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Cultivating a garden of sounds

Cellist-singer Ashia Grzesik merges pop, folk, classical music


by: COURTESY OF BEN Z MUND PHOTOGRAPHY - Portlands Ashia Grzesik dazzles with her cello and alto-soprano voice, but its her self-depracating humor and personality that wow audiences.In a matter of minutes, Ashia Grzesik transforms herself into a one-woman band.

First, she records and then loops a ukulele rhythm chord pattern through an effects pedal. Then she records backing vocals, “ooh-ing” her voice. Then she plucks a simple, but catchy melodic bass line on her cello, which she adds to the loops.

As the layers of sound fill her living room, she draws her bow across her cello and weaves a slightly complex classical sounding countermelody.

She then lets loose with her alto- soprano voice, giving operatic heft to a melody she recently composed called “My Rock.” Her lyrics speak of her drowning while others swim to safety, as she comes to terms with her sorrowful plight. The tune is surprisingly “pop” for someone steeped in classical music.

“I think a lot of what I write is pretty simple and straightforward,” she says.

You can compare how her songs sound to any number of pieces written by Tom Waits, Tori Amos or Laurie Anderson. Indeed, her new album, “Diesel vs Lungs,” would sit comfortably on your shelf next to records of such artists. However, there’s something uniquely “Grzesik” about this musician, something sui generis.

Maybe it’s because the 33-year-old Portland resident and Polish-born immigrant combines over-the-top artsy theatricality with the kind of down-to-earth, self-deprecating humor that endears you to your favorite greasy spoon waitress. In other words, Grzesik was clearly born to dazzle folks with her talent, but apparently lacks the pretension that can mark some divas.

“The human comes first, the artist second,” she says more than once.

Indeed, during her most recent concert showcasing Polish immigrant songs, at the Alberta Rose Theatre, she began the show by singing a capella in the audience, not beneath a spotlight. She then asked everyone to silently invite the spirits of their ancestors to join in the show.

“The space really becomes fuller, and the relationship is no longer just between me and the audience,” she says. “I’m remembering to invite others in, who are far in distance but near to our hearts.”

Toddler on the run

Grzesik left Soviet-dominated Poland in 1981, when she was 18 months old — her dad a dissident rock musician, her mom a teacher. They both chafed under restrictive communist rule and wanted a free life, she says.

“He was pretty rebellious, often getting into trouble, in really good ways,” she says of her father. “He really longed for freedom — he knew if he stayed, he’d wind up in jail, with a daughter on the outside.”

The young family fled to what was then West Germany, settling in Hamburg. Eventually, a Catholic church in the San Francisco area sponsored the family’s resettling in America, where she and her two sisters grew up in a house filled with music. She was only 6 when she first heard a recording of Debussy’s music.

“I was just completely blown away by it,” she says. “I remember loving the bassoon sounds.”

Her parents enrolled her in cello classes, she says, noting the instrument was as tall as her.

“We grew together,” she adds with a laugh. “What I love about it is it’s the music of anything and everything. It can be a support role, it can be an expressive role, and it can be a middle role.”

After playing with the Seattle Youth Symphony from ages 10 to 18, she went to Central Washington University to study music. In her junior year, she joined Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas, a gig that lasted four years.

“To go from music school to a massive production is like ‘Holy meow meow!’ ” she says with a laugh.

by: COURTESY OF BEN Z MUND PHOTOGRAPHY - The Polish-born Ashia Grzesik says, often,  The human comes first, the artist second, in describing her on-stage presence.She fell in love with a guy who encouraged her to move to Portland. The relationship eventually ended, but her new home proved to be fertile ground for her music. She eventually became a member of The Portland Cello Project, Vagabond Opera and Classical Revolution PDX.

Along the way, she developed her solo act, called Ashia & The Bison Rouge, which involves the use of looping to create her one-woman band on stage. Like more and more similarly minded classically trained musicians, she takes her skills into bars, nightclubs, cafes and other places where classical music traditionally has not been heard, and meshes it with pop, rock, hip-hop and soul. Grzesik stresses it’s less contrived than people might think.

“It wasn’t, ‘Man, I’m going to go into a bar with a cello!’ ” she says. “It was more like, ‘I’m writing these songs with a cello instead of a guitar.’ ”

She’s also incorporated the ukulele into her solo act and made her mark here and abroad, picking up a Portland Drammy in 2010 for writing music Third Rail Repertory Theater used in its show “The Gray Sisters.”

Grzesik has played festivals in Poland as well as Germany and the Czech Republic, and she plans to return to Europe next year. Earlier this year, she performed in Berlin, with the celebrated show, “Dummy,” featuring her compositions set to acrobatic choreography along with tracks written by electronic musician Reecode. The cellist-singer hopes to continue collaborating with others as well as perform solo.

“I’m really into lending myself to where I’m at.”