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After devastating loss, soul artist PaviElle finds a new joy and a new voice

by Andrea Swensson

September 11, 2014

The term "old soul" gets thrown around a lot when trying to describe people who seem wiser than their age or experiences can account for. But for vocalist and songwriter PaviElle French, who performs as PaviElle, the words "old soul" describe her not just figuratively but also literally.

A native of the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, PaviElle has strong ties to the pioneering artists who shaped the funk and soul scene in the 1970s, including an uncle who played saxophone in Haze and her late mother, who was in an early band with "Funkytown" vocalist Cynthia Johnson. And on her debut album, Fear Not, which comes out this Saturday, the 29-year-old eschews the novelty of electro-R&B and neo-soul in favor of a rich, textured, and organic soul sound that is bolstered by jazz horns, warm organ licks, and djembe played by her brother, Ahanti Young.

Even with its vintage influences, Fear Not is far from a photocopy of an old Donny Hathaway record. PaviElle keeps the snare cranked tight, and the rhythms hammered out by drummer Nick Dodd sound more like they belong on a hip-hop record or a song by a '90s soul artist like Erykah Badu. And the singer keeps her band moving throughout the album's 10 tracks—despite the fact that more than a few songs span five minutes or more, the forward momentum and energy make the album fly by in a flash.

"I love to play with a fat ass sound," she says, laughing. "That’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to knock in your car, it’s supposed to knock in the club. And I think that it’s the millennial in me that likes the bass heavy. I love that. But it’s also the soul in me that has to have all the instrumentation. So I like to integrate the two different sounds."

PaviElle caught early glimpses of the performing arts world, first by appearing in community plays starting at the age of five and then at Penumbra, where she worked her way up from working as a stage-running to helping out in the box office, all while soaking up everything around her.

"I got to see the Baby Boomers doing their thing, as opposed to just the Gen-Xers being my influence," she says. "That's where a lot of that high art was at. That aesthetic, that black aesthetic, was from Baby Boomers, and so I got to be influenced by that and see the true way—to see August Wilson in his prime, and see Claude Purdey in his prime, and see Louis Bellamy in his prime. These people taught me how to be who I am and express myself."

By age 15 PaviElle was eager to see what she could do. She dropped out of high school and hit the road with EduPoetic Enterbrainment, a spoken word, R&B, and reggae fusion troupe that gave her the opportunity to sing for large crowds at First Avenue, the Quest, and Sursumcorda, and then dove head-first into the Twin Cities spoken-word open-mic scene and met fellow aspiring artists like Desdamona. But PaviElle wasn't content to be a back-up singer or stay confined to the open-mic circuit, and by the time she was in her mid-20s she was starting to feel burnt out on the whole endeavor.

"And then all the stuff happened," she says, sighing deeply. The "stuff" meaning the back-to-back diagnoses of both of her parents with cancer, followed by her mother and father passing away within a year of one another. After experiencing such a monumental loss, all PaviElle knew was that she had to get out of town. So she quit music, enrolled in a school down in Hiro, Hawaii, and hit the reset button on her life.

"In Hawaii, I just felt really good all the time," she remembers. "And I hadn’t felt that in such a long time. It was just like, this is what you need to be doing. I learned really good eating habits, and lost about 85 pounds from then to now. I needed to shed some weight, some mental weight and some physical weight. There’s something about the water; as a water sign, I’m a Scorpio, so I feel like in order for me to heal, I have to go to the source of my element. And that’s just what that was."

What PaviElle didn't realize, however, was that the time she spent in Hawaii would also reawaken the reasons why she loved music so much in the first place and discover a new way to sing.

"I would sit out there on that beach every day, watch the sun set, drink Coronas, watch the sea turtles and all the dolphins and just breathe and soak that in. Some days I’d just go out to the beach and sing. People didn’t care. So I’d go out there and do my mom’s favorite hymns, you know. I found more than I bargained for, being down there in Hawaii. I found more of myself than I was even looking for, than I even knew was there. And that’s when the sound—that’s when my vocal sound changed. Me and Ahanti, my brother, we talk about it all the time. After my parents died, my voice changed. Because I never sounded like that—not that vibrato, not that timbre. Everything was different! And I would sing and be like, 'Wow!'"

Once PaviElle returned to Minnesota, she realized she wanted to make music again—but this time on her own terms, and with her voice leading the show. She forged a musical partnership with the bassist Casey O'Brien, who produced Fear Not, and worked with him to form an impressive nine-piece live band. The powerhouse group has been holding down a monthly residency at Icehouse and earning rave reviews, and will return to the stage this Saturday night to celebrate the release of the album.

Now that she's back, PaviElle says that making music and performing for people has taken on a whole new meaning.

"It became somethin so spiritual," she says. "It’s almost like I’m a vessel now, and I come from a place of healing and spirit. When I perform now, I’m in search of connection with the higher spirit. I want to talk to God. I want to talk to my mom, I want to talk to my dad—and with that music that they taught me and talked to me in, that we had this connection with. And all of a sudden all this light starts beaming through."

She stops and shakes her head, smiling in awe. "It’s a whole 'nother ballgame now. There is a certain point that, after I start singing, I am no longer there. And when I get off stage, I’m so high. I mean blown, gone. And it never did that before. I mean, it was always fun, but it was nothing like this."

PaviElle and her band release Fear Not this Saturday night, September 13, at Icehouse, with opening support from Ashley Gold. 11 p.m. $10/$12 at the door. 21+.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.