Interview: Juliette Commagere Talks Keytars and Her Debut Solo Album, 'Queens Die Proudly'
Up to this point, Juliette Commagere has been best known as the keytar-playing frontwoman of the band Hello Stranger, which has opened for everyone from the Foo Fighters to Kings of Leon. And although Queens Die Proudly is her first solo outing, she's still surrounded by friends and family in this effort—including guest performances by legendary slide guitarist Ry Cooder, his son (and Commagere's high school sweetheart) Joachim Cooder, and her siblings, Robert Francis and Carla Commagere. LAist sat down with Commagere for dinner at Oaxacan restaurant Monte Alban to learn about the new record, how she's bringing the keytar back and the process of creating an orchestra via Craiglist.
LAist: Given that your dad worked as a classical music producer and your house contained 30,000+ vinyl records, did you ever go through a period where you rebelled against the classics?
Juliette Commagere: I think that I was the only child who kind of embraced it. I mean, we all play music, but I was the only one who really stuck with my piano lessons and—I sound like the biggest nerd—but I've always loved playing classical music on the piano.
Who is your favorite classical composer?
Probably Chopin when I was growing up, then Brahms and Debussy as I got older. The melodies of a lot of those Romantic composers are essentially hit songs. It was definitely a big part of my upbringing, and when I was little, one of my favorite memories from my childhood was falling asleep listening to my dad play the piano. He would play every day. It probably made a bigger impact than I realized.
Juliette Commagere - "Hearts"
Out of all the songs on the album, which one did you actually write first?
Well, I wrote parts of "Nature of Things" a year before I started making the record. But really, "Overcome" was the first one. I wrote that before my band went on tour and I had recorded it in my living room. I remember playing it for my band on the road and I was like, "This is going to be for my solo project," but I was really saying that as a joke.
At what point did you know you were actually going to turn this into an album?
It' really hard to remember the specific moment, but there was a point where I had written "Overcome" and had started on "Where I Go" or something, and I was really just trying to comfort myself. I wasn't intending to do anything with the music, then at one point I thought, "I should probably finish this and package it and it will just make me feel better." Everyone was telling me to do it, so I went out of town and visited my grandma's place in the desert and my friend's place in Big Sur, and I just wrote and tried to escape this whole crazy madness of LA.
I found that it's so easy to get wrapped up in the music that I had to go back and listen to it for the great lyrics. What's your process like? Do you write lyrics first or music?
Generally, it begins with the music, but there are times when a lyric will be going around in my mind. I had the words "I am overcome" in my head and at first I kinda ignored them. Then when I started creating the track, those lyrics just instantly popped up and I thought, "This is perfect!" The song came together really quickly after that.
I love how the album starts off with "Hearts." Is that a didgeridoo at the beginning of the song?
It's a berimbau. It's a Brazilian, and it's comprised of a long stick and one string.
Cool! Now, getting into more of the instruments, when I hear the title track, "Queens Die Proudly," it almost sounds like a string arrangement on a synthesizer if that makes any sense...
Yeah, and that's something I'm still trying to work out live, because that's a synth, but since it sounds like violins, I want to use violins. I keep rewriting the part for the violins and it never quite works out live. But I'm glad you said that, because other people seem to have no idea what I'm talking about when I bring that up.
What led you to include an instrumental song on the album? Did "Wait Until Spring" ever have lyrics?
We did that one while we were in the studio—and by "the studio" I mean my friend's house. It was one of the last songs we did. It was Joachim, Martin Pradler and me, and when we finally got into the studio there was a lot of drinking and we were there day and night. We talked about whether I should put lyrics to it, but I didn't want to. I thought it was great the way it was. Plus I didn't think I could pull another song out of me at that point!
Do you find it's a different experience when you play or write music with Joachim or your siblings as opposed to other musicians? Does it come together faster?
When my siblings and I start singing together, it's like you don't even need to work on it. It's—boom—immediately good, and it's a really good feeling to have that. So I'm really lucky that I have them.
And when it comes to Joachim, working together at home is something that's only happened in the last couple years. But it's really changed our lives and I don't know why it happened all of a sudden—maybe because we got the computer set up in our house and it's as simple as that. I used to be too shy to play him some of my music, but now I'm not afraid anymore.
"Skyscraper" makes reference to your dreams. Have you ever come up with a melody or lyrics in a dream?
I have, but I can't remember them and it drives me crazy. I hear about people doing that and I get really jealous. That just recently happened and I was so upset in the morning. One day, I'll be able to harness my dreams!
How many instruments do you play?
Keyboard is the only thing I'm kinda good at, but I also play a little guitar and a little bass. Now my new thing is that I want to get really good at drums. I can keep a steady beat now and Joachim is teaching me some fills. Our living room is full of instruments. It took a month to get a drum set in the house after I decided to learn—we took it in piece by piece. So I'm happy now.
How did you come to fall in love with the keytar? It seems you're bringing it back—and making it sexy!
Well, I saw this horrible Beyonce Live thing on HBO and it's the craziest thing I've ever seen. She had keytars in there, so I think it's pretty much over now. (laughs) I bought mine in 2001, when we were going to start a new band, and I told the rest of the guys, "I should play keyboards or something, but I don't want to be sitting down." Then it struck me that I should get a keytar. So I found one—a 1978 Moog Liberation. It was really hard because it would go out of tune, it was heavy and huge, and it was the first time I had used oscillators.
Then why do they call that thing a "Liberation"? It seems like quite the opposite.
Maybe it would apply to a huge man who could actually carry it!
For a while I tried a MIDI controller, but ultimately I went back to the Moog and said to myself, "I'm going to master this thing!" And the Liberation remains my favorite keytar. Some people make fun of me for it; others get it and think it's cool.
