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Throughout the '90s with Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval's voice combined with David Roback's shimmering, darkly psychedelic slide guitar to create some of the most memorable indie music to come out of Los Angeles's so-called paisley underground. It wasn't exactly a rocket ride to the top: The band's flirtation with recognition was almost as languorous as Sandoval's vocal style.
Mazzy Star's debut, She Hangs Brightly, came out on Rough Trade Records in 1990, after which the label's American arm promptly folded. The band was picked up by Capitol, which released So Tonight That I Might See in 1993. The album caught the ears of college-radio listeners and spawned a minor hit with "Fade Into You," which cracked the Top 40 a year later.
Mazzy Star has been hidden so far underground for so long that many people assume it's gone up to that great gig in the sky. After all, the band's most recent record, Among My Swan, came out in 1996. But Sandoval, who's doing her best to work the press in preparation for an upcoming tour with her latest project, Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, says it ain't so.
"I don't know why people are saying that [Mazzy Star] is over," Sandoval says. "Maybe because we haven't done anything in so long. But it's not. The band is not broken up or anything. We've been recording new songs, and after the [Warm Inventions] tour, we're going to finish the last few recordings and get set to make the record."
"Fade Into You" was Mazzy Star's closest brush with big-time fame, and the experience cemented Roback and Sandoval's reputation for being elusive with the press and the public. They became known for stopping shows in the middle of a song if the audience was making too much noise -- as if Sandoval and her shy, sad voice were too delicate to compete with anything beyond the stage. The two were also fond of stonewalling interviewers with obscure, irrelevant non-answers. Now, in a conversation made up of long stretches of silence punctuated with actual statements, Sandoval confesses that despite doing them for over a decade, interviews haven't gotten any more comfortable.
"I think it was easier in Mazzy Star, 'cause I was always with David and always doing interviews together," she says. "In this project, I always do the interviews myself."
So Sandoval is not much of a talker. Who cares? She communicates beautifully as an artist who sings with genuine sweetness, no matter whom she's performing with. It's difficult to imagine a voice more hauntingly ethereal, heartbreakingly sad or vulnerable than that of the thirty-something chanteuse from East L.A. One can almost indulge the "lost little girl" tagline that invariably turns up in a discussion of Sandoval: She makes Margo Timmins sound like a longshoreman with some horrible lung disease.
But Sandoval says the public perceives her in a way that is quite the opposite of sweet.
"I've always thought that people got the impression that I was a tough sort of ruffian type," she says, so faintly that the phone connection seems as though it's filtering in from the distant past. "That's what people tell me."
Whether or not that's a fair characterization, Bavarian Fruit Bread, the Warm Inventions' debut album, is anything but rough and tough. Taken as a whole, the recording somehow plunges down a level from Mazzy Star's already subdued style. But although the sound is muted, the Warm Inventions have little of Mazzy Star's morose edge, opting instead for a quiet contentedness. If Mazzy Star has the tone of longing, of lonely nighttime bedrooms filled only with the acute memory of that special lover now long gone, the Warm Inventions are the morning after that person has returned. Bavarian Fruit Bread is sunshine spilling in the window onto tousled sheets, a Sunday paper ignored in favor of less studious pleasures. It is music for lovers entwined, uncaring, dreaming.
Translating that sleepy soundscape to a live venue is a challenge Sandoval and her bandmates look forward to.
"We're all pretty excited," Sandoval says. "Pretty nervous, as well. I don't think [playing live] ever gets any easier."
The band, which includes former My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O'Ciosoig and Scotland-born guitarist Bert Jansch, ambles along with nicely warm, slow and generally cheerful tunes. Interspersed with fragments of sound -- a cymbal lightly rolled over and over; the echoing, repeated zip of a finger sliding up a guitar string -- the songs are based on simple structures, but elaborated upon with a soft touch. Though most of the material was written by Sandoval alone or with O'Ciosoig -- who claims four of the album's co-songwriting credits -- it's heavily indebted to Jansch's intricate work on the acoustic guitar.
"Bert Jansch I met several years ago, because we did a show with him with my other band," Sandoval says. "When I started to write the songs that are on this record, I thought it would be nice if he could play guitar. I sent him a tape, and he really liked it. It was really lucky he could come out and play on the record."
Jansch has been a legend among guitar players for nearly four decades. Based in Britain, he has been cited as an influence by people who aren't too shabby on the instrument themselves, such as Neil Young and Jimmy Page. His songs have even been covered by other guitar legends, including Nick Drake. Jansch's approach differs widely from that of Mazzy Star guitarist Roback. Instead of morphine-vampire-feedback slide guitar, he plays an acoustic style so ornate it borders on classical in places. The arrangements on Bavarian Fruit Breadare skeletal enough to allow his guitar to come out, strong but supple alongside Sandoval's vocals.
Sandoval considers O'Ciosoig to be her main partner in the Warm Inventions. Though the band's style is about as far removed as possible from the ultra-feedback noise-pop annihilation of My Bloody Valentine, Sandoval has said she doggedly sought him out for the project.
"Colm I met about four and a half years ago in London, and we became friends," Sandoval says. "We shared a lot of the same musical interests, and we just started writing together. I was traveling with a portable studio, and we just started to record some of our ideas."
Bavarian Fruit Bread abounds with subtleties that are not immediately apparent. The third song, "Butterfly Morning," starts off with little more than vocals and twirling, elaborate guitar work. The song is transcendent and hypnotic, with Sandoval's voice and Jansch's guitar so ingeniously dovetailed that you hardly notice when a keyboard line and a breathless harmonica enter amid Sandoval's lyrics of determined love: "Butterfly morning/And wildflower afternoons/Gonna get me there/If I have to climb all the mountains on the moon."
"Feeling of Gaze" has an odd but oddly engaging cello line repeated underneath Sandoval's vocals, along with a deep background piano that's almost impromptu, like someone sat down at a piano in a quiet house and started tapping out nearly random notes. It is easily one of the most intriguing songs on the disc, which opens with a nearly unidentifiable cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Drop."
Though there was an open period in the '90s when odder, more eclectic musical ideas could find an audience, it's possible that today the subtleties of a musician like Sandoval might be drowned out by the white noise of the plastic pop princesses dominating the airwaves. But Sandoval believes that such performers tap audiences that are fleeting at best.
"I think people don't give young women enough credit, really," she says. "I think if you and I can agree what's going on with artists like that, like Britney Spears, I think so can young women. Maybe it's just sort of a phase, and they'll grow out of it. I think we all grow up with idols and things like that. Eventually, we laugh about it. I think it's one of those things that kids are into, like they were into Atari and whatever else -- Duran Duran, things like that. I think there'll always be things that kids get into that they grow out of when they start living real life."
And as far as those audiences who were so loud as to force Mazzy Star to stop playing, Sandoval says the band's reputation may have done some good in that area.
"David and I did some shows a year ago in Europe, and it was unbelievable," she says. "It was so quiet, we got nervous. It was too quiet."
When Hope Sandoval is singing, there's no such thing.