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Interview w/ Deanna Varagona
By Holly Day
(more articles from this author)
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Best known as the baritone saxophonist and vocal counterpoint for the eclectic Nashville country-tinged orchestral ensemble Lambchop, Deanna Varagona is striking out on her own with her first full-length solo album "Tangled Messages." Chock full of tunes that remind one of both Leonard Cohen and Emmylou Harris simultaneously, Varagona's arrangements are stark, dark and intensely beautiful, while her voice is in better tune and under better control than 90% of the instruments in the pop collective. Contributing musicians to the disc include Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeremy Barnes , Pinetop 7's Charles Kim as well as about half a dozen other personnel from the world of indie music. I spoke to Varagona from her apartment in Chicago, where she was making mix tapes to take with her out on the road.

[Holly Day] How did you get into playing music?

[Deanna] Well, my family has been involved in music from way back. Let's see-my mom is a piano teacher, which always sounds like "not enough" to me. Like, she's really good, and she teaches theory and harmony and she always taught the choir at church, and knew Latin masses and just tons of stuff. She was definitely not this "read this book and play what I'm playing" type of teacher. She's probably one of the best piano teachers in the country-people sign up literally years in advance to take lessons from her. She's from Italy, and she used to sing opera, and she put her way through music school singing in nightclubs. She also had a chemistry degree, because that's what my grandfather wanted her to major in. My dad didn't have a lot of training or anything, but he always used to sing around the house-he had a really great tenor voice, and used to sing stuff like "Danny Boy" and really freaky stuff like "Saturday Night Fish Fry." I don't think he knew what the song was even about, but boy, what a catchy tune! He was really into the blues, even though he was so incredibly straight-laced. So I just kind of grew up with it. We had our little Italian family choir and used to sing folk songs together in church for the fall festival, and my mom had us all started on violin and piano when we were four, and we learned to sing Christmas carols in five-part harmonies at an early, early age.

[Holly] So what was rebellion for you as a teenager?

[Deanna] I went through this freaky reaction thing where I was messing around on the piano and was doing really well, and then I heard my dad telling my mom later on that he'd heard me play and that I seemed to really have a talent for it. And I'd just freak out, because I was exposed. I didn't think anyone was listening, and I didn't want anyone to listen to me. I was the youngest kid, and spent a lot of my childhood hiding, trying to stay out of the limelight. I stopped playing for a long time after that.

Another thing was that I really had a hard time taking piano lessons from my mom. She could teach anybody else, but not me. So that was kind of wacky. But somewhere along the line, like in 9th grade maybe, I stumbled across some music that I liked in her studio and thought I'd teach myself how to play it, and it turned out to be something really hard, so she freaked out and got me a good teacher. And that was great, because I love a good teacher. I love to be taught by someone that wants to help you make the most of what you do, as opposed to "this is my style, now it can be yours, too," which is what bad teachers do.

[Holly] As an adult, what do you do to make the bills when you're not playing or on tour?

[Deanna] I've got a computer accounting degree-I like to crunch numbers, actually. But I try to work as an accountant. For the most part, other accountants treat me like I'm just this freak from outer space. I mean, they're nice-it wasn't like junior high school, where they treat you like a real alien, but they're like, "Wow, how can you stand up there on stage, and in front of people?" And I just kind of picture that maybe people really do exist that maybe buy cars that don't have radios in them, and try to imagine what it's like to not notice to the music you hear in restaurants or elevators, because it's such a huge part of my life, and it always has been, so to me, these people are the ones from outer space. They're the aliens.

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