You had a keytar stolen when you were touring, right? Who steals a keytar?
We had two stolen. They were on the top of the pile, so they just grabbed the two cases that were right on top. I guess it's good in a way, because there were other things that were more rare and valuable underneath them. It was still a pretty upsetting morning—me running out in my pajamas in New York. We had parked our van on the street thinking, "It'l be fine. This is a nice neighborhood." Then Joachim woke me up in the morning saying, "The van got broken info!" I ran downstairs and the windows were smashed.
Juliette Commagere - "Everything I Love"
That's terrible! Now on to happier things, you're playing Bordello Bar this Thursday. Are you going to have a full band for the show?
I'm definitely going to have my five-piece core band and then I'll have strings and horns for sure. I have some great players in LA; it's the other cities that are tougher—for SXSW we got some players via Craigslist and it was really stressful.
That's not the first time you've done that. Do you ever get any Craigslist no-shows?
Everyone's shown up but there was one city, which shall remain nameless, where they were really bad. I kinda panicked a little bit and I had to tell our sound guy to turn off the mics for certain people. One girl couldn't even read the music and I thought, "That's so weird. Who responds to an ad for a musician when they can't play?"
Have you hand written sheet music for each of your songs?
There have been a lot of people involved in writing the charts and I'm still trying to fix them up. They're a never-ending work in progress and it's driving me absolutely insane. And what's even more stressful than people not being able to play—which is a concern—is that if I mess up one thing in the charts, they're going to come in at the wrong place. And sometimes they have to count for, like, 48 bars of rests, which is crazy. It's a stressful situation I've really brought upon myself!
Queens Die Proudly
Last December, you and a bunch of your musician friends performed on Morning Becomes Eclectic. Did your appearance on KCRW make a big impact on your solo career?
I think so. LA is such a radio town, and KCRW is such a great important station. I definitely noticed the difference. People automatically pay more attention when you've done Morning Becomes Eclectic.
Since you have a very French-sounding name, including an accent over that e, do people often assume you're a French chanteuse?
Yeah, a lot of people do. I don't speak French, so I haven't sung in it. I speak Spanish, so I probably could learn French if I tried. Since we're touring Europe soon, I just bought a language set online and started listening to the French one and was like, "Wait! This is like Spanish!" My mom has always told me that's the case, but when people start speaking French I just tune out immediately.
Who are your favorite Spanish singers?
I don't listen to a lot of contemporary stuff, but Yolanda del Rio is my favorite ranchera singer. She's a rock star and her voice is totally insane.
Speaking of rock stars, despite any major label connection, you've already opened for some major bands. What's that been like?
We'e had some good ones. It's just nice because now, for the first time, with this solo album, there's going to be someone else handling all of that for me. I mean, with Hello Stranger, we booked our own tours for five years. And people have no idea—it takes so much work. It takes months to book just a few weeks!
How did you get the Foo Fighters as a self-booker?
We got that because we had known Taylor [Hawkins] through my sister and her boyfriend. Taylor heard our new stuff and said, "It's so rock & roll! You should open for us." Then he said, "Are you sure you want to? Because it's not that much money..." And I immediately said, "We'd do that for free!"
What was the craziest thing that happened when you were on the road?
Probably the craziest thing was the night we stayed at a friend of a friend's house. Neither she nor her parents were there, but some friends of the family came over and we stayed up all night. Apparently, the friend of the friend forgot to tell her parents about our visit. So the mom came home and thought we had broken in! She said she was going to call the police. At that point, I was asleep—naked—in the master bedroom. One of my friends ran into the room and told me, "You've gotta get up now!" My shit was everywhere and I was running around trying to put my clothes on before this woman came in. We just fled.
Touring that way is often challenging, but at the same time, when you're staying in peoples' houses and you're doing all of this on your own, you have these crazy situations all the time. When you have more money, it's not as exciting because you're in a hotel.
Is it a challenge opening for other bands? How do you win over a crowd when they didn't come to see you?
It is hard, especially when you open for "dude bands." So many guys seem to reflexively yell, "Take it off!" or "Show us your tits!" when they see a girl in a band. So I realized quickly that if you say, "Fuck you!" everybody cheers.
Getting back to your album a little bit, in a recent interview, you said that there wasn't much pressure as you were writing this album because you didn't believe anyone would hear it. How will you approach the writing process for your next solo album?
I've started writing for the next one already and I've been thinking about that. It's easy to get depressed and think, "I'm never going to write anything good again!" But I still have ideas and I'm just going to try to get back to that mindset where I'm not second-guessing myself. That was the thing before—the one time I decided not to worry about it, people thought it was great.
Do you have any hobbies?
I do, but unfortunately, I haven't had any time for them lately. I like to sew and I like to knit. I definitely feel an urge to do things with my hands, and knitting is great for the van when you're driving all day on tour.
What are your favorite restaurants in LA?
This [Monte Alban] is one of them. There's another one called The Nook and it's across the street in another mini mall. It's got a great vibe for the Westside, cause the Westside needs some good vibe places.
What's your favorite local music venue?
I've always liked Spaceland. And the Troubadour runs a really nice, tight ship over there. You don't feel like you're on the Sunset Strip.
In your song "Where I Go" you talk about a place you go to get away from it all…what are some of your favorite places to relax in LA?
The gym. That's the lamest thing I could say, isn't it? I do actually like the gym. I feel it's the only time I don't have to be on my cell phone or something. I also go hiking, and do some surfing and stand-up paddling, because as I get older I'm more interested in nature and just doing things that make me feel good. I'm just always searching for balance, because I also like to drink! (laughs)
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Juliette!