One-Woman Band Gardienne Puts Dark Spin on Alternative Pop

photo credit: Adam Hanly

The first time you listen to her music, you’d guess she’s been writing and releasing music for a few years and a few albums. But you’d be wrong.

You’d think a relatively unknown musician wouldn’t have such production, orchestration, and mixing by the indie cred lineup of Josh Scott, Jeremy Larson, and Chad Howat – fellows who’ve worked with JHS Pedals, Sucre, Sleeping At Last, Paper Route, Brooke Waggoner, and Kye Kye. But you’d be wrong again.

Gardienne is the band’s name, but it’s really Kansas City musician and vocalist, Alyssa DeGraff. A transplant from Southern California, she seemed to have packaged up a healthy dose of West Coast confidence to mesh with a Midwestern work ethic revealed in her recently released debut, “Walking Trees EP.”

You’d be hard pressed to hear a more refreshing voice in alternative music with such range and simultaneous heartfelt honesty. There seems to be a rise in quality alternative and indie music featuring hearty, eclectic female vocals, and it’s a welcome change. Unique voices are certainly an advantage in an age when anyone can produce a record. It’s a jackpot when beautiful, unglossed female vocals are suited to a juxtaposing dark pop element, but fit with such agility.

Authentic, not superficial vocals are what you’ll hear in Gardienne’s dynamic music. She may be new to the independent music scene, but she’s one to watch.

Track by Track – Walking Trees EP

Here are brief impressions from Gardienne’s “Walking Trees EP,” which you can stream or purchase on Bandcamp or iTunes.

1. The clarity of DeGraff’s enchanting voice catches your attention right from the start of the EP’s opener, “Man on the Moon.” The mix of acoustic strums and humble percussion intrigue all the more once the interwoven orchestral strings come into play. The bridge is the first time Gardienne lets loose her self-described “pop-infused dark indie rock,” when the big guitars present a fitting platform for her emotive melodies. Fuzzy guitars sustain over her pristine vocals and hold you captive until the next track plays.

2. “The Garden” – which you can download for free on Noisetrade – begins with snare drum and a rolling piano-driven progression under slightly modified vocals. It feels like you’re listening to a modern cover of a dusty old bar tune, until the chorus hits with a concoction of dread, confusion, and fragility wrapped in big guitar riffs. The drama escalates into a frenzied, striking image of a frantic search in the woods for a lost love: “Where have you gone/Why can’t I feel you/Why do my eyes see men like walking trees.” A haunting, standout moment on the EP.

3. “Storm” presents as a yearning ballad drenched in patient piano chords and airy, endearing vocal improvisation. A switch flips and it transitions into a punchy pop track reminiscent of big band cadence and horns, but with restraint. Before it drifts off, it feeds into a soothing declaration, “You are making me new.”

4. “Surrender” features a choppy sea-like lilting bassline and clever drum kit work. Layered vocals in the chorus beg for singing along to the car stereo with the windows down, while still keeping a realistic perspective of the nuanced world we live in. Drifting between major and minor moods never felt better. Meandering into a forest of reverb gets a listener lost, in a good way, before jumping back into the chorus and ending with tasteful guitar licks over emphatic percussion.

5. “Between Sleep & Awake (Peter Pan Song)” bleeds dream-like fantasy imagery. Delicate acoustic picking and swells of piercing synth and strings set the stage for a reverb-heavy bridge before the song ends gently, DeGraff’s voice leaving listeners wanting more.

photo credit: Steve Willis

I asked DeGraff a few questions about the EP, inspiration, and what music can do for people.

Exclusive Q&A with Gardienne: One-Woman Alt Pop

Q: How long did it take you to write all the music and lyrics for the EP? How was the recording process?

A: The “Walking Trees EP” is a collection of songs I have written over the past several years, with the song “The Garden” being my most recent one. I had an incredibly hard time whittling it down to these five because I was so excited about all the instrumentation possibilities. Being given that freedom to use more than just my guitar or piano and voice to communicate the range of emotions behind each song was one of the most empowering things I have ever experienced, especially as a woman.

Suddenly immersed in a “man’s world” of gear and lingo, I was still able to learn so much because of the amazing team I got to work with. They let me run pretty free and take the reins as a first-time coproducer, and that’s where I fell even more in love with the process of creating music (I even convinced them to let me play drums on “Between Sleep & Awake“).

Q: What other parts of your life impact your music and writing? Who or what has given you the best tools to grow as a person and musician?

A: I think my curiosity with psychology has really impacted my writing and my growth as a person. I took psych classes in college because I wanted to better understand people and the way the heart works.

Being a very analytical person, I also have wildly bizarre dreams that have inspired many of my songs. For example, the song, “Surrender,” actually came about after I had a series of intense dreams where I was being followed around by baby bear cubs, and, ultimately, every dream would end with the terrifying momma grizzly showing up (hence the lyrics that sound like I am being chased). I was so confused by these strange nightmares, until I came across a scripture in Hosea where the Lord talks about his jealousy over Israel and how he would come after her like a mother bear seeking her cubs. My perspective suddenly shifted, and I was able to see my own worth to God as one of his children whom he would zealously defend, “Then I see it was you, all along, you are the jealous One.”

Q: What do you want listeners to walk away from your EP or a show thinking?

A: My dream is for people to hear my music and think, “Wow, that is raw and REAL. And makes me feel stuff.” I’m not trying to be a standout cool indie artist who wears komonos and sings about my perfect glamorous life. Most of my songs have taken root in my most painfully real life experiences, and I want more than anything for others to hear something in my music that makes them feel less alone in what they have gone through.

As I pulled these five songs together, I started to see the common thread summed up in a lyric from “The Garden,”“Why do my eyes see men like walking trees?” Each song showed me wrestling with my own skewed perspectives and need for further healing. I was able to connect to the tension in Mark 8, where a blind man was touched by Jesus and received some mysterious partial restoration of sight. I think so much of our walk on this earth lands us in that tension of living between two worlds, where we are somehow restored, yet not fully restored. I think this expression of the struggle and beauty of faith will always find its way into my music.

Q: Are there any other specific things you’d like people to know?

A: I once had a dream that I was in a Led Zeppelin cover band and they made me wear a wig so I’d look like Robert Plant.

Q: Do you have a full album in the works? What should people expect?

A: I’m currently in the process of writing a bunch of new songs that I can’t wait to share with people. Doing a full length album is definitely one of my goals, but I’ve learned from this EP that patience and waiting for the right team to come together are absolutely key. I’ll have to leave this answer a little mysterious, but you definitely will be hearing more from me. 🙂

Q: Where should people go to find more about you and the music?

A. My website is www.gardiennemusic.com but I have the most fun staying connected and interacting with my fans on my Facebook (www.facebook.com/gardiennemusic) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/gardiennemusic) pages!

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Listen to Gardienne’s music here and leave a comment below. What other emerging artists should we listen to?

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