As PaviElle French’s voice lifted the audience’s spirits at First Avenue’s Best New Bands of 2014 show, it was easy to see why the audience danced along with her. French’s music embodies her life experiences. She creates something timeless, something everybody can relate to she said recently at the Acadia Café in Minneapolis.
French doesn’t go by a stage name, and smiled when asked if PaviElle was one. Because French played Best New Bands, it was easy to assume her solo act was new, but French’s solo act isn’t quite new. She has been playing with her current band for roughly two years, and her musical roots sprouted 20 years ago while she grew up in St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood.
French said music was all she had known most of her life.
“My whole life has a soundtrack,” she said as she laughed. “My mom liked rock, a lot of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, KISS, things of that nature. My dad really liked R&B and old soul, so I had the gamut, from everything.”
French has taken those influences with her, most notably her father’s R&B and soul influence. She sings about her struggles as if she has been carrying them for miles, weaving them into a narrative of death, healing and rebirth on Fear Not, her debut solo album.
French said if you had told her five years ago she would have a full-length album put together she wouldn’t believe you. “I would of never imagined that’d I be back doing this because I was just done,” she said.
She said she had grown tired of the music industry as the first decade of the ‘00s came to a close. She had sung for Sonny Knight, Khalil Queen, Everyday People and joined EduPoetic Enterbrainment at 16. After both of her parents lost battles with cancer five months apart in 2010 and 2011, the grief for French was too much.
She moved to Hawaii in 2011 and settled in for what she thought would be the end of her music career.
“I wouldn’t be able to live my life if I didn’t go and do that,” she said. “I’m just that kind of person, where it’s like if I need to self-check, and I need to fall back, I will fall back. Whatever I need to do to maintain my health and my sanity, I do that,” she said with a clear sense of certainty.
A Hawaiian family took French in while she attended the University of Hawaii at Hilo. During that sabbatical, she kept writing songs using her laptop. After sitting on so many songs she soon had to ask herself what she was going to do with them.
French has a strong presence about her, an extroverted energy that seems to have a mind of its own. Her forceful nature makes it hard for her to believe anything would stop her from singing. “Sometimes I don’t want it no more/ but this passion inside of me won’t let me let this music be,” she sings on “Runnin’.” That one line sums up her 20-year relationship with music.
That relationship might have started at home, but her love for performing started at the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul.
“Her brother was an actor, so she started coming around with him,” Anita Robinson said, Penumbra’s audience services director.
French did her first performance at 5, and started working various jobs around the theater as a teenager. Robinson described French as “not aggressive, but always worked forward and obtained her goals.” This is something that remains evident today to those in French’s presence.. Her motivation shines through, and it’s clear to see what fuels the passion that won’t let her walk away from music.
But French says it’s different this time around.
“When I was kid, and I was trying to be everything, I remember all my mentors were telling me keep your face out there. I’m not that type of person, you know what I mean,” French said rhetorically. “I’m a loner. I have a home bar I call my Cheers. I have a certain place that I go, and I keep it very low key,” she said as the laugh crept out along with her words.
She still has a borderline aggressiveness to her, but it’s more about her craft, not publicity. “Now it’s just about the love,” French said. “It’s more of the outlet of it and the fun I have with it because I will be up there having a good time.”
It’s clear that French can’t stay away from music, but the fun didn’t start back up just like that. She returned to the Twin Cities in 2012, and started going out to places like the Blue Nile when bands would be playing. “I would sit on the keys, play and show them the song, and then I would get up and sing,” she said.
She started popping into the Melting Pot when her bass player and producer Casey O’Brian played there.
“It was usually a jazz trio. She would come down and we would figure out what songs we all knew together and play those,” O’Brian said. “Eventually she started popping in more, and we would start learning some of her stuff. It just became a thing and was really fun.”
O’Brian helped French work out the songs putting his touch on things, but he said it was limited. “She’s just got such a powerful voice and presence, and if you play pop music at all you understand when to get out of the way, and that’s really nice to have sometimes.”
PaviElle is proof that the local music scene can require digging to find the gems before the rest of town catches on. “These songs are my life story, and they can not only provide healing for other people and healing for myself, but it’s hope and it’s the struggle, and these are things everybody can identify with on a level of humanity,” she said.
PaviElle is no longer a hidden gem of music scene. The Twin Cities have identified with her story. Her struggles are relatable, cathartic and really speak to people. At her Best New Bands show at First Avenue, French was backstage at First Avenue for the Best New Bands show. Her band was already playing, but she was waiting to make her entrance. She was dancing to her band alone with a large genuine smile spread across her face, a smile that let you know she was having the time of her life.
Reporter Aaron Bolton is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota. Thanks to the Murphy News Service for sharing this story with us.