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LAist Interview: The Church of Sincerity

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Becky Stark performs this Monday, June 13th at Tangier, 8pm, $14; and Tuesday at El Cid, $8.

Becky Stark smiles as she sings sometimes. Not a knowing smile, nor self-assured; it’s a curious, wondering look – “Are you on my side?” Her body floats beneath the gauzy layers of an ancient wedding gown, anchors the stage like a soft image drawn in peach-colored light, deep inside an old kinetoscope. Behind her, the band thumps in simple melodia, a progression drawn from prewar Americana. The sound could be something off a scratchy Folkways cylinder, tarnished by neither nostalgia nor irony. Then Stark’s voice sails up, stripped of affectation, into frequencies so ghostly pure that they seem to consume the aether, almost to bridge time and space. You feel her escape from her body; she completely inhabits the hushed room. You broke my heart, she sings, pointing coyly at the enraptured audience, You broke my heart...

Stark's voice is qualitatively comparable to a young Joni Mitchell's, but she'll be the first to tell you that technical proficiency is hardly what matters. It takes guts in the postmodern age to sing with such wide-eyed innocence. Doing so seems to require a trick of the mind: She prefers to play her sets between noise bands, keeping aware of her cultural surroundings without letting awareness shatter the fragile beauty of her music. Her voice is a perfect instrument, unadulturated, that reveals her to us with every word as a child of emo without irony; of punk without antipathy; of folk, without judgment.

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Tell us about your musical influences.
Well, I grew up singing in church. My grandmother was a unity minister, which is a school of metaphysical Christianity. It's very eastern in its philosophy...

Are you religious?
No...I guess I'd say that I'm - well. I think there's so much good in churches. I don't participate in organized religion, but I'm dedicated to making every moment a sacred moment.

Did your parents listen to pop music?
Yeah yeah yeah! It's really funny. My mom got kicked out of ministerial school in 1969 for not having the "proper image..." She was really into rock & roll, but she always wanted to be a minister and study the bible. So she gave us bible lessons, and every Sunday we'd have our own church. It was frequently called the "Church of Popular Culture." She'd play her 45s and give us lectures about the meanings of different songs. So we'd talk about the meaning of Karma Chamelion, and I remember one time we had a service - me and my sister and maybe some other people - when my mom gave a lecture about Material Girl, and the metaphysical meaning of that. What it means that we're living in a material world. So we listened to the Top 40 really - religiously, actually.

Any other early influences?
I grew up in Washington, DC, and a lot of really great music was going on there. The first live rock show I ever went to was Fugazi, and I was really inspired by the spirit of that music. How they didn't have any kind of limitations...

Were you a Chisel fan?
Ted Leo's totally my hero. He's a really fine example of a person today who's using music as a carrier wave of meaning and storytelling. When he sings, every word has meaning. He's talking directly to the audience. He doesn't take that experience and opportunity for granted.

That's what you're trying to do, too.
Yeah. And it doesn't matter if it's punk or folk. It's the energy, it's the intention. It's not just the lyrics having some sort of message. It's that music is a great energy source available to humanity. And you have the opportunity when you create music to create a sound that's uplifting, that's healing to people...[to] make an experience where people feel better, people feel stronger.

Music as a spiritual antidote, available to everyone...
I think music is a great agent of change. It works on an intellectual level, but it works on a physical level, too. My intention onstage is to make the most beautiful sound that I can possibly make, to make the whole performance exist as a source of joy.

Not everyone is so talented, though.
The "you got it or you don't," I don't believe in that. I think everybody's got it. We need all the music, all the musicians we can get.

Becky Stark smiles as she sings sometimes, like she's smiling now. I'll never stop a bullet/But a bullet might stop me. She turns away from the microphone to cough, once; for an instant the audience is petrified that she might stop singing. She turns back. I'll never drink the ocean/But the ocean might drink me. We relax. "Sorry," she apologizes when the song ends, "I had to cough. You understand." We do. We're all on her side.