DeVotchKa Live in Studio

DeVotchKa stopped by WERS for a live in-studio performance before opening for The Magnetic Fields the 7th and 8th at the Berklee Performance Center. The normally gypsy or cabaret band has had to restructure their songs for the stage to match The Magnetic Fields’ intimate sound. This includes making the quartet a trio, Jeanie Schroder absent from the stage for these tour dates since her bass and tuba parts are too forward for the overall sound. Now it’s just Nick Urata on vocals and guitar, Shawn King on percussion, and Tom Hagerman on accordion. “It’s all about the lyrics and the harmonies,” said Urata. “It informs you of what it is about a song that makes it worth pursuing. It makes it very apparent when there are three little voices singing.”

The three started with a track off their most recent album, 100 Lovers, called “Exhaustible”. Urata launched into a whistling tune that never wavered, despite the exhausting amount of air required. Acoustic guitar, tambourine, Hagerman’s subtle accordion endearingly floated around the studio air.

“That’s why we all hooked up,” Urata said, when asked about their choice of instruments that also includes trumpet, Melodica, violin, and Theremin. “We were all a little burnt out of that guitar-bass-drum setup. If we want to play a rock song with accordion, we just try it.”

DeVotchKa’s fearlessness of the unknown is what has given them such a unique sound that continues to solidify over the years since their formation in 1997. They began as a backing band for burlesque shows (“It was one of the earliest gigs we could get and we couldn’t turn that down,” Urata had said) but soon found exposure through films: “How It Ends” was featured in the trailer for 2005’s Everything Is Illuminated and they composed the score for 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine.

They then shot in to “You Love Me” off their fourth album, How It Ends. Patient guitar plucking opened up the song followed by steady shakers creating a base for the rest of the tune to travel on. The three men swung gently back and forth as they created one connected sound in the studio. “I think we just want to appeal to some common emotional stripe that we all have, strike a chord with a certain person in a certain mood,” Urata later said. “[Our music] is an expression for us and hopefully people will connect with that.” The open field image of liberation and fear “You Love Me” provoked no doubt did just that.

They closed their in-studio performance with “Head Honcho,” whose short accordion notes play with the speed of the chicken dance song played at children’s birthdays. The fast pace of the song dares listeners to brave the dance floor. Yet the toned-down versions of their songs lack their unique magic without the rest of the instruments. “These audiences seat 2,500 silent people and it’s kind of cool but somewhat unnerving,” King said. “We like to rock a little and get some kind of groove on and those are no-no words for [The Magnetic Fields]… They just want to do the quietest, most stripped-down, intimate show. They’re so into the song because they’ve stripped it down to the bare minimum.”

Regardless of the change of sound, DeVotchKa are flattered The Magnetic Fields asked them to open for some of their tour dates, having been long-time fans. They love the challenge of picking only the most important parts of their songs to perform on stage. “Don’t limit yourself to try to be a [certain] musician or band,” Hagerman said. “Keep your mind open and learn from everything.” The three then agreed on how hard work is what truly creates good music “Don’t be in such a hurry to be in touch with the outside world with your music,” Urata said. “That will eventually come. Just make sure you love what you’re doing first.” As DeVotchKa ended their in-studio performance, they played around on their instruments and put them away but still had smiles on their faces. Even the stripped-down sound they’re learning for these shows is making them love music all the more.

By Nina Corcoran

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