Through black butterflies goes a girl with dark hair
Joined to a white serpent of mistiness.
She goes tied to the trembling of a rhythm that never arrives
She has a heart of silver and a dagger in her hand
—“The Footsteps of La Siguiriya”, Frederico Garcia Lorca
Don’t mess with Texas or a green-eyed girl.
—“Joe’s Gone Ridin’”, Patricia Vonne
Make no mistake about it: unless you’re French or even remotely secretive, Google is your friend. Patricia Vonne’s intimidatingly extensive Google rapsheet (over 20,000 returns) reveals an apparent celebrity lifestyle and a distinctive if slightly unorthodox beauty. She’s a former model and the sister of a celebrated film dude—who shall remain nameless although a number of clunky clues will be dropped. She’s 5’10” tall, size eight in a dress and size nine in shoes—if you want to know her bra size, you can look it up yourselves. She can dance (classical ballet, jazz, flamenco, and tango), sing (in at least two languages) and do just about anything actually, including playing rhythm and bass guitars, and standing in for the likes of Linda Evangelista, Isabella Rosellini, and Laeticia Casta. She’s also just released her second album. It’s called Guitars and Castanets, and it does pretty much what it says on the label, offering a mature, theatrical blend of southern musics and Spanish moments.
Thankfully, Vonne is not at all intimidating on the telephone. In fact, she’s niceness itself: charming and graceful. She could probably sense I had her beat on height and shoe size.
The day we spoke, Vonne was scheduled to appear at a Latin Music Awards show in Austin where she had been nominated Best Female Vocalist. Three months earlier she had been nominated for an Aguilar Award for music. The Aguilar Awards Foundation aims to reward and promote role models and success stories within the Texas Hispanic community, and although Vonne was beaten out of the award by the Austin band Vallejo, she was entirely upbeat about the process.
“Whatever the outcome, it’s just so great to be nominated for awards like this. It’s wonderful to be recognized, and to get your name out there as an artist. It’s just a little icing on the cake.”
The Aguilar Awards cake might have tasted particularly sweet for Vonne’s family since her brother was given a special award for his achievements at the same ceremony.
One of the community efforts Vonne is involved with is the Don’t Mess With Texas Music Project that aims to help strengthen and restore rigorous music education to Texas schools.
“That’s something I believe in deeply,” says Vonne. “Because that’s how my father put himself through college, with a music scholarship. And I certainly enjoyed having music in my school. So we—my husband and I—always try to give of our time whenever they need us, to go into schools to talk or perform, or whatever. Our songs have been on three different compilations and all the proceeds from those go to the music programs of the public schools in Texas.”
Vonne says she enjoys performing for children and, in fact, a couple of days before we talked, she and her husband, guitarist Robert LaRoche, had played a show at the Children’s Museum in Austin.
“We had a few kids there who were still crawling, and probably the oldest was about five years old. It’s just great fun to do. I go with a bunch of little maracas that I give out to the kids so that we can get them involved and ask them to supply the backbeat.
“It’s always nice to give back, and I’ve always believed that if you give then you’ll get something back in return somewhere down the line.”
In Vonne’s case, that certainly seems to be true. For example, as a result of her generous involvement with the Texas Music Project, she and her band have been asked to play at this year’s World Expo in Japan.
“Yes, I’ve been asked by the Texas Commission of the Arts here in Austin to go—they’d seen us at a benefit show—and they asked if we’d like to go and represent the state in Japan. It’s a great honor and a wonderful opportunity.”
The show in Japan falls squarely in the middle of Vonne’s forthcoming European tour in support of her album—a tour that will take her to France, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, the UK, and Spain. Curiously, she is not yet slated to play in the Netherlands although her principal label in Europe is the Dutch label CoraZong and Guitars and Castanets marks the very first release on the label’s U.S. imprint, CoraZongUSA. However, her tour will mark Vonne’s first official engagement in Spain, which is fitting because there are personal stories behind most of the songs on Guitars and Castanets, and Vonne’s experiences in Spain are very well represented.
