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She's a Rainbow

Imani Coppola makes a splash with her sunny pastiche that sends pop, hip-hop and jazz through a psychedelic spinner.

January 25, 1998|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — "You made my eyes pink!"

Imani Coppola, who is being made up for a photo session in a Midtown Manhattan studio, leans forward in her chair and stares incredulously at her reflection in the mirror. The singer's eyelids have indeed been painted to resemble two crescent-shaped scoops of raspberry sorbet under thin, arching, dark-chocolate brows.

At 19, Coppola has the sort of exotic, broad-featured good looks--owing to her African and Italian heritage (mother and father, respectively)--that invite such whimsical flourishes.

On the cover of her debut album, "Chupacabra," her braided hair looks like two mating tarantulas. In the video for her first single, the tautly psychedelic "Legend of a Cowgirl," which hit the Top 40 on the national pop charts within weeks of its release, she appears as a diner waitress, a biker chick and a vixen-like entertainer, with each costume more playful and brazen than the last.

"There's a very campy, theatrical vibe going on with Imani," says her manager, Scott McCracken. "Not only is she captivating musically, but she's incredibly interesting to look at. She's always got a different color wig on, and she's always experimenting with makeup and all sorts of things. She's very creative visually, which I can't say for a lot of artists out there. And it ain't manufactured--it's what she does."

The music on "Chupacabra" (whose title refers to Mexico's mythical goat-sucking demon) is very much in keeping with this funky, fanciful spirit, blending pop, hip-hop, blues and jazz textures with a breezy sophistication that has led several critics to compare her to such acclaimed artists as De La Soul and Neneh Cherry.

In her review of the album in The Times last October, Natalie Nichols praised Coppola, "whose kitchen-sink blend of beats, guitars, violins, rapping and singing recalls Beck, Luscious Jackson and Garbage."

It's heady stuff for a young woman who had never even sung before a live audience when she was signed to Columbia Records in June, shortly after wrapping up her first year at the State University of New York at Purchase.

"I think I always knew I wanted to have a career in music," says Coppola, a classically trained violinist and pianist who plays strings and keyboards on her album. "But I didn't know I was gonna do it quite so soon."

Still, Coppola's quirky, sometimes spiritual, decidedly independent-minded lyrics clearly reveal a precocious artist. "Legend of a Cowgirl," for instance, is on the surface an exuberant ode to women's sexual freedom, blissfully detailing the adventures of a libertine who repeatedly loves men and leaves them.

"Pack my bags and mount my horse / I'm gonna ride on into the next town," goes the buoyant refrain.

But beneath this shiny exterior, Coppola insists, "Cowgirl" is "not just about having sex and moving on. . . . It's about being free--being your own person, having no one to answer to. I think that's everybody's fantasy, you know?"

When Coppola (no relation to director Francis Ford Coppola) discusses her work, she speaks with a dry nonchalance that poses a contrast to her bubbly artistic persona.

"The kind of person that I am, you wouldn't expect my music to be, like, sunny," she says. "I mean, when I would walk around my college campus, people would make comments like, 'God, you look evil!' and 'What's wrong with you?' "

Coppola laughs, suddenly giddy. "You write what you feel, so deep down inside, I must be happy. I guess I'm just lying to myself."

Coppola was born and raised in suburban Long Island, the second-youngest of five children born to a couple of active amateur musicians. She started taking violin lessons at age 6, and began studying piano shortly afterward, although she eventually abandoned the keyboard ("My piano teacher died," she explains) until high school.

"Ninth grade was an important year for me," she says. "I became a hippie and started hanging out with this girl named Amanda, who was into music and being weird and great. That's when I started taking piano again, and I also started singing and writing songs."

When it comes to her specific musical influences at that time, though, Coppola seems a bit stumped.

"Everybody always asks me that, but I wasn't aware of having influences. I mean, I didn't really listen to the radio. I played classical music all the time, and because of my parents, I heard jazz and [expletive]."

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