It's a coming-of-age tale we've heard a hundred times before: Young girl escapes war-ravaged Bosnia, spends her formative years in Germany and eventually arrives in Cleveland, where she finds employment as a social worker for the elderly and moonlights as the exhibitionist lead singer of an art-punk band. OK, so maybe it sounds more like the plot of a Joe Eszterhas movie. But for Hot Cha Cha frontwoman Jovana Batkovic, the unusual circumstances of her life have helped accelerate her growth as an artist — a development apparent on her band's debut album The World's Hardest Working Telescope & the Violent Birth of Stars.
"I think a lot of my life experiences — leaving home, all the traveling — they just made me a little more assertive, intense and just kind of stronger — where I'll do what I have to do to get my point across," says Batkovic, who co-founded Hot Cha Cha with guitarist/keyboardist Mandy Aramouni in 2007. "It also taught me to be maybe not cynical but able to joke about things that I probably should consider very serious. For me to deal with my life and how it's been, I just had to look at things from a lighter side. So a lot of times, I think that affects some of my lyrics — using humor in a serious situation."
For example, "Bob Has a Better Cow" — a catchy new song ostensibly inspired by Batkovic's rural upbringing in Bosnia — is more absurdist than biographical. Batkovic admits her word choice is often dictated more by "feel" than meaning. Hot Cha Cha's music seems to follow a similar principle, as Aramouni, bassist Heather Gmucs and drummer Lisa Paulovcin (since replaced by Roseanna Safos) successfully maintain a sort of primal immediacy throughout The World's Hardest Working Telescope, shifting from skittering dance-rock to atmospheric post-punk without ever sounding overly self-conscious.
"Sometimes you'll hear people say things like, 'Well, you guys are pretty good for a girl band,' which is really annoying," says Batkovic. "But there are pros and cons to it all. A lot of times I get more response for booking shows because we're an all-girl band — it's kind of different and exciting to people. And on tour, it's easier to find a place to crash, because I think people feel safer with four girls. They assume we're clean, I suppose."
Still, like every all-girl band before them, Hot Cha Cha knows that going dudeless means having to work twice as hard for respect. And while Telescope is a huge leap forward from the band's 2008 debut EP (Rifle, I Knew You When You Were Just a Pistol), some cynical listeners might not be sold until they see the band live — an experience that's hard to forget, thanks in large part to Batkovic's over-the-top stage (and sometimes offstage) theatrics.
"Performance-wise, I'm obviously an exhibitionist," she says. "I've done theater since I was 14, and I got my undergrad in theater. I've just always kind of wanted to be the center of attention."
With their new album, positive comparisons to indie titans like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a little sex appeal for good measure, Hot Cha Cha has all the elements to be Cleveland's next breakout act. For now, though, Batkovic is content spending her days as Jovana the social worker, even if her clients don't quite "get" her other career.
"At work, an elderly woman asked me why I was seemingly on vacation so often, and finally I had to explain that I was actually in a band," says Batkovic with a laugh. "So she starts telling me how dangerous it is for a girl to travel and to be in bars. It was pretty funny. You know, the elderly are awesome — they tell you exactly what they think right to your face. But I don't think I'll be seeing any of them at the shows."
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