“I have four sisters and five brothers,” she says. “One of my sisters lives in Spain, in Seville—Sevilla—and she loves it there.
“My mother’s ancestry is from the northern part of Spain,” Vonne explains. “And my father’s ancestry is from Mexico. And definitely there’s always been a curiosity in the family about our roots.
“When we were young, my mother put all us girls into ballet class. But then after I’d moved to New York, I took flamenco classes while, coincidentally, my sister took flamenco classes here in Austin. And she just fell in love with it, and decided to embrace the culture completely by moving to Spain and immersing herself in it. She’s been there now for six years, and she’s engaged to a Spaniard, and everything. So I think she’s probably a lifer over there.
“Which is great because we get to go visit.”
Vonne’s song “La Gitina De Triana” (“The Gypsy of Triana”) is dedicated to her sister in Seville.
“I went to visit her in Sevilla a couple of years ago, and I actually came back with all the Spanish songs on this album. All the Spanish songs on Guitars and Castanets were inspired by that trip.
“I’ve always wanted to write a song about Flamenco dancers in the streets of an archetypal Spanish town, and Sevilla turned out to be just the perfect setting, because it had the church bells, and the cathedral, and the famous white doves in the park, and…I’d heard so many people describe that city using those particular visual themes and so when I went to see it for myself, it was just a no-brainer.
“I had to dedicate that song to my sister because it was pretty gutsy for her to just up and move. And she’s still there now, so I wanted to bring something of her back.”
“La Gitina De Triana” is one of three Spanish language songs on Guitars and Castanets. All three are essentially Spanish in style as well as language: for example, Rick Del Castillo adds some splendid flamenco guitar to the mix. But Vonne warns against over-analyzing the musical content in terms of mariachi, flamenco, and other traditional Spanish styles.
“I don’t really put that much thought into it, myself. I just come up with a title first and then a story…and if it turns out it’s set in Spain or over the border then the music will tend to take on an appropriate flavor. But it’s an influence (as opposed to a discipline), it all just comes from a feel, from following the direction the song decided to take.”
“Fiesta Sangria” is Vonne’s second musical souvenir from Seville. She laughs as she talks about the song.
“My sister owns a bar there—flamenco dancer by day, bar owner by night—with her fiancée. And every Wednesday night they would celebrate—as it said on their little blackboard—Fiesta Sangria. And when I was there they wouldn’t let me pay for anything. So to thank them and to capture something of my time with them, I said let’s write a song together. I wrote it with her fiancée because he was the chef making all the tapas and sweating over the stove, and he wouldn’t let me pay for anything. So I said let’s co-write this and you’ll get a credit. So that’s what we did.”
Way to pay for a round of drinks and bar snacks, Patricia.
Vonne is a storyteller with a fine sense of drama who can draw her influences from a wide range of musical sources. Talk to her about music and it’s clear that she’s trying to combine the preservation of her own heritage with her love of—for want of better words—rock ‘n’ roll, an idea she bought into in her teens.
“My two older brothers had a collection of albums that I grew up listening to, and one of my favorite bands in the whole world was the Cruzados, whose leader came from El Paso. They wrote in both English and Spanish and when I heard them as a teenager, it was just amazing. It made me proud of my heritage and when I started writing my own music I wanted to base it on that, to write in both languages. Being a Mexican-American, third generation, you tend to lose the language, the Spanish, and I wanted to write not only to enforce it but to preserve it.
“Basically,” she adds, dropping yet another heavy hint. “Basically, that particular band or guy went on to score the music for several of my brother’s films so he was also very influential for my brother.”
Vonne has a clear habit of writing songs for or about people who have touched her life. One such song was “El Cruzado”, off her first eponymous album, and it provides another example of her belief that if you give then you’ll get.
