Vocalist and songwriter Marica Petrey is too young to have experienced mind-blowing Bay Area art-rock bands like Idiot Flesh and Sleepytime Gorrila Museum, but she’s working in a grand tradition that turns concerts into gothic, theatrical extravaganzas. Far more than a recording, her new album Shapeshifter by her band Girl Swallows Nightingale features an impressive cast of collaborators who help her summon weird and wondrous sights, sounds, textures, and even tastes.
While the spectacle she had planned for the Starline Social Club on Saturday has fallen victim to the virus-impeding imperative to keep social distance, the ample ambition behind the project is evident in the videos and artwork that can be seen online. Not exactly a song cycle, Shapeshifter traces a loose narrative set in a dystopian realm where a protean character named Nue toils as a professional “memory reaper,” an occupation that involves hunting down traumatic memories, extricating them from a person’s mind and consigning them to fireflies.
With a diet that includes live birds and small rodents, she’s a feral hunter inspired by Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, Masamune Shirow’s Motoko from Ghost in the Shell, the doomed Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, Ozzy Osborne, “and parts of myself too,” Petrey said.
In many ways, Shapeshifter and Petrey’s theatrical presentation embodies Nue’s mission, transforming inner demons into vividly disturbing creations rather than self-destructively sublimating the memories. In addition to her band with Andrea Wang on keyboards and backing vocals, drummer Mogli Maureal, bassist Travis Kindred and violinist Eli Wirtschafter, the project includes several short films by Petrey, photography by Mogli Maureal, and costumes by Alice Colajacomo.
“I wanted the concert to incorporate some immersive elements of theater,” Petrey said. “The music stands alone, but there are all these other ways you can enter the album. The show is a cross between a party and a concert. People can come to drink and listen to kick-ass music, but if they want to engage further there are characters roaming around. I want to awaken the senses beyond sound and light with smell, touch and taste.”
Co-produced by UnderCover Presents, the Starline program was conceived as a triple bill that also included Melissa Jones’ seven-piece Oakland soul and funk band No Lovely Thing and pianist, composer, and visual artist Cava Menzies’ Colorqueen, a marked departure for the organization known for producing stylistically far-flung multi-act concerts reimagining classic albums like Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! track by track. Luke and Petrey are working on rescheduling the concert at the Starline as soon as possible.
UnderCover Presents co-founder Lyz Luke says working with Petrey’s Girl Swallows Nightingale is part of “a pivot to present more original Bay Area music is smaller venues. Presenting at the Fox is amazing, but we’re looking to support more grassroots venues like the Starline, which is really cultivating the East Bay scene. And I love that all of these acts are female-led.”
Petrey was playing cello with Awesöme Orchestra at the UC Theatre as part of the UnderCover Presents Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when she met Luke. Luke brought her together with Menzies, and Petrey ended up directing and editing the video for her song “I’m a Woman” (with Nightingale drummer Mogli Maureal serving as director of photography).
In some circles, Petrey is better known for her work behind the camera than on the bandstand. A videographer for hire, she’s created numerous pieces for California Magazine and Cal Performances. And her fantastical, visually inventive 27-minute film, Zoey and the Wind-Up Boy made a powerful impression when it premiered at San Francisco’s PianoFight in the winter of 2017.
Raised in a highly musical family in the high desert town of Palmdale in Los Angeles County, Petrey has studied Arabic on the West Bank and acting at the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts in Saint Petersburg. She started developing the ideas for Zoey while working on a degree in Comp Lit (focusing on Russian and Arabic literature) at U.C. Berkeley, where she graduated in 2012.
She first found a musical home as the cellist and vocalist in the chamber pop band Mad Noise, and started exploring ways to bring all of her creative pursuits together in Radix Troupe. Girl Swallows Nightingale is the latest vehicle for an artist careening with headlong creativity. As part of the Starline program she’s projecting several short narrative videos she created for songs on Shapeshifter.
“Initially I wanted to do eight short vignettes, a short piece for every song to give more backstory, but for budget reasons we had to scale that back,” she said. “I want people to be able to experience this whole world-building exercise and see the creative process. Putting on this program is also a way for me to showcase how many other amazing artists I work with. In any successful performance group there are at least twice as many people working on it as you see on stage.”
She also wants people to know that no birds were actually harmed, or consumed, in the making of Shapeshifter.