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Cutthroat Cabaret 

All Abby Travis needed to know about performing, she learned in summer camp.

Abby Travis: In love with the '20s.
  • Abby Travis: In love with the '20s.
When she was eight years old, Abby Travis went to summer camp in Portland, Maine, and discovered that she wasn't like the other kids. Rehearsing for a production of Sweeney Todd, she dedicated most of her time to memorizing her lines and little of it exploring the great outdoors.

"Every day I would be in rehearsal listening to Sweeney Todd, and that's pretty gothic music," she says via phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I think it filtered into my subconscious, because I still remember every word of it. One girl who had a much better role than I did was complaining because it was really sunny, and she wanted to go swimming. I was thinking that I was having more fun than doing the rest of the activities at that wretched camp. I got along with the counselors more than the other children, but that was often the way I was when I was a kid. I got along better with adults than kids, maybe because adults got my dark sense of humor more than kids."

Travis, who was living in Los Angeles, would return home and enter the L.A. public school system, where she bounced from school to school. By the time she was a teenager, she had discovered David Bowie and Queen, and knew that she wanted to be a musician. She started playing in a punk band called the Lovedolls, with whom she went on a national tour when she was only 16. Soon after, the band broke up, but Travis kept busy doing session work for a number of artists, including the industrial outfit KMFDM, singer-songwriter Michael Penn, and French singer Vanessa Paradis. On the 1995 Lollapalooza festival, she played with the British alternative group Elastica after its bassist was ousted, and she played in Beck's band on that same tour. But all the while, she still cherished the lifestyle that she embraced as a teen, when she was part of an unknown band trying to make a name for itself.

"I was traveling in these high-budget buses and doing fabulous other things," Travis says of that time. "With the exception of the quality of the bathrooms on these smaller tours, those can be a lot more fun, and you get to meet people who are more interested in meeting you rather than who you're working for. It seems a little more honest, although it's really hard work."

Calling herself the Abby Travis Foundation, she released her self-titled debut in 1998. Parts of that album recall the collaborations between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, but it only showed hints of what was to come. With Cutthroat Standards & Black Pop, an album that sounds as if it were recorded when jazz and lounge music were the popular music of the day, Travis makes a rather drastic departure. She maintains, however, that the songwriting process for Cutthroat wasn't much different from her rock-oriented debut.

"I also wrote the songs on the first record on piano and rearranged them with a rock band," Travis explains. "This time I was a little more true to the essences of the songs. I think it suits my voice to croon more. And also, it was kind of a problem-solving technique to make this record, because I could go on tour without a whole band and pull it off."

To simplify things, Travis, who says she occasionally plays in L.A. with a seven-piece band, is touring with only one bandmate, keyboardist Kristian Hoffman (formerly of the Mumps and Congo Novell). She and Hoffman met each other while on tour with El Vez, an L.A. musician who does Latin versions of Elvis Presley songs. Travis says that she was hired by El Vez to be an Elvette -- "a job I'm not well suited for." Still, she admits that the shows she played in Memphis, as part of the 20th anniversary of Presley's death, were interesting on "a sociological level, rather than musically," and she instantly struck up a friendship with Hoffman, who was playing keyboards in the band.

"We were the two grumpy, sardonic people in the corner," she says. "When it came time to make the second record, I wanted to collaborate with someone, and we got along really, really well. We have a lot of the same tastes, but he's a little more pop-oriented, and I have a little more jazz damage."

To go along with the cabaret style of music she plays on Cutthroat Standards, Travis has also embraced a Marlene Dietrich look. In a video for the song "Everything's Wonderful," directed by Dave Markey (The Year Punk Broke), she visits the old Hollywood haunts that were frequented by movie stars in the '20s, and her hair is cut in a bob that looks like something right out of the era.

"I think that look adopted me," she says. "I used to have really long hair and just got sick of it and cut it shorter. Because of the way my face is, people told me that I looked like a '20s movie star. It's not just Hollywood. I am very interested in what was going on in Paris and the Weimar Republic, as well as New York. I think that whole period is really fascinating, and I loved how the people who worked in different mediums worked together. If you went to a ballet in France at the time, Picasso might have painted the background, and Balanchine might have done the choreography. Probably the people who lived there at the time thought it was as pretentious as we think all of our scenes are, but it seems really romantic to me."

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