jesika-von-rabbit

Down the Rabbit Hole

Joshua Tree songstress Jesika von Rabbit sweetens the gritty desert rock scene.

Maggie Downs Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

jesika-von-rabbit
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT

It’s been more than a decade since I first saw Jesika von Rabbit perform, and I’m nervous going into this interview. That alone should tell you what a force she is and the lasting impression she leaves.

I’ve seen her play solo and with her former band, Gram Rabbit, and there are hardly enough words to explain the experience. Her voice is like a doll that throws a punch, the vibe electric. She’s the witch who lures you into a candy house, the siren who pulls you close — even though you know better. Surrounded by go-go dancers, illuminated by projected images both beautiful and strange, a Jesika von Rabbit concert is the equivalent of a dance party during the apocalypse. But with more bunny ears.

Though I know she lives in Joshua Tree, I imagine encountering her for this interview in a castle ripped from a subversive fairy tale or Bond villain lair.

Instead, we meet at Starbucks.

She arrives with her blonde hair tucked into an easy bun, high on her head. She’s wearing a white, dressy blouse and purple pants, her exercise clothes underneath — confirming my suspicion she’s a musical Clark Kent, able to transform Jess into Jesika lickety-split.

VIDEO: Shot at the Joshua Tree home of Jeskia von Rabit, the singer reflects on her move to the desert.

Every day on the von Rabbit calendar is packed full, but today particularly so. Our interview will be followed by a workout, then a full night rehearsing, followed by another day of rehearsal before performing a long set at the Joshua Tree Music Festival. She’s also fully entrenched in promoting her most recent solo album, Dessert Rock, as well as putting out last-minute fires — there’s a problem with the projector for an upcoming gig, several people want to be added to the already-submitted guest list, and a seamstress had to do an emergency fix on von Rabbit’s costume.

“My dress had this big slash across the chest,” she laughs. She motions to her torso with a delicate hand, and for the first time I notice her chunky ring that reads DROP DEAD. “But that’s a different story.”

It seems exhausting to be Jesika von Rabbit. But she wouldn’t want it any other way.

Von Rabbit spent her childhood in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the daughter of a singer who crooned in hotel bars and recorded commercial jingles.

“My mother was always getting dressed up very glam to go out, and it was mesmerizing to me as a child,” she says. “So I was lucky. I always knew what I was put on the planet to do.”

Then came her first concert at age 14 — Metallica’s “And Justice for All” tour — an electrifying and formative event that confirmed what von Rabbit already knew to be true: “I knew I wanted to do music, but seeing that production blew me away, and it changed me.” She visibly shivers even though the afternoon is warm. “I still get chills thinking about it.”

After leaving the Midwest for Los Angeles, von Rabbit assisted with wardrobe styling on Blondie and Gwen Stefani videos — “It was fun, but I wanted to be the one getting styled,” she says — followed by a move to the desert in 2000.

“I was having a hard time in L.A. finding new bandmates and good friends. I was kind of lost,” she says, then pauses for a long moment. “In a sea of millions you can find yourself the most lonely.”

Jesika Von Rabbit

Jesika von Rabbit defies the heavy, aggressive “desert rock” sound, setting her own standards and then pushing their boundaries.

Coachella

She has played Coachella, and her songs have been featured on platforms from Netflix to the Olympics. But Jesika von Rabbit wants more, and she’s reaching for it.

Joshua Tree is where von Rabbit thrived. She and Todd Rutherford founded the band Gram Rabbit and released their frenetic psychedelic disco-pop debut, Music to Start a Cult To. Hailed as the best new band at the LA Weekly Music Awards, Gram Rabbit played the main stage at the 2005 Coachella Music and Arts Festival, recorded three more albums, and licensed their music for commercials, TV shows, and films, including Sons of Anarchy; Crazy, Stupid, Love; and War, Inc.

In 2013, von Rabbit tackled her first solo venture, 2015’s Journey Mitchell. While she struggled to find musicians who matched her sound and vision, she played a string of bare-bones sets with just a couple of dancers and a keyboard.

“I had to keep playing music no matter what, so I was a lone act,” she says. “It was kind of scary, but it was good for me. It made me better.”

Dessert Rock has a fuller sound, marrying von Rabbit’s electronic component with rollicking guitarist Ethan Allen and Lee Joseph on bass.

