Pop & Hiss premiere: New video for Gabriel Kahane's single 'L.A.'
The first single from Los Angeles native Gabriel Kahane’s sophomore album, “Where Are the Arms,” is the song “L.A.,” which not only directly references the city he was brought up in, but also another artist’s creative work: Joan Didion’s 1970 novel “Play It as It Lays.”
Anyone familiar with her scathing look at the experience of a young woman who travels to the City of Angels will know that Kahane’s song is anything but a love letter: The key lyrical hook in the song says “L.A. — the selfish city wins again.”
The singer, instrumentalist and composer, who was born in 1981 in Venice and is the son of pianist and longtime Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra music director Jeffrey Kahane, Gabriel — who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. — said “L.A.” grew out of a visit home about four years ago when he was serving as music director for a production of Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s rock musical “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
“I was in a bit of a dark place at that time,” Kahane said with a little chuckle from Eugene, Ore., where he was wrapping up a short vacation before heading back to New York to start promotional activities and launch a tour in support of his new album.
“I’d been commissioned to write a large piano piece for a young Russian classical pianist, and I had stocked up on a lot of L.A. noir literature,” he said. “That’s when I first read 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' and ‘Play It as It Lays.’”
“I had read the [Didion] book, and it was so evocative of both a certain time and place that was past but also had kind of a hum or a buzz of that underbelly of L.A. that I felt living there at the time,” he said, then added with a laugh, “That could have just been my depression.”
Kahane, who has composed pieces for the L.A. Philharmonic, an acclaimed song cycle titled "Craigslistlieder," and has played alongside such similarly genre-blind musicians as Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright and Sufjan Stevens, doesn’t attempt to condense Didion’s novel into a 3 1/2-minute pop song. Rather, he offers the equivalent of musical snapshots of some of its themes set to a gently lilting, acoustic guitar-dominated backing that draws on the folk music part of a multifaceted upbringing that immersed him in classical, pop, folk, rock, musical theater, jazz and world music.
“L.A.” probably is the most conventional pop tune on the wide-ranging album, which will be released Sept. 13. It's one reason "L.A." was chosen as the leadoff single, but creating a music video, which Pop & Hiss is premiering here, brought another challenge.
“I’ve always been ambivalent about music videos and I didn’t want to be in one,” he said. So the head of his record company suggested he look at the work of L.A. indie filmmaker Lewis Klahr, who teaches at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
Klahr came up with the stylized pastiche of evocative cut-and-paste imagery that carries the song through. “After seeing Lewis’ work, I thought it would make it a natural fit with a lyric so directly inspired by Didion and him being an L.A. filmmaker.”
Kahane will tour the East and West coasts in the fall, and he’ll be taking a rock quartet on the road to support him as he explores the varied tonal and rhythmic structures of his songs that blur lines between classical lieder and pop songwriting. He’s slated to play Largo at the Coronet on Oct. 13, at which he said he’ll also be joined by the L.A.-based Calder Quartet, with which he’s collaborated before.
As for the line about “L.A. — the selfish city wins again,” Kahane said, “I don’t know at what point that emerged. I can say I was very consciously thinking about the lyric as a kind of split screen: each verse with the first two lines depicting something public like the driving sequences, and the last two lines depicting something like what was happening in the bungalow that was in a private space. But whenever that lyric came to me, I felt I’d hit on something that felt true to me.”
Photo of Gabriel Kahane. Credit: Josh Goleman.