Lavender Diamond singer Becky Stark believes that music is an instrument… (Autumn DeWilde )
The new Lavender Diamond album started out as a solo disc by frontwoman Becky Stark that was to be called — wait for it — "Agony, Agony, Agony."
"It became like a joke," said Stark over lunch last week in Los Feliz. She was wearing a vintage floral-print dress that suggested nostalgia for a simpler time, though she compulsively checked her iPhone too, firming up details for an East Coast tour scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
Wrecked by a bad breakup years after the release of her Los Angeles band's 2007 debut album, the singer had funneled her feelings of agony into recordings she made with Jonathan Wilson and Nate Walcott, local scenesters known for their involvement in work by Bright Eyes and Dawes.
"But the songs were so sad, I never even listened to them again," Stark added with a laugh. "Jonathan has the tapes at his studio, and I'm like, 'No, we should just bury those.'"
If you're looking for a quality that separates Lavender Diamond from other groups in L.A.'s indie scene, there are plenty to choose from: the band's refined pre-rock melodic sense, for instance, or Stark's high, clear singing voice, which on the just-released "Incorruptible Heart" shares more with Karen Carpenter (of the Carpenters) than with Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs).
But perhaps nothing distinguishes the group like the moral altruism with which Stark leads Lavender Diamond: When she says the songs on "Agony, Agony, Agony" were too sad, she means they were too sad for other people to endure.
"I didn't know how to share all this negative energy in a way that felt conscionable to me," she explained. "It didn't seem to be sending out vibrations that were helpful."
A product of the Brown University semiotics program that also incubated filmmaker Todd Haynes, novelist Jeffrey Eugenides and "This American Life" host Ira Glass, Stark believes (or anyway says she believes) that music is an instrument of connection — that harmony in particular should serve as a means of repairing basic human bonds severed by politics and technology.
"Right now our culture is this insane comedy-tragedy," she said. "It's almost unfathomable, the density of the misperception everyone is in. And what I think is really exciting is to be a part of the articulation of a new way of seeing ourselves that's based in an integrated understanding."
Stark paused, then asked, "Does that make sense?"
"I've known Becky since high school, and it can almost seem like she's in character a lot of the time," says Damian Kulash, who fronts the brainy power-pop band OK Go and produced "Incorruptible Heart." "Except that in 22 years I've never seen her break character. It's easy at first blush to go, 'I've heard all this hippie … before.' But it really does inform the way she makes things."
Stark turned to Kulash, yet another Brown semiotics grad, after she stalled out on "Agony, Agony, Agony." She'd begun writing new songs with the rest of Lavender Diamond — which also includes guitarist Jeff Rosenberg, keyboardist Steve Gregoropolous and drummer Ron Regé Jr. — but felt unsure how to proceed with what she called "these zillions of bits of music that were all backed up." (In addition to Lavender Diamond and her solo material, Stark is involved in a country-music act with the actor John C. Reilly and in the Living Sisters, an old-fashioned harmony group with Inara George and Eleni Mandell.)
"I told her it all sounded like one record to me," says Kulash. So he invited her to move into his house (with a recording studio over the garage) while he was on tour with OK Go. "'You guys just work on songs,'" he remembers saying, "'and when I get back we'll start piecing them all together.'"
The result is as beautiful as it is expansive, with Stark's crystalline vocals adorning arrangements that shift from slow-motion chamber pop ("Everybody's Heart's Breaking Now") to dry acoustic folk ("Come Home") to glittering orchestral disco ("Light My Way").
Throughout "Incorruptible Heart," Lavender Diamond touches on the emotional desperation Stark experienced but ultimately moves beyond it, as in "Dragonfly," a swelling synth-based number where she observes that "what makes us breaks us apart" before concluding on a more hopeful note: "And it shakes us and gives us a start / And it wakes us and opens our arms."
It's complicated stuff that feels simple — or maybe vice versa.
"A lot of these songs came out of the raw need to transform something so painful," Stark said as lunch was nearly over. Her green eyes almost appeared to be misting over, lost in some grievous memory. "Writing and singing, it's a way to do that. That's why music can be such an amazing healing force."