The album’s title is a cheeky nod to desert rock — the clattering trademark sound of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, and Fu Manchu, among others. It’s also a term that hasn’t been inclusive of the women musicians who call the desert home.

“I get that ‘desert rock’ is a sound, and I don’t necessarily play that. It’s heavy and aggressive. It’s male. And that’s fine,” von Rabbit says. “But sometimes the girls are like, ‘Hey! I’m doing something cool over here.’

“That’s what makes Dessert Rock perfect for this album. I play music in the desert, but my music, like dessert, is fruitier. A little more colorful. More artsy.”

The album contains what is probably her most revealing song to date, a cover of Boy George’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” recorded in one take. The result is a spare, mournful tune. Von Rabbit’s coo navigates the lyrics like a vocal roller coaster, carrying the listener up, up, up, before plunging into a deep and vulnerable space.

That recording (and subsequent video) led to a Twitter exchange with Boy George, who retweeted the song to his fans.

“That was awesome and surreal because I grew up listening to Boy George,” she says. “And then I wondered, When are we having lunch? When do I open for you? And …? Now what?”

This is the thing about von Rabbit: She’s never been some inchoate musician. She sets the standards, and as soon as she meets them, she pushes the bar forward.

“I don’t want to come across as ungrateful, because I’ve had very high highs, and I’m sure some things have led to other things. But it never leads to as much as I want it to,” she says.

The Boy George connection. Playing Coachella. Songs featured in commercials, on Netflix, in the Olympics. They are remarkable achievements — but there is always more success to be had.

“Of course I want more,” von Rabbit says, then flashes a coy smile. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking, ‘And …? Now what?’ ”

Music Calendar
Keiko Matsui

Keiko Matsui (Feb. 23) at McCallum Theatre.

Joshua Bell

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY MCCALLUM THEATRE

Joshua Bell (Feb.4) at McCallum Theatre.

2018

Dec. 15 / LeAnn Rimes.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Dec. 16 / Merri-Achi Christmas.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Dec. 18 / Dave Koz and Friends.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Dec. 19 / Ken Dahleen and His Big Band Staff.
7 p.m. Rancho Mirage Public Library and Observatory.

2019

Jan 7. / Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel.
7 p.m.  McCallum Theatre.

Jan. 10 / The Music of Sinatra starring Michael Andrew.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Jan. 15–20 / Jersey Boys.
McCallum Theatre.

Jan. 19 / Divalicious: Amanda McBroom and Ann Hampton Callaway.
8 p.m. Annenberg Theater.

Jan. 22 / Ben and Noel Haggard.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Jan. 23 / Sergio Mendes.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Jan. 31–Feb. 1 / Paul Anka.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Feb. 4 / Joshua Bell.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Feb. 11 / Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Feb. 15–16 / Michael Feinstein.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Feb. 19–20 / Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Cher, and Neil Diamond.
McCallum Theatre.

Feb. 23 / After the Ball: Christine Ebersole.
8 p.m. Annenberg Theater.

Feb. 23 / Keiko Matsui.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

Feb. 24 / The Lettermen.
3 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 2 / Rhythm, Wine, and Brews Experience.
Empire Polo Club.

March 3 / Legends of Folk.
3 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 4 / Pablo Sainz Villegas.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 5–6 / Neil Berg’s 50 Years of Rock and Roll.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 16 / An Evening with Cheyenne Jackson.
8 p.m. Annenberg Theater.

March 24 / McCallum Theatre Concert Band.
3 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 25 / Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 26 / Piaf! – Le Spectacle.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 27 / Tribute to Glenn Miller and the Big Band Leaders Starring The Tex Beneke Orchestra.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 30 / Savion Glover’s All FuNKD’ Up in Concert.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

March 31 / Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

April 1 / Concerto Finals With Wring Festival Orchestra.
7 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

April 5–6 / Garden Jam Music Festival.
Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

April 6 / An Evening with Hugh Panaro.
8 p.m. Annenberg Theater.

April 11 / Big Band Broadway Starring Debbie Gravitte.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

April 12–13 / Chris Botti.
8 p.m. McCallum Theatre.

April 12–14 / Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Empire Polo Club.

April 19–21 / Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Empire Polo Club.

April 26–28 / Quiet No More.
Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus. Annenberg Theater.

April 26–28 / Stagecoach, California’s Country Music Festival.
Empire Polo Club.

May 16–19 / Joshua Tree Music Festival.
Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground.