Snow Angel bandmates have got it just right by just being themselves. They are part kickass women, part masterful instrumentalists, and part playful girls wrapped in a colorful musical package and tied in a lyrical rainbow.
This Oakland band of inspiring gals are all about strength, independence, and empowerment. But they deliver warm messages of camaraderie among women, supportive female friendships, and confidence for girls. Their brand of funky psychedelic pop is a cheerful sing-along with an element of childlike fun and a unique mystical sound born from the omnichord and electric sitar.
Snow Angel is the creation of frontwoman Gabby La La, who is singer, songwriter, and sitar virtuoso. The collective is complete with Emily Studden on drums, Melissa Leigh Hubbell on bass and Sarah Melekova on omnichord. Gabby La La realized her affinity for the sitar at age 13, studied classical Indian music for years, performed with Weapon of Choice, and released two solo albums. She worked with Primus bassist Les Claypool in various capacities — opening for him as a solo artist, touring with him as part of Les Claypool’s Fancy Band and releasing one of her albums on his label.
Now 37, a mom, and living in Oakland, Gabby La La formed Snow Angel, which released its self-titled album last winter and will perform at Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco March 30.
Gabby La La tells The Bay Bridged about her musical path, discovering her beloved sitar, her songwriting method and how Snow Angel is the embodiment of women supporting one another in a “Big Group Hug.”
The Bay Bridged: You are a Bay Area native. Where are you from?
Gabby La La: I was born in San Francisco and grew up partly in Petaluma, where my parents still live and where I teach many ukulele students, children, every week. I went to high school in San Francisco at The Urban School and now I live in Oakland, which is actually where my dad moved to when he was five and came from China. So Oakland is hometown for my Chinese side of the family.
TBB: Tell me all the instruments you play.
GLL: I play accordion and world piano. I can play a little drums, but very basic. But everything else I can fake it. On ukulele I am self-taught. I took piano lessons when I was 5. I stopped when I was still too young to remember. I took lessons on guitar and obviously sitar.
I started playing sitar when I was in high school at The Ali Akbar College of Music that is in San Rafael. It was a meant-to-be, a perfect match for me, like when you finally find your thing. I have a degree in sitar performance from Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts).
TBB: How did you know sitar was your thing as a teenager?
GLL: It just felt right, like when you find your talent I guess, which a lot of people are still searching for. It takes some people their whole life to find the thing that they really excel at, that comes naturally to them, but I was lucky to find that very early on. I have been pretty directed and motivated since high school.
TBB: How did you come upon the sitar?
GLL: I heard a record with sitar music on it, All Things Must Pass by George Harrison of The Beatles of course, and I didn’t know what it was. I just liked the sound. I was in the bad habit or childlike habit of changing my mind a lot; changing my instruments. ‘No I want to play the guitar. No I like piano. I hate piano. I want drums.’ I was doing that and my parents have always, always supported me in changing my instruments. Whatever I wanted to do they really supported that, so they let me switch to sitar.
I had already played piano, guitar, accordion, and then I was like, ‘No I want to play sitar,’ and my mom took me to The Ali Akbar College and it just felt right. She told me the story recently of that experience, taking me there for my first lesson. I was about 13. She took me and I guess she thought there was no way I was going to go for it, too many adults and too serious, but I left and said I wanted to do it.
Photo: Amelia Kennedy
TBB: I would like to know more about your musical history. Your first band was Weapon of Choice?
GLL: Weapon of Choice was one of my first bands that I was in. While I was at Cal Arts, I started playing in bands and started stepping away from purely classical music because my whole thing was that I just wanted to play classical music and be the best. Then at Cal Arts I got into funk music and punk rock. I was really into Riot grrrl and all those kinds of bands, but I always played classical music and that was my focus.
Then I started playing in bands. I played with Weapon of Choice. I played with dAKAH which is a 50-piece hip-hop orchestra in LA, and they still play.
TBB: How did you meet Les Claypool and come to work with him?
GLL: When I finished my time in LA, I had a chance to meet Les Claypool during a recording session that I kind of just came along to as a friend. I wasn’t supposed to record but I ended up recording and after that he called me to do some vocals at the time, then it just grew from there. Right away he offered me a record deal which he has only had one other artist on his label besides Primus. I have been a fan of Primus since I was a teenager so that made it even more meaningful to me to be recognized by one of my musical heroes.
I put one album out with him, Be Careful What You Wish For…, in 2005. Before the album came out I toured nationally with him opening up for his band Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains.
TBB: You also toured with him as part of his Fancy Band?
GLL: Originally my first tour was as a solo act, Gabby La La opening up for Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, and then later I joined Les Claypool’s Fancy Band and toured with him in that capacity, playing sitar and singing backing vocals. That was after 2005 and after my first album came out. It was in 2006, 2007 maybe. I toured with him for a long time, for several years. It would be three weeks here and there. It has been a highlight of my life.
TBB: Then came your second album.
GLL: Which I self-released in 2011 and did all on my own. It is called I Know You Know I Know.
TBB: That brings us to Snow Angel.
GLL: Snow Angel started in 2011, before my son was born in 2012. I was writing a different kind of music so I felt like I needed to change the name, change the image a little bit to fit a more mature approach to songwriting. Songwriting became more of a direct, intentional message. My first two albums were really more fanciful in the lyrics and came out more like a fairytales. Now I am clearer in my message and I have grown up a lot so now I have a different way of communicating that.
TBB: You had a specific idea of what you wanted Snow Angel to be. Tell me about the focus for the band and the difference in music.
