“There’s a rumour going around that I only perform love songs,” Clara Venice says on stage. “Well, it’s true.” During her live shows, the Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist plays electric violin, glockenspiel, ukelele and theremin. Considered one of the most challenging instruments to play, the theremin exudes an ethereal, haunting sound (it’s often heard in old school sci-fi movies) that’s hardly what we’d expect from an electro-pop love gig. We caught up with Venice before her upcoming performance at The Drake Hotel.
How did you come across the theremin?
I was playing with bands all through high school and was trying to figure out what my own project would be. I was in electro bands, rock bands, heavy metal bands, all sorts of different stuff, and I was starting to have an idea. I went in to the Moog store downtown, and I just wanted to try it to see if it was intuitive. It was love at first sight. I didn’t know at that point that it’s the hardest instrument in the world to play. So all the guys in the store are looking me up and down, and are like, “It’s not intuitive for anybody, but sure, go for it.” And I could play it, and none of them could, and it had been sitting there for a year, so they were like, “Yeah, I guess it’s yours.”
What’s the intrigue of an unconventional instrument?
It’s a mix between a voice and a violin. You can put tons of effects on it, it’s so haunting, and that’s why it’s used in sci-fi movies. It was invented in the ’20s, but it’s also used in Beach Boys songs, and why not bring it back? It’s a very simple technology, but it’s so magical. You don’t even touch it.
You’re sort of trailblazing your own style. What response does that get?
That’s kind of the first choice you make as an artist: “Am I going to be super experimental or am I going to be pop?” And I didn’t want to choose, I wanted to do both. Of course, I had a lot of pressure to conform to one thing or the other, especially when I went to L.A. and was talking to the labels there. They were like, “Yeah, well, you know, we don’t really don’t know what to do with you.” People think it’s weird before they hear it — and that was even before I had my theremin!
Does being classically trained affect your sound?
Classical music isn’t cool, but I was always like, “Yeah, this is awesome!” I went to the symphony, and then I went to see a punk band!” And people are like, no, you can’t do those two things. But why not? If it’s good and it’s quality music, then I think that everybody, at a certain point, relates to it.
So then how do you make classical music relevant?
That’s been the biggest challenge, but once people are here, they think, “Oh, it’s pop, it’s fun, it’s love songs, I’ve never seen this before,” and then people get excited. And since I started this project, I’ve wondered if I’m the only person in the world who is doing this. So, you know, I Google it, and there is no one else! With the theremin, there are a lot of multi-instrumentalists now — with the state of technology they’re able to do that. But I think this quirky combination of things is so crazy that it works. If it was half as crazy, it wouldn’t work as well.
Why include projections from artists like Ken Ogawa?
He’s a part of all my shows. I really like opera, and my music is infused with that. Even though the music is so beautiful, opera still has this visual element. So then I just thought, maybe we can do the opera in a bar, and we can have a moving set. What I’m trying to do when I perform is to give a totally immersive experience and to get people to forget about the world and not check their phones and not think about what’s going on. We should all just go somewhere — the more senses we can address, the more encompassing it is.
In addition to original music, you include a lot of covers in your shows. Any favourites?
You could sing every single good song out there and you still wouldn’t live long enough. But then there are things that you see and sing differently. With the covers, I really like to change people’s expectations. It’s usually requests, like Sinead O’Connor or Journey [laughs], which is totally cool. For example, the Bruno Marssong, the production is so intense — you pay attention to the beat, the instrumentation, the arrangement, and not necessarily the lyrics and message. But have you ever actually listened to the emotion of the song?
What can we expect from tomorrow night’s show at The Drake?
It’s a great show to go to on a date. And it’s cinematic, and it’s a lot more familiar than people might think.
Clara Venice, The Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen St. W., 416-531-5042. July 12, 8 p.m.