It’s a sultry night in old Portland. Eric Stern, founder and leader of Vagabond Opera, sits in a corner of a pub for his interview with the Georgia Straight. One wall has a large bookcase, and there are armchairs, great local brews, and not a flickering screen in sight—the perfect setting for Stern to spin yarns about “Sing for Your Lives”, the closing track of the Oregon sextet’s new album of the same name.
“We had a tour gig in Wroclaw, Poland, where Ashia [Grzesik, the band’s female singer and occasional cellist] comes from,” says Stern. “I went early with her and spent time with her family. It’s really different when you’re with a family. You get to drink the cherry brandy in their back yards, and hear the stories about surviving Communism. Let’s just say I had an intense week, as a human being and as a Jewish person, and at the end of it I sat down in Ashia’s father’s place with my accordion, put the recorder on, and right away the main tune came out.”
The song is a characteristic Vagabond Opera hybrid, a mix of East European Gypsy and klezmer traditions, indie rock, jazz, and classical music, with large doses of medicine show and vaudeville. Stern trained as an opera singer and unleashes the power of his tenor voice several times throughout. The lyrics are also dramatic and theatrical, inspired by life on the road. But this time the city is New York, the place a little Serbian coffee house, and the tale has a twist.
“Our friends in Fishtank Ensemble were playing. There was a woman called Hannah, and she was enchanting and I had a wonderful time speaking with her. I’m married and it can only go so far, but I liked where it was going. Our bassist, Jason Flores, a good friend of mine, is polyamorous—which is relevant only as he assumes, ‘Well, Eric’s married, it’s fair’. Anyway, he got himself into our conversation. I don’t know if he would have done it otherwise—he would have seen I was making time with this sweet woman. Soon I was kind of marginalized, and as the evening went on, in the classic literary sense, it got more Eastern European. I got drunker, and Ursula [Knudsen], the lead singer of Fishtank, also got drunker.
“Basically, the song tells the course of an evening that unravels. I decided to follow Jason and Hannah out of the place, so in a very paranoid way, skulking behind lamps and stuff, I followed them to the subway. I told him next day, ‘Man, you’re not going to believe what I did, I was so drunk.’ There’s a quote in there also that my rabbi once told me, about how when someone’s married it’s a joyous occasion, of course, but there’s one sad part in that it closes off all the other possibilities. So I sing about ‘all the children that could be’. Where I want to take the listener is this feeling of, yes, life can seem a desperate thing and yet we still sing. Sometimes it isn’t so happy, sometimes you have to sing for your life.”
Vagabond Opera performs at the WISE Hall on Wednesday (October 12).