Sex and rock and roll go together like coffee and cigarettes. But sex and accordion? Well, traditionally, they’re matched like decaf and an asthma inhaler. However, a new audio-visual project, dubbed Accordion Babes, is challenging long-held misconceptions of the instrument as the province of dorks and other assorted dateless wonders.
The centerpiece of the project is a compilation album featuring songs by a baker’s dozen accordion-playing women and their bands. It is an eclectic and unpredictable sampler of folk, klezmer and rock that reflects the instrument’s remarkable versatility. The album is interesting; the packaging, even better.
The Accordion Babes album comes attached to the back cover of a classically styled pinup calendar, featuring each of the 13 ladies in varying states of provocative dress. Or undress. With their accordions. On Wednesday, June 29, two of the Babes — songwriters Amber Lee Baker and Renée de la Prade — will perform at Burlington’s Radio Bean.
In a recent phone interview while en route to Houston, Baker, who is based in Santa Rosa, Calif., says she came to the accordion circuitously. As an aspiring songwriter in her early teens, she struggled to find her voice through the more traditional guitar or piano.
“I didn’t like how my songs were coming out,” Baker says. “They just sounded really cheesy and silly to me.” She adds that her background in classical piano saddled her songs with a “fuddy-duddy” quality. “It didn’t feel very interesting or creative,” Baker adds, then concedes, “I wasn’t a very good piano player.”
She happened upon an accordion at a music shop in 2002 and says it was love at first squeeze.
“It was an immediate recognition that I liked the sound,” Baker explains. “I liked the way it felt vibrating against my body. It has this soothing feeling.”
She also jived with the instrument’s layout — being able to play melodies with the keyboard on her right hand and using the buttons on the left to play chord progressions underneath.
“The button organization made a lot of sense to me,” Baker says.
Playing accordion opened her up to a whole new world of music, and changed the indie-folk songwriter’s approach to her original tunes, as well.
“It simplified things for me,” she says. “It made me want to write songs I felt good about.”
De la Prade founded the Accordion Babes’ calendar in 2008. Her father, who was born in Barre, Vt., was also an accordionist, though she didn’t pick up the instrument until 2000, while attending the Berklee College of Music. Still, de la Prade says rediscovering the instrument was similarly revelatory.
Prior to playing the accordion, de la Prade was a guitarist and pianist who primarily played Irish music — a style in which the guitar, specifically, often takes a rhythmic role more than a melodic one.
“I wanted to play melodies and harmonies,” she says, adding that when playing guitar or piano she felt pressured, as though she “was always trying to impress somebody.” But accordion afforded her the freedom to loosen up.
“Every instrument has its own personality, and each can bring out the personality of the person playing it,” de la Prade says. She credits the accordion with helping her find her voice.
“It made me more comfortable,” she says. “And I had no illusions of trying to be cool. It was just fun.”
De la Prade adds that she was once an angry teenager. “And now you’d never know I was one of those gothy, depressed kids,” she says. “Accordion had a lot to do with that.”
Her appreciation for the instrument’s friskiness is evident on the record with her rousing contribution, “The Land of Lost Things.” It’s also more overtly evident in that scintillating little calendar.
De la Prade’s pinup photo is an eyebrow-raising celebration of the accordion’s playful and, yes, sensuous side. Think polka band meets SuicideGirls. But she stresses the point is not to fetishize the instrument — or the models, all of whom are working musicians.
“It isn’t really just about admiring people in sexy outfits,” de la Prade says. “You turn on most radio stations and the music sounds so calculated and dead. The stuff that we have is alive and raw. So the function of the calendar is to get the CD out there.”
Still, the Accordion Babes project does trade on sexuality, though not solely of the scantily clad ladies.
“The accordion is sensuous because it’s breathing. It’s alive. You have to give it oxygen. It feels like a breathing animal,” says Baker. “It’s a very sensual experience playing it. The way it moves, it gets bigger and smaller. It’s fun to watch as an audience member. The dynamics of it make it interesting. You can make it loud, you can make it soft. It growls,” she continues. “There’s something about the reeds and the tone that is very sensual to me.
De la Prade suggests the relationship with her instrument goes even deeper.
“If you have a choice between an accordion and a girlfriend, get an accordion,” she says. “It will always be there, no matter how drunk you were the night before.”
The Accordion Babes play Radio Bean in Burlington on Wednesday, June 29, 8 p.m. Free.