Ann De Jarnett was sitting in her usual spot, a second violinist’s chair in the Cal State Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, when the conductor stopped a rehearsal to reveal that the ensemble had a moonlighting rock ‘n’ roller in its midst.
“He made an announcement in front of the whole orchestra: ‘Ann De Jarnett is in a band, and it’s a band called the Night Zombies,’ ” De Jarnett said, laughing as she recalled how her not-so-secret identity was blown a few months ago.
“People looked a little shocked. I turned a little red and looked around. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s me. Night Zombies. I’ve been in weirder bands than that.’ ”
Conductor Roger Hickman’s unmasking of De Jarnett came after he had seen her name and face in a Times story about Dr. Dream Records, a rock music label based in Orange County. While his terminology was a bit garbled (Hickman grafted De Jarnett onto the Swamp Zombies, another Dr. Dream act mentioned in the article), the conductor had his violinist pegged right: She is a rock ‘n’ roller, and “Possessions,” her fine new album, confirms her standing as one of the most striking talents on the local rock scene.
“I was giving her her due,” Hickman said of his decision to broadcast De Jarnett’s alter ego among her fellow symphony members. “I just respect performers so much, I don’t care what medium they’re doing it in. She plays very well, a very solid musician.”
Hickman has De Jarnett in his charge for 6 hours of symphony rehearsals a week--one of the requirements for a music degree at Cal State Long Beach, where De Jarnett is a senior.
“She’s rather quiet in the orchestra,” the conductor said. “She’s not a character at all. She fits right in with the classical musicians,” with only a spiked, feathery crown of brightly dyed hair (these days, reddish-orange has supplanted platinum) hinting that De Jarnett might have something other than orchestral music on her agenda.
On stage with her backing band, the Falcons, it’s another story. De Jarnett commands attention with a look that is cooly glamorous and with a singing style that is passionate and unpredictable.
She confidently wields a variety of the most effective tropes in the rock singer’s repertoire, drawling a word here, letting out a sharp yelp or a sneer there, then deliberately distorting her clear, rangy voice with an emphatic, throaty rasp. It’s an approach that invites comparisons to Patti Smith, whose albums in the 1970s signaled that aggressive rock wasn’t an exclusively male preserve.
While De Jarnett only shows glimmers of Smith’s ability to push music to the point of catharsis, she sings with enough abandon to bring to life the clashing emotions surrounding the central subjects of her songs: love and sexuality.
On her two records--the new album and a five-song EP released last year--De Jarnett avoids pop cliches while singing about the full romantic cycle, from preliminary carnal urge to wistfully reflective postscript, with stops along the way to evoke love’s capacity to bring on both sadness and an elevating spirituality.
As a rocker, De Jarnett doesn’t turn her back on the classical side of her musical personality. It’s there in the stately, lovely electric violin passages she weaves into many of her songs, and in the sense of proportion, texture and careful crafting that informs her band’s ensemble playing.
De Jarnett’s small apartment in Long Beach reflects an offhand jumbling of the two musical worlds in which she moves.
Leaning against the sofa in her front room is an unsegregated stack of record albums in which Stravinksy and Vivaldi rub backs with T-Rex, Jimi Hendrix and old Rolling Stones. An upright piano occupies one wall. On its music stand are a copy of the “Possessions” album cover and a book of Erik Satie piano music.
Atop the piano is a precarious mountain of objects that includes a loudspeaker and a violin case. Hanging from a wall is a grotesque Indian doll, one of the knickknacks and keepsakes that occupy the cover of “Possessions.”
In these sparse-but-cluttered, down-to-earth surroundings--which are also home to a couple of large goldfish, a black cat called Croaker and a Labrador retriever named Marley (in honor of the late reggae star)--one finds a relaxed, 27-year-old woman with an easy laugh and a friendly, direct manner.
In conversation, De Jarnett has no problem separating herself from her stage persona--an imperious, bohemian beauty wielding an electric-blue violin that complements icy eyes that she shadows in black.
De Jarnett had a natural start in music while she was growing up in Seal Beach. Her mother was a music teacher in public schools who fostered music in her own home. De Jarnett was still in grade school when she took up the violin.
While she pursued classical studies, she also became interested in rock music. She credits her older brother with introducing her to records by such performers as Kansas and Jean Luc Ponty, whose albums first made her aware that classical violin music and rock could intersect.
“He told me, ‘I think you should stay with the violin because violin in a rock band is coming into its own,’ ” De Jarnett said.
De Jarnett disliked high school enough to exit at 16 with a graduate equivalency degree. She started taking music and liberal arts courses at Golden West College, where the music program included a chance to play in a rock ensemble for course credit. De Jarnett got her first substantial taste of public performance in the ensemble, along with a taste of the interactive playing required in a rock group.
“I was used to reading music, and when I started jamming with other people it was, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m doing,’ ” De Jarnett said.
“I would listen to guitarists for motivation. I wanted to have the impact that a guitar does, when it comes out playing harshly and it’s not just playing a beautiful melody. I still listen to some rock guitars and say, ‘I just wish I could translate that (to the violin).’ But there are some things that just can’t be translated.”