“Yes. I actually later got to go on tour with this guy because he heard the song I wrote for him. I toured with him as a member of his band for eight weeks in Europe, which was my first experience of touring Europe as a musician. After that tour, I was obviously further enthused to write in both English and Spanish. But I also like to throw in a couple of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll songs as well. I loved the sound of Lone Justice, the band that was fronted by Maria McKee. She was another one of my favorites.”
Back in the ‘80s, Lone Justice was touted by its record label as Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers fronted by a young Brigitte Bardot, and there are many similarities in style with Vonne. So perhaps one day she’ll get around to writing a song about McKee. Certainly, Guitars and Castanets includes another three songs written for and about musicians who have influenced her.
The first, the album’s opener, is “Joe’s Gone Ridin’”, a tribute, says Vonne, to the generous spirit of Joe Ely.
“When we moved back to Texas—I started my band in New York City and we transplanted to Texas—it was hard to get noticed, it was hard to get a gig. Texas is saturated with musicians, and we were starting from the ground up, my husband and I. And it wasn’t until Joe Ely let us open for him at a wine festival here that the doors began to open for us. He had us open for him several times after that, for his CD release party here at Antone’s, a performance at the Cactus Cafe, and slowly people started taking notice.
“He really has been very supportive. And so that’s where the song came from. With it being so very competitive here, I kept hearing the phrase ‘No, but if Joe says…’ and then Joe would say ‘Yes’.”
When I tell Vonne that her anecdote about the wine festival throws much needed light on my favorite moment from her album, the heartily stressed focal line of “Joe’s Gone Ridin’”, she laughs and explains:
“That’s the exact line verbatim from the booker at the wine festival, She called me and left me a message: ‘There ain’t no openin’ band for a wine festival, but if Joe says…then Joe says.’ So I wrote that down and said that has got to be in a song. I was really nervous when I got that message. She sounded very unhappy, and I was thinking, ‘Oh no, what did I do?’ But then at the end, ‘but if Joe says’...and I was like, ‘Oh. Good.’
“Joe’s such a good man. Generous. Giving of his time in so many ways, in more ways than he knows. He probably didn’t think a thing about it when he gave me permission to open for him those several times, but little does he know that it’s the reason why we’re still…well, it goes a long way if you help someone out, and that’s where this song came from.”
“Joe’s Gone Ridin’” is probably the best song on Guitars and Castanets, built on a train-like beat and redolent of the Texan outlaw mystique, but what, I wondered, does Joe Ely himself think of it. Does he like it?
“Yes! I got to ask him pointblank: ‘Did you hear your song?’ And he said, ‘Yes, and I love it. And not only that but I keep getting people emailing me from everywhere telling me about it.’
“I definitely mean it when I say that it goes out to the generous spirit of Joe Ely because he’s not only helped me in my situation, but he’s helped so many other people. He’s an unsung hero is so many ways.”
Unsung no longer, Ms Vonne.
The album’s title track (pretty much) is “Guitarras Y Castanuelas”. The third Spanish language song, it continues the What-I-Did-On-My-Spanish-Holiday theme with further references to gypsy dancers and to the gypsy ballads of Frederico Garcia Lorca, the celebrated Spanish poet and dramatist who was murdered at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Vonne and her sister had visited Lorca’s house in Grenada together. But “Guitarras Y Castanuelas” is dedicated not to the second most famous man in Spanish literature, but to another musical hero of Vonne’s—Alejandro Escovedo—with a twist straight from Seville.
“There’s a word in that song, juerga, which is a Spanish word meaning ‘impromptu jam’. In Spain it’s very common for flamenco guitarists to go into a bar and jam. It’s very festive, and it can actually last for days as they move from bar to bar. And that reminded me of Alejandro because he would let me get on stage with him with my castanets, because whenever he would perform, he’d invite any musicians that were there in the audience on stage. It was very impromptu in itself. Alejandro’s so generous and loves to have a good time, and get people involved in his music. And then when he had gotten very ill about two years ago with Hepatitis C and people started getting involved with his benefits, it just all seemed to come full circle. And so that’s where this song came from.
