Hope Sandoval prefers the darkness. It's how she feels comfortable onstage, with the lights down low, freeing the singer from the distraction of all those strangers watching from the audience. "I just hide and sing," she explains.
Sometimes, she hides a little too well. After a September performance in San Francisco, four fans demanded a refund because they couldn't see her, as if unconvinced that Sandoval had been there at all.
"It's so ridiculous," she says, more puzzled than annoyed. "What do you want to look at?"
Sandoval's nightly retreat to the shadows fits well with the music she makes. Fronting Mazzy Star at the beginning of the '90s, she sang with emotional remove, her voice floating across waves of spectral folk and haunted honky-tonk. The band's second album, 1993's "So Tonight That I Might See," went platinum, but by the end of that decade, Mazzy Star was essentially dormant.
Sandoval, though, remained active -- guesting on albums by Air, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Chemical Brothers, and releasing an album as Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions in 2001. Now, the L.A. native is embarking on something of a comeback, heading out on the road for the first time in six years to support her newest release, "Through the Devil Softly."
Sipping wine high up in the concrete Masonic tower overlooking Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Sandoval remains the same waif-like figure she was a decade ago. In a few hours, she would be in the building's small theater with her band, performing some of that new material, from the shadows, of course.
"It's been fun," she says of the tour, which returns her to Los Angeles on Thursday for a performance at the Mayan Theater, "but it's been difficult."
East L.A. roots
Sandoval's reluctance to embrace the spotlight might seem at odds with her chosen career, but for the young girl growing up in an East L.A. neighborhood -- one she describes as a "really, really rough area . . . drugs, gangs. We lived on the most popular drug street" -- music turned out to be her calling.
"There was a lot of music in my house growing up," she says. "My sister loved country music. My mother loved Spanish music. And my dad was into big band music and jazz."
By the time she was in high school, Sandoval was part of an acoustic folk duo called Going Home, which she founded with her friend Sylvia Gomez, and already was gravitating to the alternative scene. "I think we decided that's what we were capable of," says Sandoval, who drew inspiration from the uncompromising example of singer Exene Cervenka of X. "That's how we could express ourselves. [Gomez] could play guitar and I could sort of sing."
Their third show was a mid-'80s gig opening for the Minutemen and Sonic Youth at the Anti-club in Hollywood: "It was a crazy, crazy crowd. We just thought, 'What are we doing here?' But they were so sweet to us. Everybody stayed really quiet and listened."
Going Home made some never-released recordings produced by David Roback, who soon recruited Sandoval into his band Opal, which evolved into Mazzy Star. The duo's 1990 debut, "She Hangs Brightly," earned immediate attention from critics, but neither Sandoval nor her partner were comfortable with the mainstream attention that soon followed.
"I had to beg to get out of my contract with Capitol," says Sandoval. "They wanted me to work with big producers. I wanted to produce my music, and they weren't having that. I'm sure they were happy to let me go. I just didn't want to do what they wanted me to do."
Roback relocated to Norway, and Mazzy Star hasn't been heard from since. But Sandoval insists "Mazzy Star was never over," and says the duo has worked most of this decade to finish what will be its fourth album together. It's nearly done, though she won't predict when it might see release.
My bloody partner
For "Through the Devil Softly," Sandoval turned to a different collaborator, Colm O'Ciosoig, also the drummer for the reunited My Bloody Valentine. The two began working together a dozen years ago after being introduced by the Jesus and Mary Chain's William Reid.
In contrast to the dreamy thunder O'Ciosoig makes with My Bloody Valentine, the drummer learned to pull back for his work with Sandoval, using brushes and mallets, hitting the drums with a much softer touch.
"I put more dynamics into it," he says. "In a way, this style of playing is more challenging."
Sandoval and O'Ciosoig share a house in Berkeley, where much of the new album was recorded, with additional sessions in Sonoma County and Ireland. The result has noticeably less twang than Mazzy Star but retains Sandoval's eerie sense of melody. There are ominous, shimmering shades of black on "Trouble," and a delicate acoustic vulnerability on "Baby Sam" and "Sets the Blaze."
Sandoval and O'Ciosoig were happy to work at their own pace, indifferent to the years that passed between Warm Inventions albums.