Soulful Rock: The Music of Visiting Violette
That’s the main word that Glenn Suravech uses when asked to describe the evocative sound of his band’s lead singer.
“You can take a lot for granted,” the guitarist-composer says. “But as we’re finishing our second album I’m reminded about how fortunate we are to have someone with such an incredible voice.”
The band benefiting from that voice is Visiting Violette, which Suravech founded with fellow guitarist Shin Kawasaki and vocalist-songwriter Lee Takasugi. Takasugi’s textured vocals have inspired comparisons to such luminaries as Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs and Martha Davis of The Motels.
“Lee is classically trained in jazz and choir but brings a very soulful quality to her singing,” Suravech says. “She also has a really great sense of phrasing. Most singers just worry about pitch but Lee also listens to the bass, which is a rhythmic instrument. She knows how to put the notes in just the right place with good timing.”
Visiting Violette’s debut album, a hero’s day, drew rave reviews for its deft blend of alternative rock, R&B, and jazz—and for incorporating an Asian American point of view.
“The music often has an Asian American or Japanese American story attached to it, but it's subtle," says Suravech. "Our song 'On Mars,' for example, uses the idea of fear of people who are different as a metaphor for the World War II internment without actually mentioning it."
"Society is always battling with race, height, weight, sexual orientation, different things,” Suravech comments. “Ethnicity is sometimes one of the things that comes up. Because of my surname, I’m often asked, ‘What are you?’ And ’'m usually pretty frank about it. I tell them that Suravech is a Thai name and I’m pretty okay with it. But I understand how it can be challenging for other Hapa people.”
Suravech sees music as not only a tool for dealing with life’s challenges, but as an especially powerful influence on younger generations.
“Music is very personal and a lot of great art comes from great pain and struggle,” says Suravech. “I’m always surprised how art can affect people. It is amazing to me, and yet I’m a product that of myself. I went through my adolescence without my father. But music became somewhat of a father figure for me.”
“When I was a teenager, artists like Bono, Bob Dylan, and Jackson Browne had an impact on me because they showed how to use art to convey their beliefs,” Suravech explains. “They made it all accessible for me at first through melodies and songwriting skill but also the messages. The charisma and courage of the music were inspiring role models.”
“It’s always impressed me how we get a lot of young women who really respond to Lee during our performances,” he adds. “It illustrates that there’s a need for strong Asian female role models too. Our next album will be somewhat ‘female-centric,’ with some of the songs exploring the perspective of ‘tough little girls’.”
While the response from audiences has been exciting, Suravech says that he and his bandmates try to stay focused on the quality of their music and “keeping it honest.”
“It’s flattering when people give us awards or honors or when educators use our music in their classes to reflect what Japanese American artists have done,” says Suravech. “But it’s really just three of us in a room playing songs. The three of us each had to overcome unique challenges to pursue a life as musicians and being a ‘band,’ and I’m grateful that it has touched people in the community.”
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