“I just had to incorporate the Spanish juerga with Alejandro’s ambience in the club when he would invite me on stage with my castanets. And when I was onstage with him, I remember thinking that it must look like we were dueling with guitars and castanets. Because he’d be playing off my castanets and I’d be right there with him at the mic. People just loved it. It was very theatrical.”
The third “tribute” song on Guitars and Castanets is the closing “Sax Maniac”, which is dedicated to the veteran Texan tenor sax player Johnny Reno.
“His was the first live band I ever saw in my hometown, San Antonio. His band was Johnny Reno and the Sax Maniacs back then. He’s a legend in Texas—in my book anyway. He played with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and with Chris Isaak for years. And his was the first live show my dad ever took me to see. We took my dad with us because we were too young to get into clubs on our own so he was our chaperone, thank goodness.
“That night clearly just knocked my socks off and really was the first time ever I wished I was on stage. Because I was a shy girl.” She laughs at the possibility. “And so I wrote that song for him because that was the sort of music he was playing back then. Roadhouse music, I love that, and it’s another sound I try to incorporate into my music, the roadhouse sound. And he actually plays on the song, which was another dream come true.”
It seems churlish to say it after such a nice story, but “Sax Maniac” is an unfortunate mistake that fails to deliver the big finish to her album that Vonne was clearly going for. The world would be a much better place all round if this song had a whole lot less saxophone, a less anachronistically punning title, and considerably stronger lyrics. The underlying churning riff is not too far removed from a genuine classic but its potential is suffocated by Vonne’s good intentions and Reno’s incessant wailing. Let’s just say there are better songs on Guitars and Castanets. A clear standout is “Texas Burning”, a mid-paced rocker made special by her lush, impassioned vocals.
“I wrote ‘Texas Burning’ in my apartment in New York. I’m one of ten kids and I’d only come home once a year. I’d been living in New York for about ten years and I really didn’t know if I’d ever return back home to live and so that song was for my family. Whenever I’d come back to visit, it was always bittersweet getting on the plane back to the concrete canyons of New York, back to the grind. I love New York, but after a while…it’s like the best and worst of everything…and my family was here .”
Of course, Patricia Vonne did eventually come back to Texas. She split with New York City due to musical differences.
“We wanted to play more than once a month, and in New York the venues are very strict. You can only play at their venue, and it’s like ‘Don’t play anywhere else for three weeks or else we won’t book you here again’. I can play once a month in New York versus 150 shows a year just in Texas alone.
“And also I got married. My guitar player and I got married and we just wanted to make a move and really pursue our music with a vengeance. We knew this was what we wanted to do. It wasn’t a hobby anymore. So when we moved down to Austin, we made it our life and really just hit the ground running.
“Which is a line from (the hugely energetic song) “Rebel Bride”, which is pretty loosely based on our marriage: let’s get married, let’s move, let’s do it now. Before it’s too late.
“So we hit the ground running, coming down to Austin to hit it like a hurricane and see what happens.”
And what’s happened so far has been promising. Guitars and Castanets is not a classic album. It’s certainly not the best album Patricia Vonne will ever make. But Vonne is an artist with personality, talent and flair to spare, and she’s trying something quite new. To compliment the strengths of her Mexican-Spanish traditions, there is a quartet of truly fine English language performances on Guitars and Castanets—“Joe’s Gone Ridin’”, “Texas Burning”, “Lonesome Rider”, and “Long Season”. I suspect Vonne’s live show is already something to behold, and I further suspect that once she learns to temper her obvious enthusiasms with a realization that sometimes less really can be more, Patricia Vonne will leave her indelible mark all over the Texas music scene. Just like Zorro really, if only he was a she who played music and lived in Texas.
And that was absolutely the last clue you’re getting.