Squeezing Out Sparks: A Chat With Ami Saraiya

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Jackie O's, Athens' Irish brewpub, may end up feeling more like a 1930s Parisian cafe this weekend. Or perhaps New York's Knitting Factory on a melodic, yet quirky, summer evening.

That's because Ami Saraiya and her band The Outcome are scheduled to take the stage this Friday with their unique blend of folk-punk and jazz-cabaret.

Saraiya, a classically trained pianist and former music major at Indiana University, is a Chicago music veteran whose solo debut, Archeologist (2009), drew rave reviews from The Chicago Tribune and The A.V. Club. Her latest release, Soundproof Box (2012), is receiving similar plaudits from dozens of print, broadcast and online media outlets.

With vocals frequently compared to Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, Saraiya's secret weapon is her accordion, which creates swirling, somewhat-devilish tones that would make Tom Waits proud.

WOUB's Bryan Gibson caught up with Saraiya to talk about the new album and the motivation behind her squeezebox-driven sound.

WOUB: Let's talk a bit about Soundproof Box. It's such a rich, textured album that is both melodically and rhythmically adventurous. Could you tell me a bit about its production–where it was recorded, who produced it–and how it differs from your past efforts?

AS: We recorded this album at Maestro-matic studios in Chicago with one of my favorite producers, Mark Messing. He is a well known Chicago musician/composer and created the band Mucca Pazza, a 35-piece demented gypsy/balkan/vaudeville marching band. He also does quite a bit of film and theater scoring. Marc definitely influenced the sound and added that extra bit of madness and carnivalesque feel, as did the fantastic musicians that make up The Outcome–two of them are actually Mucca Pazza members. I can always count on my band members to help push the envelope. Mark had actually produced about half of Archaeologist in 2009.

WOUB: The songs have a very cinematic feel, at times calling to mind foreign films from the 1960s, or perhaps Burt Bacharach or Ennio Morricone scores. Are film soundtracks important to you and your songwriting?

AS: Funny that you should say that! I am a big fan of Burt Bacharach and I find scores from many films to be very moving and inspiring. Film composers seem to have much more leeway in letting music develop with a scene and allowing for more ebbs, flows, and drama, more so than I think the traditional pop format. Don't get me wrong, I like the pop format and it's conciseness, but it's been a fun challenge trying to fit that cinematic feel into the course of a pop song.  

WOUB: The accordion, along with the mandolin and string flourishes, gives the album a French cabaret feel. How long have you been playing the instrument and what appeal does it hold for you?

AS: In the spring of 2005, my brother-in-law inherited his aunt’s old accordion. He brought it to our home and as soon as I strapped that thing on, I was hooked. It was like a symphony in my hands. I ended up getting my own used one on Craigslist a few weeks later. Since I played the piano for years, it wasn’t too difficult for me to get the keyboard portion of the accordion down. I took lessons with a few different teachers to get a better grasp of the buttons on the left hand. I’m still by no means an expert, but I can hold my own.

Ami Saraiya and The Outcome will perform Friday, July 26 at Jackie O's Pub & Brewery with local openers Controlled Folly. Show time is 10 p.m. For more information, visit www.amisaraiya.com.