Seattle is famous for being the birthplace of Starbucks and the town that produced Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, popularizing grunge as a rock genre. Being famous as the home of corporate coffee might be something a lot of people would want to live down, but being able to lay claim to Cobain and Nirvana as native sons has assured Seattle its place in rock and roll history. Nothing, not even the embarrassment of Courtney Love, can diminish the fact that the town gave birth to the first significant American post-punk rock and roll band. However, Nirvana and grunge haven’t been the only musical exports the city has given to the rest of the world, just the ones they’re most famous for.
Born in Venezuela in 1963, now Brooklyn-based, Yva Las Vegass spent years in Seattle’s music scene. While she does have a Nirvana connection, she and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic briefly formed Sweet 75 in the mid ’90s, from the sound of it not many will have heard of her till now. While she’s never stopped making and creating music, homelessness, drugs and being an unapologetic gay woman of colour have all contributed to her flying under most people’s radar. She just can’t be sold to middle America no matter how you cut it. According to documentary filmmaker Wiley Underdown, who made The Life And Times of Yva Las Vegass: Giving Success the Middle Finger, she also had the problem of being “a pretty good representation of the inherently self-destructive type”, a great artist but not somebody who can function in everyday life.
I can’t speak to the state of Vegass’ personal life or temperament, but judging by her most recent release on Moniker Records, I Was Born In A Place Of Sunshine And The Smell Of Ripe Mangoes, she not only has passion to burn, she’s as talented and uncompromising a musician as I’ve ever heard. Of the nine tracks on the disc, only two of them have English-language titles and lyrics; they’re called “Crack Whore” and “Pussy In Your Eye.” She’s completely unapologetic for the fact that the rest of the disc is in Spanish. In her press comments she says in 21st century America everybody should at least know conversational Spanish. While some might find that statement off putting, those who do aren’t going to be exactly in her demographic anyway.
Being a Canadian, I don’t have any skill in Spanish, so unfortunately I can’t speak to the content of the majority of the songs. However, if they’re anything like the two English-language tracks, they’re going to challenge listeners’ beliefs about everything from civil rights to sexual politics. What can you expect from a release where the performer introduces herself prior to the first song as a “motherfucker?” “Crack Whore” tackles the issue of racism head on and will hopefully leave any white hipster who listens to it feeling incredibly uncomfortable. In it Vegass asks why is it when white friends ask her to go buy crack for them, she’s the one who ends up being called the crack whore? They’re so cool because they use drugs, but when they want any they are too scared of the “types” of people who sell them to buy the stuff themselves.
While she delivers part of this song while talking over her guitar, exclaiming her bitterness at the death of the civil rights movement, when she does sing it’s in a surprisingly sweet, almost wistful-sounding voice considering the lyrical content. One would expect and understand a song about such an emotionally charged subject to contain a lot of anger. However, while Vegass does allow anger to show through periodically, her ability to modulate the emotional tone of the song is what makes it powerful. After a while the constant drone of anger becomes just so much noise to be blocked out. By changing it up, by showing the hurt and disappointment racism can cause as well as the anger, she keeps our attention. The range of emotions makes the song far more real to us and offers a glimpse of the true nature of the wounds caused by racism.
It was this type of subtlety that impressed me most about the recording. Being an experienced street performer myself, I know the types of things you have to do in order to get people to pay attention to you. First of all, volume is key when you’re competing against traffic noise and occasionally that means sacrificing nuances in tone and touch. While there are still times when Vegass tends to declaim instead of sing, she still displays far more versatility with her voice than most solo acts. You don’t have to be able to speak the language to understand the overall emotional content of most of her songs. Some people might wear their hearts on their sleeves. She wears it on her voice and it makes for captivating listening.
Musically Vegass’ guitar playing borders on belonging to what I call the “strum und drang” school. Hard strumming that sounds impressive to start with but eventually becomes monotonous. However, she has skill to burn when it comes to her guitar. She might play fast and loud, but her ability to mix various Latin styles with her rather straight ahead punk approach keeps the music fresh. She also knows when to dial it back so she gives herself room to build instead of playing at a fever pitch all the time. Sure there are a couple of songs that start pretty close to over the top, but she carefully works breaks into them, making sure they aren’t a complete assault upon your senses.
Yva Las Vegass is never going to be the darling of the liberal college student set because she’s too real. She wears the scars from her battles with the world proudly and doesn’t really care if people can’t cope with them. She’s not about “empowering” her audience by singing about issues and playing to their middle class guilt. She sings about life from a perspective that very few of us have had to experience and does so with honesty, integrity, and passion. Perhaps she would be more successful if she was willing to compromise by singing more songs in English or singing about subjects less likely to offend people, but that’s not who she is. Genuine artists are few and far between in the music industry these days and we should be grateful there are at least one or two still out there who won’t back down from what they believe in. Forget “Viva Las Vegas,” it should be viva Yva Las Vegass.