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Juliette Commagere seeks catharsis, finds rising stardom

The indie singer-songwriter says she wrote the songs on her solo debut album for herself and didn't worry about following convention.

January 24, 2009|Margaret Wappler

Juliette Commagere's voice ranges from dusky to sharply silver, slicing through the intimate, sometimes alien orchestration of her debut solo record, "Queens Die Proudly," released late last year.

An art-pop suite of 13 songs, the album was written over the course of a year as a way to fight off depression. Her energetic indie-rock outfit, Hello Stranger, formed with high school sweetheart Joachim Cooder on drums, wasn't gaining momentum -- despite Commagere's inspired keytar rips -- and the L.A. native, who's contributed to songs by Puscifer and Avenged Sevenfold, was struggling with what to do next.

"I felt like the only way I would feel better is if I could create something," she said in December, on the eve of two high-profile appearances at the Troubadour and KCRW-FM (89.9). "Sounds corny but it's true. . . . I think everybody, artists and non-artists, has got to keep creating or else life seems pointless."

Playing tonight at the Roxy, Commagere will find herself among her most devoted cache of fans yet. Her "Morning Becomes Eclectic" set exposed her to more listeners than ever, people already predisposed to loving textured, electronica-leaning pop. Beyond KCRW, "Queens Die Proudly" has been settling in with the critical cognoscenti as one of L.A.'s most compelling releases of the last year.

As a result, Commagere has some exciting plans on the horizon: In March, she'll perform at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. On the more immediate side, Commagere will sing backup vocals for longtime friend Inara George, whose project with producer-musician Greg Kurstin, the Bird and the Bee, will pollinate L.A. and the late-night talk show circuit on a few occasions in the next week or so, promoting the mod-pop act's new album, "Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future."

But perhaps the most permanent sign of Commagere's rising star is her signing with CAA agent Marlene Tsuchii, who also represents Beck. After booking shows for Hello Stranger, Commagere understands all too well what it means to schlep equipment and charm skittish club bookers.

"It's exciting for me," Commagere said this week, "to have an amazing woman helping me book tours and getting my own shows and so forth. Things are moving along nicely."

It wasn't always that way for Commagere, one of a musical clan, including singer-songwriter brother Robert Francis, whose dusty folk has earned its own share of accolades. Commagere, the middle child, had to clear aside hesitation and self-doubt to make her solo album, which started ingloriously as somewhat of an inside joke with herself: "I didn't believe anyone would hear this thing. When I played the first song I wrote, I joked that it would be on my solo album."

Insecurity and depression, in counterintuitive ways, might've helped Commagere, but there was an even more important force at play for "Queens Die Proudly": Commagere let go of the rules, including any fuss over logistics.

"It was the most relaxed I've ever been while writing," she said. "Any time I ever thought to myself, 'I can't put that here,' I would remind myself that this wasn't for anyone, this was just for me."

The result sounds emotional but light, a combination that can be found in many of Commagere's heroes, such as Icelandic pop mystic Bjork. Brahms and Tangerine Dream factor in too. The disparate touchstones make sense for a performer who can shape-shift easily.

Avenged Sevenfold, the Huntington Beach metal-punk band, and Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer came knocking, she said, "because I've always attracted the goths. I guess it's the black hair and pale skin."

Puscifer also has asked her to perform with them in Las Vegas for a weekend of Valentine's Day shows the band is playing at the Palms. "It's fun to do different, weird things," she said with a giggle.

Commagere's gambles, such as jettisoning worries over logistics or the equally cumbersome notion of genre, have paid off.

Folk, electronica and jazz make their way onto "Queens Die Proudly," but all filtered through Commagere's highly attuned frequency. And it didn't hurt to get an assist from not only Joachim Cooder, who played drums and keyboards, but also his dad, Ry, who added slide guitar on "Nature of Things."

Logistics haven't held her back in concert either. Commagere has assembled orchestras for recent live shows in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and L.A. by putting ads on Craigslist. "Everyone's been cool and they're all excited to play," she said. "Though it's been scary to put it all together at the last minute.

No matter what the risks have been, Commagere is keen on making another solo record that will balance light and dark. She's been recording new work but is hesitant to pin it down. "The possibilities," she said, "are more wide open."

There's also the potential for a project with her brother and their older sister, Carla -- who is at work on her own solo album and will sing with Commagere at the Roxy tonight -- to come down the pike.

"We've talked about it before . . . but when it's with your siblings, you just start bickering a lot," Commagere said. "Maybe we'd do some ranchera songs with really broken-down guitar and three-part harmonies."

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margaret.wappler@latimes.com

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West Indian Girl/Juliette Commagere/His Orchestra

Where: The Roxy, 9009 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 8:30 tonight

Price: $13.50 and $15

Contact: (310) 278-9457

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