As the song lurches forward on a wave of snaking bass and singer Hill Kourkoutis prepares her crisp vibrato for the plunge into the chorus, there is the unmistakable sense that while this sounds completely fresh, this is also quintessential pop/rock.
That familiar tingle strikes again during Dead or Alive, the record’s ubiquitous (at hit radio anyway) focus track. A giddy, heady stew of plinky keyboards, chiming guitars and a ba-ba-ba chorus, the song — which snagged first place during the 2007 National Canadian Radio Star Contest — is diabolical in its catchiness.
Yet for all of Bang!’s archetypal rock touchstones - those hooky choruses, titanium melodies and guitar-goosed rushes — nothing about the record feels contrived. While guitarist David Paoli creates grand arcs of sound in the background, singer/guitarist Kourkoutis grabs the spotlight with a purr then a holler… somehow suggesting you’d be a complete dolt to tune her out.
“If you were to strip down our songs and play them acoustically, they’re straight-up pop/rock songs,” Kourkoutis confirms. “For us, the magic of songwriting happens in the arrangements because that’s when we really have the opportunity to make the songs unique. That’s when we take those songs and Drowning Girl-ify them,” she adds with a laugh.
“Our favorite artists aren’t just bands that have done well commercially but bands that have pushed the limits sonically, like Radiohead and Blur and the Arcade Fire,” adds Paoli. “Both Hill and I want that — even if it is the harder path to follow. But we’re prepared to take those creative risks.”
So who is this risk-taking, traditional / non-traditional duo anyway? Drowning Girl is Toronto-based Kourkoutis and Paoli — think Eurythmics if you’re looking for an easy point of entry. Yet their path towards this moment has been typically atypical.
Originally (and quietly) released in 2006 as a snapshot of Kourkoutis’s singular talent, Bang! boasted several songs co-written with noted Toronto performer Simon Wilcox and featured Paoli as session guitarist.
Though Paoli hadn’t been playing much music at the time (“I had taken a bit of a hiatus due to bitterness,” he cracks) his introduction to Kourkoutis through an acquaintance convinced him to “hitch his wagon to that star.”
After being politely informed by Kourkoutis and her manager that glory was abundant but cash was not, Paoli signed up anyway.
Widespread touring followed with Paoli and Kourkoutis soon discovering a shared songwriting sensibility based on a purposeful mix of musical convention and innovation.
While both admit they’re anxious to release new material they’ve crafted together, Paoli notes the partly re-recorded and completely re-mastered Bang! is as good an introduction as any to the peculiar charms of Drowning Girl.
Kourkoutis and Paoli also serve, in their words, as “guitarists-for-hire” for other performers that include rock chanteuse Tara Slone, cocky chick-rockers Hunter Valentine, The I Spies and Shelby Lamb to name a few. “We just love playing”, Paoli adds “whether it’s Drowning Girl or someone else, it’s something we will do forever.”
“I think Hill is a marvel,” he offers, praising his partner. Paoli continues. “Hill is a great-looking girl who sings her ass off while looking super-cool on stage singing songs she wrote herself and playing guitar. She has a very clear sense of herself, a lot of confidence and she’s an amazing role model.
“I was very inspired by female artists that do everything — you know, write, produce and rock out,” Kourkoutis explains. “The Go-Gos were a big thing for me. My first real concert was Sheryl Crow at Massey Hall in 1997 and as cheesy and cliché as it sounds, at that moment I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Similarly, working with Paoli reinforced Kourkoutis’s sense of musical destiny. “David is a doctor of sound and one of the most hilarious individuals I’ve ever met,” she says. “It’s so rare to come across someone you instantly connect with on a musical level. With David it’s exactly like that. He’s completely open to anything and everything at all times. He’s also one of the most creative musicians I’ve ever known. I learn things from him everyday.
“Plus, there’s never a dull moment. You could be in a business meeting or at a recording session or driving across the prairies in -30 degree weather in a beat-up van, feeling cranky, sleep-deprived and freezing your ass off and David will still have you in tears. He’s my band mate and one of my best friends.”
If several songs on Bang! have a cinematic feel, that’s because Kourkoutis is also a cinephile and lapsed film student, thus bringing to bear elements of light and dark in Drowning Girl’s music. (She’s also been known to wield gear on video shoots). That’s especially evident in the candlelit, noirish Fishhook, where Kourkoutis conjures a shadowy world stacked with imagery at once disturbing (duct tape on mouths anyone?) yet strangely sensual.
Elsewhere, in the cheekily titled, unabashedly rocking Boys Underwear, we meet a character so sharply drawn and three-dimensional that you can practically smell his sweat.
If this is just the beginning for Drowning Girl, it’s positively awesome to consider where Kourkoutis and Paoli might be in five years time. Naturally, Kourkoutis has some pretty clear ideas about that.
“I’d like to be able to sustain a career as a songwriter and musician and I’d love to do that for the rest of my life,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’d love to see Drowning Girl tour the world and make great records that we love and are proud of. So that’s the long-term dream. Not asking for much…”
Edited by [deleted user] on 19 Jul 2007, 22:44
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