Proud Animal goes to school

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As everyone knows, the life of a rock musician is a constant round of pleasurable excesses—and comment cards from less-than-impressionable teens. At least that’s what Proud Animal’s Barbara Adler and Gavin Youngash have discovered, following a string of high-school concerts that found them performing under fluorescent lights, often at an ungodly early hour, all over the province.

“I don’t think very many bands get that experience of having written feedback after every show,” keyboardist, accordion player, and singer Adler explains in a conference call from her band’s shared house in East Vancouver. “It’s weird to get that much market testing. So we’re trying not to let that make us write songs that we think are going to appeal to them.”

It’s not like the kids have any particularly concrete suggestions for improving Proud Animal’s potent though not-quite-feral blend of folk singability and rock oomph.

“It’s usually the kind of feedback that isn’t necessarily about music,” guitarist and singer Youngash says. “It would be like ‘Oh, the guitar player’s hair looks stupid.’ Or something like that.”

“That’s not true!” Adler counters, laughing. “Although Gavin gets comments on his hair all the time. It’s hilarious but also a little bit depressing, because you’re up there and you think that they like you because you’re playing music or you can play an instrument, but they’re really impressed with my shoes, or Gavin’s hair.

“Although about once a week someone will say something really nasty about my singing,” she continues. “When that happens, I always imagine my favourite artists in a high school, and how much kids would hate them. I don’t think Neil Young would do better. Patti Smith would be very strange. So it’s a weird situation, but ultimately a really good training ground.”

School shows are only a part of the training that Proud Animal’s members have enjoyed. Youngash, a music-school grad, keeps busy playing sessions when he’s not collaborating with the relatively untutored Adler, who got her on-stage start as a spoken-word artist before joining folk storytellers the Fugitives. (She also fronts the accordion power trio Fang, and cohosts the annual Accordion Noir festival.) In concert, they’re joined by a rotating cast of high-powered players—including jazz-trained bassist James Meger, Fond of Tigers drummer Skye Brooks, and the Hot Panda team of Aaron Klassen and Catherine Hiltz—but Proud Animal’s self-titled debut EP is a duo project, aided only by producer and percussionist Matthew Rogers.

Nonetheless, it sounds like the work of a confident, mature, and inventive band. Standout track “Alice”, with words written by Adler for Youngash to sing, is a lovely ode to loneliness and ambivalence, and an example of how well Proud Animal’s principals work together. Amusingly, it also includes a shout-out to one of the local scene’s best venues.

“I was thinking about the kind of person who’s lonely in a crowd, if that’s not too much of a cliché,” Adler reports. “So it’s a little montage of character sketches. The first person is maybe a little bit of a jerk, who deals with women in a certain way. And then in the second scene, when they’re at the Waldorf, you get the moment when they’re not enjoying the music. And through the arc of that, you see that they maybe wish they did enjoy the music, and the connection of being with people.

“I wrote it for Gavin to sing, thinking that it would be kind of interesting hearing those lyrics from a male singer,” she adds. “But it’s not about anybody specifically. Although I’ve definitely had all of those feelings. Maybe not so much about kicking women out of my bed, but definitely I’ve felt like that at some music shows.”

The tune’s sophistication hasn’t kept some of Proud Animal’s younger fans from enjoying it. “It’s slow and it’s moody and the lyrics aren’t totally straight-ahead, but we get a lot of compliments on that one,” says Adler. “So I guess there are kids like us in the audience. You know, the kind of people we were then still exist.”

Which doesn’t mean that the two aren’t excited about playing for an adult crowd—and an artsy one at that—as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. And while they haven’t worked up any new material for their Club PuSh show, they will be able to present what they’ve got in a slightly different manner.

“We’ll play the songs about sex and not wince,” says Adler. “And I’m pretty sure we won’t have to hand out comment cards to the audience and get comments back about our hair.” 

Proud Animal, Herald Nix, and Twin River play a Club PuSh showcase at Performance Works next Saturday (January 19).

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