Band of the Week: Blaka Watra

MEET THE BAND: Jessica Julian (vocals, synth and keyboards, guitar), Lauren Voss (vocals, guitar), and John Panza (drums).

DYNAMIC DUO: Originally, Voss and Julian met in the local indie rock act Bella Sylva, initially a three-piece that then added Voss. The band split up, and Julian reached out to Voss to jam. They formed Blaka Watra in 2008. “Neither of us was the primary songwriter in Bella Sylva, but I sang on some songs and she sang on some songs and it became apparent that we had a similar coloring of our sound,” says Julian. “We worked together for a year in Bella Sylva,” says Voss. “We get along really well, and I like [Julian’s] songwriting style a lot. There’s contrast between our styles. I wanted to do something different where I was a second guitarist. Bella Sylva was psych guitar rock and this is weirder. I think both Jessica and I are both into heavier stoner rock and metal like Jucifer. I also like poppier stuff. We love Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets. It’s one of our favorite albums.” When their original drummer left the band, they recruited Panza in 2010.

A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION: After Panza was diagnosed with cancer a few years back, the band’s future became uncertain. His recovery, however, enabled the band to fi nish Church of Insomnia, which it released three years ago on Panza’s 40th birthday. “It was great to have a birthday party and a release party since he had been diagnosed with cancer, and we weren’t sure he was going to recover,” says Voss. “We saw that he potentially had years ahead of him and were hopeful.”

TAKING REFUGE: Recorded and mixed by John Delzoppo at Negative Space studio, the band’s new album, City of Refuge, features songs with dense layers of sound (think a heavier Cocteau Twins). “It has a bit of a different feel,” says Voss. “It was more minimal even though there’s lots of sounds and things going on. I tried to scale back what I was doing with the guitars. I wanted to be more precise and calculated. Before, I would just shred. I wanted to do something more sophisticated. For me, it was more about simplicity.” The spacey guitar riffs in the atmospheric “You Are Never Alone,” a song about the fragility of life, have a Tortoise-like quality. “I lost my partner [local musician Ted Flynn] who was my best friend, and John went from having a normal life to thinking he could die in six months,” says Julian. “That changes you forever. You can’t undo those things. What I do creatively now will have some element of being aware of that. Life’s experiences are pretty heavy for us as a group.”

WHY YOU SHOULD HEAR THEM: The album’s sparse opening track, “You Are Never Alone” features whispered vocals and a haunting melody. “[Julian] came up with the melody and I just played one riff and locked into that tone to see what we could build using a limited palette,” says Voss. “She has this oscillator box built by Ted Flynn, her fiance who passed away. She wanted to bring in some of the instruments he left her. It adds this interesting texture. We worked with a limited structure but with lots of layering.” The upcoming show at the Happy Dog serves as a dual CD release party. In addition to releasing City of Refuge, the group will also release Olde Songs, an EP of songs from the band’s back catalog that it re-recorded.


WHERE YOU CAN SEE THEM: Blaka Watra performs with Soft Copy and Forager at 9 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 16, at the Happy Dog.

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About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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