GLL: My intention and my message behind Snow Angel is really one of friendship and camaraderie among women and of course all people. So many girls were taught to compete and I really feel like when we support one another we can be collectively more successful and as individuals more successful. I really try, instead of making romantic love songs, to make friendship and community love songs that you can connect with.
TBB: Your message shines through immediately and you really seem to live that message yourself.
GLL: It starts with my parents being so supportive and having that strong family foundation and so they taught me by example and with intention how to be a good friend.
TBB: When you formed Snow Angel were you already friends with all the girls or did you become friends in the forming of the band?
GLL: The girls in the band right now I have only known for the last two years or so. They are new friends that are now my best friends. I have had many other bandmates pass through Snow Angel. It used to be a duo and I have had three different partners in the duo form of Snow Angel. It recently became clear to me that maybe my path for my life’s work is not just to make music but maybe to inspire other people to do their thing. All the people who come to my band, they come and they play for a long time and I teach them what I know from my experiences of writing music, touring and practicing and relationship stuff too. We of course become good friends in the process but they always end up leaving me. And then I am like, ‘Why does everyone leave me?’ And now looking back on it I am seeing that every girl who has come through Snow Angel is now so busy doing their thing and excelling and just totally going for their dream and their music.
“So many girls were taught to compete and I really feel like when we support one another we can be collectively more successful and as individuals more successful. I really try, instead of making romantic love songs, to make friendship and community love songs that you can connect with.”
TBB: I have seen different bandmates; there are six members, eight members. What is the current lineup?
GLL: We are down to four members now. It keeps changing because like I said I guess my path is to get people fired up, to get them started doing something, show them my method and then send them on their way. The girls in the band right now are Emily Studden on drums, Melissa Leigh on bass, Sarah Melekova on omnichord and I play sitar.
TBB: How do you write songs?
GLL: The latest album that just came out in December I started by writing kind of grooves or simple melodies. In songwriting, some people kind of chip away at it and pick things apart and work on a phrase and edit it and edit it. But I really kind of meditate on it and then it just kind of comes out. Sometimes I might get a melody and then fill in the blanks. I kind of think of songs as if they already exist in the universe, that everything exists somehow and that we are discovering our own creations from the future. I am kind of excavating the song.
TBB: Tell me about the song “Big Group Hug” and about making the video.
GLL: “Big Group Hug” is really a statement that I feel is a voice of women and girls today and any group that feels strong and wants to be recognized for being all different things. So a woman is not just someone who has a vagina and has breasts. We are more than that. We are sassy, we are happy, we are smart, we are angry. We march together, we teach each other, and we learn from each other.
I was on vacation with my parents. Django was a little baby and I think they took him out for a stroller walk. I had a little time to myself. I did it on my phone. I wanted to do something that represented the band. At that time there were nine girls in this band I am like, ‘We have every kind of girl in this band.’ It is crazy to look around and see the diversity and all the different interests and projects that people are doing on their own yet we come together to do this music together and we support each other in every aspect of our lives.
The video was shot at Point Pinole Pier, not too far away. It was directed by Mark Kohr. He has worked with Green Day, Alanis Morrisette, No Doubt.
TBB: Another highlight on the album is the song “Fifteen.”
GLL: That one was really like a coming-of-age song and I was handling a 15-year-old going through puberty, going through what can seem like the hardest time in life. I wanted to speak to my teenage self from the future, from what I know now and give a little hug and say, ‘It seems like the whole world is ending and everything that happens is so intense but all this will pass.’
The intensity of those years when you are 15, 16 is really crazy and you think that your world is the whole universe but really it is such a little grain of sand in the larger picture. So I wanted to be, like, your older self coming from the future to say, ‘It seems crazy right now but it does not matter. Let it go because there are bigger, better things. You are going to become that person that you are meant to be. You are going to do great things. You are going to succeed. You will find your path.’
TBB: You made the video for “Fifteen” yourself?
GLL: That song has an animated video that I actually made. I used this app on my phone called PicCollage. It is a free app that I just got really into using and I use it for a lot of my concert posters and on my graphics. I used that to make stills, stop animation with little tiny changes, and then I edited the whole thing in iMovie and that was it.
TBB: You mentioned that with Snow Angel came a change in the music you write. What song is an example of that?
GLL: We have a song called “Monsters” that I really love and that is a very different sound for us. It is much heavier in tonal texture and also in lyrical content and it has an extended sitar solo in it. It is something I really wanted to show, a sitar solo.
I was thinking about those big cranes out at the Port of Oakland. I am driving around all the time. I have my son in the car and I see these freeways with overpasses, underpasses, all this big construction and I think, ‘When we are all gone, whoever comes next is gonna see this like the bones of dinosaurs that we dig up. What is going to be left to show for human beings?’ These structures are the bones of what we were, what we are leaving behind. It is a message that we are not here forever, so live in the moment and do what you want to do here and now. Be a person who is accountable and act with good intention.
TBB: What did you learn from Les Claypool as a mentor and friend?
GLL: Definitely how to be a bandleader and how to jam. Also Lonnie Marshall from Weapon of Choice, he really taught me how to jam. (We would) go to these amazing epic all night jam sessions and I didn’t know what to do before. Now I really am an improviser.
Indian music is partially improvised music. A lot of people don’t know, but classical Indian music is improvised and it will have a set gat, which is a phrase that repeats, kind of like a chorus. You are supposed to create different lines that rhythmically and melodically are within these very strict rules and boundaries, but it is how you improvise within these boundaries and then come back to the gat.