PaviElle French Q&A

June 6, 2022
PaviElle French brings her full self to her music.

“I was born an artist, in an artistic family. Everything was a stage in my house. I grew up witnessing artists in my home, and community, perform, and it was clear to me at a very early age that artistry is my purpose, and my passion, and I have never not been involved in the art world.”

You have collaborated with several orchestras, including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and the Minnesota Orchestra. What about them appeal to you?

The appeal is really me stiving to present works as a librettist, or an orator … and wanting to create huge musical compositions with as many musicians as possible. The original intention in collaborating with the SPCO, was that I wanted their string section to play along with my original music that my band was playing. After meeting with them, and talking about my connection to the Rondo community, my musicianship, and what I am doing through my artistry, presently, SPCO offered me an opportunity to compose a full symphonic piece. It wasn’t my first time composing music but my first time composing for the full orchestra.

Collaborating with the Minnesota Orchestra was a deeper-dive experience where I was able to try to create a show that speaks to my niche. I am an interdisciplinary artist, trained in acting, dance, and music—and I would like to be able to put big shows together for the orchestra that I will sing and narrate in, and include storytelling.

I have also worked with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra, and I think the appeal now, as I move into my fourth year of writing for the orchestra, is how different each orchestra is, how differently they interpret my pieces, and learning who in that industry is pushing boundaries, and is open to the activism and work that I do through my art. I like the idea of writing for other artists, specifically vocalists, and putting together choral pieces as well. It’s my background, and I love harmony work.

You’ve said that soul music resembles classical music in how composers sweeten the tunes. Has it always been your goal to blend styles?

Yes, that has always been my goal to blend and work with all styles of music. I grew up in a world of music and art, and I love all types and styles of music. I just like to play and imagine, and create. So even though my base is the lexicon of Black American music—gospel, jazz, scat, rock/punk, R&B, soul, hip-hop and more—I am a free-style musician. All my works are usually improvised first, before they’re scored. I like to be in the ethereal world that music creates for me—the zone, if you will—and once I come to, I get to see what I did and edit/add from there. It’s one of the many perks of being an electronic musician. I can just hit record, and travel light years away.

You’ve been performing since you were 5. Has the stage always felt comfortable to you?

Absolutely. I was born an artist, in an artistic family. Everything was a stage in my house. I grew up witnessing artists in my home, and community, perform, and it was clear to me at an early age that artistry is my purpose, and my passion, and I have never not been involved in the art world. I was gigging as a kid. It was beyond just singing in choirs; I had to be exceptional at an early age. I was a part of Robert Robinson’s youth choir, and the Mississippi Singers. We played in the Twin Cities, real gigs, with artists like Maya Angelou, and John Denver. I had to learn fast, how to move past, or use, the nervousness. Performing became my second home, and a spiritual conduit for me. And the more my confidence in my skills grew, the easier it was for me to be open, and vulnerable as a singer.

The stage to me, is my canvas, and I create art in real time, with and for the audience, the players, and for myself as well. It’s my practice. It’s play. It’s my inner child, and dreams. It’s where I can experiment and discover.

I think there is something to be said about how you grow up and transition from being a child artist, adolescent artist, and emerging artist. Each time you grow, you re-evaluate who you are as an artist. It takes time, and you have to learn yourself again, every time you level up. I think that is the best part of artistry. I am always introspective, and I have to do the work, the inner and outer work, in order to touch the things in my spirit, and be able to manifest it into art.

You have never shied to include your social justice values in your work, such as your SPCO commission “Sands of Time,” which speaks to black liberation. Have you always aspired to bring your whole self to your work?

Yes, emphatically yes. I won’t do any work where I can’t bring my full self into the piece, and into the venue. My parents were advocates and activists in the St. Paul Rondo community. They never separated their community work from their overall lives in the community. I carry their torch. It’s all related, and I will not omit my Blackness, my truth, or thoughts about the plight, struggles, and victories, that I carry through my cell memory, and history. Also, my mom was an educator, and I was an avid reader as a child. we had talks throughout my childhood about my lineage, and the beautiful people that I descend from. So the more that I learned about my (Black American) history, and the history of the overall African diaspora, the more I was inspired by artists like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, and artists who directly influenced and challenged me to dig deeper into my artistry, in my adolescence like, Laurie Carlos, Ahanti Young, and Lou Bellamy. Growing up at the Penumbra Theatre allowed me to discover that part of myself, and I learned how to bridge my life, art, and the worlds around me.

You wrote “Requiem For Zula” to honor your mother. What is one of your fondest memories of sharing music with her?

My fondest memories with my mama, and the music, was us being in the dining room, where the music was. As a little kid of four years to 10 years, Mom would show me all kinds of music ,from Johnny Winter to Funkadelic to Leon Huff to Grover Washington Jr. She showed me all her favorite songs. And I think the coolest time doing that with her is when she introduced me to “Stand” by Sly & the Family Stone and “Eulogy & Light” by Funkadelic. She actually sat down with me and a notepad, and wrote out all the lyrics so I could understand what all was said, and then she would explain deeper. Through music and conversation, Mom helped me self-actualize, form my own thoughts, and understand her life and generation/experience. That was amazing. She was amazing. Even though she had to work a lot, and I was a latchkey kid, she was so present when we did have time together, that I was absolutely fulfilled as a growing person, even through the hardships.

You have done voice-over work for such brands as Pepsi and Boston Market. Is it fun to exaggerate your voice in that way for those spots?

Yes, I also sang on commercials for Target, most recently, and also the WNBA Detroit Shock Theme song alongside the poet-MC Desdamona. Doing that work is so much fun, and I don’t do too many voice overs. I am the one who usually sings on the songs of the commercial. I am actually interested in doing more voice-over work in the future, and maybe a podcast or doing some talk radio work. I enjoy exploring all facets of using my voice, and theater skills.

You teach at MacPhail. Do you feel that everyone can carry a tune with some instruction? 

I am on faculty at MacPhail, but I am not currently teaching. My artist career is enough right now, and I work a full-time job that I am very invested in. I am a firm believer at not over-extending myself. Self-care is key.

I think everyone can carry a tune with instruction. I have seen vocal coaches make the impossible happen. I think anybody can do anything they want, but really, it’s all in how they practice, focus, and stay disciplined with their growth.

What is next for you?

Good things. I am in the midst of a residency with the American Composer Forum, which is being funded by the NEA. And there will be all kinds of great collaborations between myself, ACF, Schubert Club, the SPCO, Walker West Music Academy, TruArtSpeaks, and Purple Playground, plus a video doc, and a written and musical commission that I will write at the end of my residency.

Since composing “A Requiem for Zula” in 2018, I have been writing and building a repertoire of music to be able to perform, nationally, and internationally. In 2021, I was commissioned by Minnesota Orchestra to write an orchestral piece called “The Gift.” I was commissioned by Bill and Susan Sands and the SPCO to write “Sands of Time,” I will play June 9-12 with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

I released an album called “Sovereign” in September 2021, and have a companion documentary that I will be screening this Summer. I just premiered the “Sovereign Suite” with the Schubert Club in May. I am laying the groundwork and foundation of my future, working as a composer, and librettist, and I am evolving in my art  and excited for the next level.

My work, and my art, is aligned. My ancestors have my back. It’s right on time. I am looking forward to sharing this art with the world.

Photo by Sharolyn B. Hagen