the most obvious chord, which nearly sealed her fate as an indie darling. "Little Feat were known for having musical complexity," she says, "for taking the road less traveled in a song." Which is somewhat where she has landed with the Bird and the Bee. "Even playing with Greg, the chords he chooses, he wants to make it beautiful," she says, "but he wants to challenge himself, too."
The Bird and the Bee perform with Charlie Wadhams at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $10.