In 1980, De Jarnett joined a band called Mnemonic Devices. With De Jarnett as the lead singer and visual focus, the group played chilly, gloomy-hued Gothic rock that won it a local following and some interest from record labels. The experience established De Jarnett as a talent to watch, but it also taught her some painful lessons about the distorting effect of commercial ambition on music making.
“We started out as a band in the punk period,” she said. “It was, ‘Hey, let’s get up there. We can do it. Anybody can make some music.’ There wasn’t that pressure of becoming commercial and successful.”
But as Mnemonic Devices won recognition, “there was pressure from inside and outside the band to become more successful,” she said. That led to changes in musical style--and ultimately to the band’s collapse.
“It was real disturbing to have it break up,” De Jarnett said. “We’d been together 3 or 4 years. I felt sad.”
Instead of leaping into another band, “there was about a year’s time when I just reflected on what I was after and what I was doing. When you have a traumatic experience, you have some self-doubt.”
De Jarnett got a job in a record shop and went to work for a shelter for battered women in Seal Beach, a job she still holds part time. For the first time, she began to write her own songs.
In 1985, De Jarnett returned to rock performance, starting a group called Faux Pas with bassist Mark Soden. That evolved into De Jarnett’s own band, which includes Soden, guitarist Chris Ruiz-Velasco, who used to be in the band Berlin, and Mike Sessa, former drummer of the Joneses.
After the failed grab for the brass ring with Mnemonic Devices, De Jarnett said she now has different ideas about what constitutes musical success: “I expect less out of the commercial (aspect). I certainly would love to see money someday.
“But it’s something you can’t count on. You can never do that to art. But in some ways my expectations are greater. I expect a lot more out of us working as a band, writing songs together and really feeling like a unit.”
There has been a musical evolution in the band, De Jarnett said. When Faux Pas began, “we liked to experiment with a lot of ‘70s rave-ups. The bass was running wild, I was just sawing away. It was fun, taking a solo and letting loose and playing all the notes in the world, but it really wasn’t very musical. It was self-indulgence, not playing in an ensemble.”
That can’t be said of the De Jarnett band’s current sound, in which each player is thoroughly disciplined--perhaps to a fault. De Jarnett has also changed her approach as a lyricist, setting aside most of the oblique imagery that turned up on the “Ann De Jarnett” EP and concentrating on simple, direct evocations of emotional moments.
“I was interested in Rimbaud and Baudelaire and all these symbolic poetic figures,” she said. “I’m still interested in those people, but I find myself trying to be more direct than symbolic because I don’t think I get my point across real well with the symbolic imagery.”
One point De Jarnett makes often in her songs is that love endures as a perfect ideal, even when relationships fall apart. “Not in Vain,” which stands out amid the uniformly strong collection of songs on “Possessions,” is an uncommonly beautiful credo.
“Love to me is romantic, it’s poetic,” De Jarnett said. “There’s the humdrum where you live with a person, and it’s not always perfect and there are hard times. Then there’s the other love of art and poetry. It’s also a spiritual love.”
And, as is made clear by songs such as “Rundown Shakedown,” about exploring the netherworld of the bar scene, there is also such a thing as erotic love.
“The animal idea of rock songs is one of the first things that drew me into rock,” De Jarnett said. “There’s the higher ideals, and there’s that animal immediacy, that frantic mood that I think is really great for rock.”
De Jarnett enjoys donning a striking stage persona to act out her songs.
“It’s making the bigger-than-life image, so that people are going to go, ‘Wow, there’s something here,’ ” she said.
“When I’ve had a really good show, I don’t know what I did. You come off stage and it’s, ‘I was on automatic pilot. I don’t know what happened, but it sure was fun.’ ”
That’s not the sort of experience one tends to encounter sitting in a second violinist’s chair. After she graduates in May, De Jarnett plans to leave behind the calm and precision of symphonic violin and concentrate on stirring up rock ‘n’ roll frenzy.
“I love classical music, and I feel my playing’s improved a great deal,” she said. “It’s still not my goal to be in a professional orchestra and be that caliber of classical musician. That is a huge commitment. It’s really a life in itself. I’m doing the music major for myself, to feel whole. I’d always feel one down if I didn’t get it.”
De Jarnett is well aware that the music industry has been focusing on new women performers, with such singers as Tracy Chapman, Toni Childs, Michelle Shocked and Sinead O’Connor among those who have emerged this year to impress critics and win large followings. But she isn’t anticipating any bandwagon effect that will sweep her along.
“It’s wonderful to see more women getting recognized in rock; as a musician and performer, you ride on your own,” she said.
Unlike the Swamp Zombies and National People’s Gang, other Dr. Dream acts that are banking on extensive national touring to promote their recent debut albums, De Jarnett and her band are older, more established musicians with commitments to jobs and studies that could make long road trips difficult.
“I’m just waiting to see,” De Jarnett said. “If the record started doing well, that would take priority. I’ve worked too hard and too long not to take advantage.”