Update: Unfortunately, SPCO has cancelled its performances for this weekend due to Covid-19. Watch out for PaviElle French’s performance with the Schubert Club this May at the Fitzgerald Theater.
PaviElle French is used to breaking down barriers.
As a Black musician, composer, and creator, the powerhouse singer with soulful lyrics, grooving beats and layers of synth, spent quite a bit of time performing for majority white audiences. In recent years, as she’s collaborated or performed with several orchestras in town, including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), the Minnesota Orchestra and the Schubert Club, French worked to bring her own sound, as well as her own community, into spaces that have been historically white.
“I continue to write Black music, because I’m a Black artist,” French said when she takes the time off her busy schedule to speak with me over Zoom. “That’s the aesthetic that I go for. Part of that to me is just having the audacity to do this. To bring this type of music to the orchestra, and continue to push envelopes with sounds.”
This week, the SPCO presents the world premiere of French’s “Sands of Time,” which was commissioned for the orchestra by philanthropists Bill and Susan Sands in collaboration with the American Composer Forum. French will be performing in the piece with her band and members of SPCO, while Chia-Hsuan Lin conducts.
French’s introduction to music started early. Her parents had both been avid music people, while French’s uncle was in a band with Sonny Knight.
“My mom knew that music was for me right off,” French recalls.
Most photos of her as a toddler feature French amidst the family’s many records. From an early age, her mother showed her how to write out lyrics of her favorite songs, like “Stand” by Sly and the Family Stone, and “Free Your Mind and your Ass Will Follow” by Funkadelic.
“She (French’s mother) would write these lyrics and want me to understand it, and then just submerse me with all these different people from Johnny Winter to Aretha Franklin to Chaka Khan,” French said.
As part of the Mississippi Singers, with the Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet, French started gigging at an early age to senior homes and other community places. She was also learning drama, jazz, tap and ballet. Meanwhile, French’s mom bought her a karaoke machine. She’d tape herself, and soon she began making up songs by the time she was 11 years old.
“It was just fascinating to me to be able to make up these songs and keep building on them and to do improvisation, and it really just kind of blossomed,” says the artist.
Later, French would do theater with Steppingstone Theatre, Penumbra, as well as Intermedia Arts, and found mentorship with the late experimental theater director, playwright and performance artist Laurie Carlos. “I just became her little shadow,” French says. By 17, she went on a national tour with the 10-piece band EduPoetic Enterbrainment, after which she started creating as a solo artist.
French wrote the music that would make up her first album, “Fear Not,” after her parents died five months apart. She had moved to Hawaii for a break, and wrote the album as a way of processing her grief. She released “Fear Not,” in 2015, and began thinking she’d like to set some of the songs onto string instruments.
“[R&B and soul music] is written in a way that is very orchestral,” French says. “For me, listening to Isaac Hayes and listening to Barry White, and listening to Motown — how they merged and used classical music to sweeten that funk and that soul — it’s amazing to me.”
She notes Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” as an example of blues and gospel music that features strings.
“This is the kind of thing that I was going for,” French says.
After getting encouragement from some of her connections, French reached out to the SPCO, hoping to play her songs with the orchestra. “They were like, ‘Well, how would you like to write an actual piece for the orchestra?” So French sat down to create a commissioned score, “Requiem for Zula,” which debuted in 2019.
Rather than composing with sheet music, French created her score with the computer program Garage Band, of which she says not everyone is totally accepting.
“I’ve had some experiences with people in the audience during talk-backs where it was a very passive aggressive way to undermine my writing,” she recalls.
For French, her music stands on its own, however she created the score. “I have to remind people that I am an artist,” she says. “The point of art is to evolve the art,” French says. “The point of music is to evoke us and to show us that we are alive. That’s the kind of music that I intend on doing in orchestra halls for as long as I’m here.”
French’s latest SPCO commission, “Sands of Time,” came about after the couple Bill and Susan Sands saw “Requiem for Zula,” and wanted to commission French to create a new piece of music in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary.
“In spending time with them more, and talking about things I observed on my own, just their love for each other, their kindness and fondness of me and how they are consistently supporting.”
French composed “Sands of Time” as an embrace of love in all its forms, including self-love.
The “Sands of Time” world premiere comes at the heels of French’s recent engagement with the Minnesota Orchestra over the holidays, as well as another commission with The Schubert Club coming up in May. For that, French has been given the space to create whatever she wants.
“It’s focus is on Black liberation, and my messages to the youth and all the things that go on inside of my head as a Black woman living in America at this time,” says French of the Schubert commission.
The work tackles similar themes to her recent album, “Sovereign.”
“It’s taking up where Sovereign left off,” she says. “I’m expounding on my ideas of what I believe freedom to be, and what I believe we need as Black people and as marginalized people.”
Catch “Sands of Time” ($12-50) 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22 at the Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Saturday’s concert will also be live-streamed. More information here.