‘Radio’ days

WAG music critic Gregg Shapiro talks with Amanda Homi of VickiKristinaBarcelona about the trio’s reinterpretation of Tom Waits’ music.

Are you a fan of female musical trios? Do you also dig the music of Tom Waits? Then you’re in luck, because VickiKristinaBarcelona (Rachelle Garniez, Amanda Homi and Terry Radigan) has just released its debut album “Pawn Shop Radio” (Storysound Records), on which they perform distinctive interpretations of 10 Waits songs, from the 1980s’ “Jersey Girl” through 2011’s “Chicago.” Homi’s name may be familiar to those who recognize it from when she was in the early 1980s smooth jazz duo Homi & Jarvis (and from her gigs at the Hastings-on-Hudson Metro-North station. More on that in a bit.)

Since then, she’s kept busy making music in various incarnations. With VickiKristinaBarcelona, she may get even more well-deserved recognition. Homi was kind enough to answer a few questions shortly before the release of the album:

Amanda, how did VickiKristinaBarcelona come into existence?

“We came into existence because we’re all musicians and songwriters and we live in the New York area — in Brooklyn and Manhattan. We’ve all known each other on the music scene over the years, but we hadn’t actually played together in that sense. Terry Radigan, the guitar player, had a songwriter series. People would come in and play their original songs. We realized that we had fun and we started singing together. Instrumentally, it also made sense. Terry’s a guitar player, Rachelle’s a multi-instrumentalist and fantastic accordion player, I’m a percussionist, and we all sing. We thought, ‘It’s a good combination. (laughs) We could be a band.” It really started for fun, honestly. It should always be for fun.”

It sounds like you are all having fun, too.

“We really are. It wasn’t as if we said, ‘Let’s start a band and make a record and start touring.’ It was sort of the opposite. We all have our own careers and worlds in music going on. It was more, ‘Let’s get together. It’s going to be fun,’ which I think is a good thing.”

What can you tell the readers about the genesis of band’s name, VickiKristinaBarcelona, which is obviously a reference to the Woody Allen movie?

“It is, indeed.”

But there’s some variation as well, especially as the movie is actually “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

“The first thing that I always liked about that name is that it’s a bit random. You’ve got Vicki, Kristina and then suddenly there’s a city name in there. We are all fans of the film and the female leads are strong characters. The female-centric thing, as well as them being American and European. We’re that way, too. Terry has an American background. Rachelle has a lot of the European cabaret influences. I’m originally from England but have been living in New York and I’ve traveled to many countries. My love is world music and percussion from different cultures.”

I recently interviewed Freda Love Smith, who was in the trios Blake Babies and Some Girls (both with Juliana Hatfield) and she’s now in the new trio Sunshine Boys, and she talked about her fondness for threepieces. What do you like best about being a trio?

“A trio seems to me like the perfect combination in so many ways. Just practically speaking, it’s easier and less expensive to get around. You can all fit in a large car. I have a PT Cruiser that my mother gave me when she moved back to England. We can all fit in the PT Cruiser with all of our gear and get around. I’ve also always been fond of trios. Friendships, when I was in high school, were always a trio. You can also cover all your bases musically with a trio. You’re able to see each other onstage. 

“When we first started, I was playing more cajón (a box-shaped musical instrument) and sitting down. None of us liked that. We’re all lead singers, so that was one of the first things that evolved. Now, it’s usually Rachelle in the middle with the accordion, I’m keeping time on one side and Terry’s keeping time on the other. By the nature of Rachelle’s instrument, it creates this kind of glue that holds everything together. It’s not traditional and we often have to convince people that the drummer doesn’t sit down in the back. This is more like the folk singer tradition where we’re all standing up with our instruments.”

VickiKristinaBarcelona’s new album “Pawn Shop Radio” is described as “the songs of Tom Waits reimagined with love.” Please say something about the influence of Tom Waits’ music on you personally.

“Tom Waits’ music is remarkable. What a poet. And such diversity in the writing style. The storytelling. Which is why we found it to be such a great vehicle for us. We’re all storytellers and songwriters and everybody can identify with a character in his songs. What we love about the Tom Waits songbook is that we can take these songs and reinvent them however we see it. It’s the beauty of the musician being able to interpret it and make it personal to them.”

With so much material from which to choose, what was involved in the process of selecting songs for “Pawn Shop Radio”?

“Obviously, the songbook is vast. We have a lot more than that in our repertoire, but we honed-in on the ones that felt right. We also wanted to reflect a certain diversity on the album. Even as far as different lead vocalists, different styles that we cover, making sure that there’s enough energy and time for reflection in the tempos when you’re putting together an album. We know when we perform, you can see how the audience reacts (to songs). That’s one of the wonderful things when you’re a band and you’ve played together for a while. Before you record, you’ve already done this music with an audience, because it is an interactive thing as I’ve found as a performer. The audience is a big part of the process. “

Late last year, the Dan Zanes-produced Waits tribute album “Come On Up To The House,” featuring Aimee Mann, Phoebe Bridgers and others, was released. Now we have “Pawn Shop Radio.” Why do you think Tom Waits is having a resurgence, and specifically with women?

“He’s a great songwriter, a classic, one of the greats in songwriting. With women, it’s the chance to be able to listen and interpret a melody and perform the songs and open up a whole new audience. Sonically, Tom Waits’ voice is low and gravelly. Sometimes it’s not easy for people to hear the melody. I think a female voice makes it easier for the listener to recognize the melody and hear it in a different way. The melodies are beautiful. I think we discovered the same thing. You’ve heard this Tom Waits song but until you actually try to decipher the melody and sing it yourself, it can be a bit vague because of that register.”

What would you say is the biggest difference between the Amanda of VickiKristinaBarcelona and the Amanda of Homi & Jarvis?

“Oh, (laughs), you’re going way back.”

That’s both the gift and the curse of Google.

“I know. I love it. I was really young when I did that record and it was an amazing experience. I had just arrived in New York and there I was with all these incredible world-class musicians and producers. I was finding my way. I had just started writing. It really is the same person. With Homi & Jarvis, it was a duo and we blended and it was all about the vocal harmonies and duets and sharing. That’s a real similarity between then and now. I think I’ve emerged as a writer and a musician. I didn’t play percussion back then. I used to write on keyboards. I wasn’t someone who would do that in public. Now in VKB, I play harmonium and other instruments. I’ve just begun even in that world. And I’ve always loved the idea of collaboration.”

You have an interesting connection to the Westchester County region in that you had regular live performance gigs at the Hastings-On-Hudson Metro-North station. What can you tell me about that?

“Yes, t was so much fun. I guess it was about five years ago. They decided randomly to have music at the train station. When you go inside, there was a little café set up there, a concession, where when people would go and wait for their train, they could have a cup of coffee and a snack. The people who ran it decided that it was going to waste. After hours, nobody stays at the station. Everybody is going home. They rush to their cars. The idea was, get to know your neighbors. Who are your fellow commuters? Peter Valentine, the band member who started it, is a Hastings resident, so he knew about this. The band was four friends who had played together on various recordings but hadn’t actually had a band like this before. We soon discovered that not only local people came, but people who lived in the city took the train up for the gig and then hopped back on and went home.” (laughs)

I also understand that VKB’s last show before the pandemic lockdown was at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester in Hastings as part of the “Common Ground Concerts” series. Were you performing songs from “Pawn Shop Radio”?

“Yes, it was a wonderful and memorable VKB gig. We did all the songs from the album. We had a wonderful audience. Lovely in a Unitarian church. They did a wonderful job with the sound. It was a great experience.”

For more, visit vickikristinabarcelonaband.com.

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