“My last album was rather dark and intellectual,” Abby Travis reflects. “This one comes more from the pelvis.”
The Los Angeles singer-songwriter, bassist and underground fashion icon is referring to her new release, GlitterMouth, an intoxicating amalgam of glam-rock, trip-hop, soul and cabaret.
In addition to serving as the principal author of all of the songs (except the Shangri-Las cover “Past, Present & Future”), Travis sang lead and background vocals, played bass and a handful of other instruments, and produced, engineered and mixed the lion’s share of GlitterMouth. “I know, I know,” she confesses with a silvery laugh, “I have trouble delegating sometimes.”
Despite her admitted “control freak” tendencies, Travis was assisted not only by longtime co-conspirators like keyboardist Kristian Hoffman (The Mumps, Klaus Nomi) and guitarist Dave Bongiovanni (El Vez) but by such special guests as hip-hop studio wizard Lamont Hyde (Dr. Dre), Cocteau Twins mastermind Simon Raymonde, Meat Puppets guitar icon Curt Kirkwood, punk trailblazers Alice Bag and Teresa Covarrubias, L7’s Donita Sparks and former Save Ferris vocalist Monique Powell.
Travis’ previous album, Cutthroat Standards & Black Pop, which earned praise from the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the LA Weekly and numerous other publications, primarily showcased her mordant wit and way with a smoky ballad. GlitterMouth offers a more comprehensive view of her breathtaking musical range – and explores entirely new emotional territory.
Kicking off with the shimmering glam epic “Now Was,” with its reflective yearning, the album finds Travis exploring Bowie-esque avant-funk (“Hunger”), swooning soul (“Grace,” “La Petit Mort,” “Chase Me,” “Roberto”), tantalizing torch songs (“Blythe”) and even shtetl-friendly shtick (the playful oom-pah pastiche “Shoot for the Stars”). Meanwhile, on “Past, Present and Future,” a bizarre mid-’60s monologue of disillusionment, Travis strikes an impressive balance between camp and gravitas.
Travis’ stylistic flexibility is mirrored by her vocal versatility. She can segue from husky-voiced chanteuse to diva at the drop of a hat, and animates the ravished lovers, dejected ex-romantics and cockeyed optimists of her songs with both power and subtlety.
“I wanted GlitterMouth to be as easily enjoyed by the casual listener as by the obsessive,” she remarks. “With Cutthroat you really had to pay attention. You can listen to this one just as closely, and notice cool little production touches and clever lyrics. But you can also just put it on and enjoy it as party music.”
Her collaboration with Hyde marked Travis’ first foray into soul music. “Working in the trip-hop genre allowed me to explore my sexuality a bit more than I have in the past,” she points out. “R&B lends itself to the sensualist vibe I wanted, so that was part of the appeal: Can I be bold enough to throw down my sexuality in a song without masking it with my intellect?”
At the same time, Travis insists, “One of the reasons it works is that I still sing like me. I’m not going to pretend to be Whitney Houston or something.”
For all its visceral impact and erotic frisson, however, GlitterMouth does afford Travis the opportunity to wax philosophical – especially about the passage of time. “‘Now Was’ is sort of about how you grow up in rock and roll,” she relates. “I’m old enough now that I can look back at certain parts of my life and choose to feel regret or be happy about how things went. But most thoughtful adults reach the point where they ask, ‘Is this as good as it gets?’ I’m not a 22-year-old ingénue anymore, though I still have my youthful looks. At the same time, I don’t want to lose the childlike aspects of my personality, the joy of rock and roll. I hope to remain childlike but not as childish.”
Two GlitterMouth songs, “Grace” and “Blythe,” were selected for the WB TV series High School Reunion before the album was even complete. “Hunger,” “Now Was” and “Chase Me,” have earned airplay on L.A. station Indie 103.1; “Past Present and Future” was played on Rodney Bingenheimer’s show on KROQ.
