Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships. Mary Fahl is the voice that launched a single promising rock band, October Project.
Helen, in the Homeric legend, wasn't particularly keen on being rescued by those thousand Greek vessels. But Fahl's two co-founders in October Project, songwriters Julie Flanders and Emil Adler, are nothing but delighted that she and her glorious voice came along to rescue them from careers in some of music's less artistically rewarding precincts.
About five years ago, composer Adler was busy creating background music for television in a studio in his parents' garage in Montclair, N.J. Flanders was working with him as a lyricist on musical-theater projects, which they loved doing, and on some more routine and less satisfying stuff that paid the bills.
"I was writing music for trash TV shows and infomercials," Adler recalled during a conference call with Flanders and Fahl from New Jersey, where October Project was preparing for a tour that brings it to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight.
"I did the 'Geraldo' Satan special. As I got more involved in doing background [music] for television . . . it was the kind of work I disliked. The idea of writing our own music and being a band was beginning to develop. The arrival of Mary on the scene was the key."
Fahl's striking voice--with its wide range, rich, full-bodied amplitude and stately, formal tone, marks her as a first-rank smart-pop diva in the making. Judging by the two group's two albums--the 1993 "October Project" debut and the new "Falling Farther In"--Fahl also has the artistic temperament and emotional radar to avoid the showy excesses of divadom.
She sings to get across intense feelings, not to show off--a strength that may have something to do with the high-quality exemplars she has listened to since her high-school days in Rockland County, N.Y.
"I loved Sandy Denny, June Tabor and all those Richard and Linda Thompson songs," Fahl said, invoking names that would occupy some mythical Hall of Fame of British folk-rock.
"Marianne Faithfull, I still love her. I love Dusty Springfield. The person I do think I sound like in terms of phrasing would be Grace Slick," she said. "Yeah, I probably did cop some of the stuff she does when I was little, without realizing it."
Fahl sang in rock bands during her college days at Montreal's McGill University, but her career aim was to act and do musical theater. She went to Europe for a time, singing pop standards in clubs in Holland and Belgium, then landed in New York City, looking for "something to do" as a singer.
There she was introduced to Flanders by a mutual friend. Flanders, who is in a romantic relationship with Adler as well as a songwriting partnership, invited Fahl to their studio, and October Project rose from that meeting.
Flanders, who is a non-performing lyricist but is considered a full-fledged member of the band (paralleling Keith Reid's role with the old Procol Harum), recruited her old college roommate from Yale, Marina Belica, to sing harmonies and play keyboards.
Adler, who plays keyboards and sings backup, brought in his guitarist friend, David Sabatino. The rhythm section consists of percussionist Urbano Sanchez, an adjunct member, and hired hands who play bass and drums.
The core band practiced for about a year before it ever played a gig. Anticipating the day they'd perform in public, Adler kept contacts and other information pertaining to possible concert opportunities in a folder labeled "October Project"--October being the month they'd picked to start playing out. Unable to think of anything better, they became perhaps the first rock band ever named after a file folder.
Gigs at a Manhattan cafe brought October Project a steady, line-around-the-block following and a manager (who stumbled upon the definitely non-punkish band playing in New York's punk landmark, CBGB).
Before long, the group landed a recording contract with Epic. Initial rounds of touring with Crash Test Dummies and Sarah McLachlan, plus a smattering of VH1 play, helped October Project gather a word-of-mouth following and solid sales of about 200,000 for its debut album.
The band's songs are lush in musical architecture, with strings sometimes complementing the two keyboards and the harmonized voices.
Flanders' lyrics don't shy from occasional references to the Bible, Shakespeare and ancient Greek myths. At the same time, her core subjects are anything but arcane: Her characters are typically caught up in high-stakes searches for love and spiritual awareness. Sometimes, as in "Bury My Lovely," from the debut album, and the title track of "Falling Farther In," they are haunted by wounding experiences in their pasts.
"People think we're Angst -ridden," said Flanders, who began pursuing an acting career around the time October Project was born. Her own November project is a one-woman, off-Broadway theatrical performance, and her December project will be to give birth to her and Adler's first child.
"But I think all our songs end with a lot of possibility," she continued. "When we experience some loss, it can open ourselves up. I hope [the songs] point toward a hopeful ending. The struggle is there, the struggle toward freedom."
With its emphasis on pure beauty and high seriousness, does October Project ever show another side by just cutting loose and rocking out?
"You should hear our version of 'Louie, Louie,' man," quipped Adler, who, in fact, played the ski-resort covers circuit in Vermont with guitarist Sabatino before October Project was formed.
"That's a part of the band," Flanders insisted, although October Project does not, in fact, cover any raucous rock oldies.
"We're very spirited, but people expect that one or the other of us is going to resemble Emily Dickinson somehow," she said. "It doesn't get to the public, but, if people come to our rehearsals, they're always amazed at how [band members] take off and do goofy stuff. It'll come out sooner or later."
* October Project, Jane Kelly Williams, Bread Circus and Girl on Top play tonight at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $10. (714) 496-8930.