Travis recorded the disc amid a whirlwind of other activities, including playing bass for the Bangles and for Go-Go Kathy Valentine, appearing in the play The Strip (as an incarcerated country singer with amnesia, naturally) and serving as impresario, booker, hostess, promoter, performer and street team for the celebrated L.A. club night Mata Hari, which featured such guest artists as Ann Magnuson, Jane Wiedlin, Mink Stole and Rebekah Del Rio, among many others.
Indeed, she has amassed quite a roster of musical friends since her heady late-’80s days as a teen bassist in the seminal L.A. band The Love Dolls, after which she became an in-demand player, backing up Elastica and Beck in back-to-back sets at Lollapalooza ’95 and supporting acts as diverse as Exene Cervenka, Michael Penn, KMFDM, Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes, Vanessa Paradis and Spinal Tap. She was also house bassist at the riotous, gender-blending Club Makeup, where she could relied upon to enliven everything from an evening of Queen covers to a set by Dee Dee Ramone or a phalanx of warbling, bespangled drag queens. She also appeared in a slew of independent films, including Shadow Hours, Weathermen 69 and The Book of Manson. She wrote, performed, produced and released her first solo disc, The Abby Travis Foundation, in 1998.
Travis toured extensively in support of 2002’s Cutthroat Standards & Black Pop, showcasing a wardrobe worthy of a matinee idol (memorialized in Rocky Schenk’s sumptuous photos, several of which adorn the GlitterMouth package) and helping to popularize the fledging alternative-cabaret subgenre. “It was harder to find other acts to share a bill with back then,” she says. “Now there are a lot more. I’m beginning to feel less like a scene of one.”
Praise for Abby Travis
“ … a torchy lounge diva … Beatlesque pop.” — Los Angeles Times
“ … a Brecht-Weill epiphany.” — Washington Post
“Imagine a smoky, mid-1920s speakeasy, a shapely alto crooning ironic love songs as she drapes herself along the length of the piano. Then she kicks you in the nuts.” — Philadelphia Citypaper
“ … a kind of fantastic take on lust and predatory sexual behavior.” — LA Weekly
“The [songs on GlitterMouth] have complex pedigrees, yet the music – particularly such trip-hop-flecked tracks as the airily soulful ‘Grace’ and the erotically obsessive ‘Le Petit Mort’ – feels more contemporary than anything [Travis has] done…. The irony is sharp as a bodkin.” — L.A. CityBeat
“Impress your friends when Abby Travis gets big 10 months from now.” — Alternative Press
“This sultry songstress is redefining retro-cool.” — Request
“A mixture of elegant melodicism and brooding melancholy, underscored with a touch of rock’s glamour and snarl.” — Portland Oregonian
“ … an artist who’s got the goods.” — Sacramento News & Review
“Conjuring images of mink sliding from bare shoulders and a dead-dry martini in a chromium-plated cocktail bar, her music is sweet as poison. The production is flawless…. Remarkable in every way, and highly recommended.” — Mean Street
“She’s one of those artists who can do anything – like other weird, uncommercial acts such as Madonna or Prince. Got vision? Get her.” — HITS
“A black skewer thrown into the heart of a passing lover…. If you want something that isn’t a cookie cutter of the albums you picked up last week, then [Cutthroat Standards] may just be the soul tonic you’ve been craving.” — Entertainment Today
“With her wondrous, smoky voice, whip-smart lyrical ability and warm gentility, she creates an ethereal yet commanding stage presence.” — Flavorpill
“L.A.’s Abby Travis occupies a category of one…. GlitterMouth is a sleek affair that demonstrates her mastery of glam-rock tropes while stirring in slinky R&B, torchy ballads and off-Broadway broadsides. ‘Now Was,’ a stunningly ambitious tune about the ravages of time … explodes into one gloriously melodic section after another as she harmonizes with herself and lays down one of the hottest bass lines ever.” — Editorializing