True Life Trio
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True Life Trio

Oakland, California, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014

Oakland, California, United States
Established on Jan, 2014
Band World Traditional




"A Life Lived Backward"

The members of True Life Trio are trying to unravel the mysterious ties between music and memory. Leslie Bonnett (voice, fiddle, percussion), Briget Boyle (voice, guitar, percussion), and Juliana Graffagna (voice, bass, percussion) are all former members of Kitka, an innovative all-women vocal ensemble. In True Life Trio, the three musicians expand upon that group's hair-raising repertoire of traditional Eastern European and Balkan songs with gorgeous three-part harmonies and finely crafted arrangements of Cajun, Appalachian, and even Mexican standards for an improvisation-laced sound that's rowdy, rootsy, and unabashedly beautiful.

After a fairly quiet year, the trio is in the midst of creating its most ambitious work yet, "Like Never and Like Always: A Memory Project." A site-specific song cycle designed to unfold as a life lived backward, the piece is slated to premiere in November as part of Laura Inserra's concert series at Berkeley Rose Labyrinth, which is located in Grace North Church and provided some of the inspiration for the project.

"The initial idea was to create a seamless sonic journey, and then we saw the labyrinth," Boyle said. "We thought that we could move through it, singing about how life shifts and changes and turns, and how memories are created. We've been fleshing out the idea about how perception can shift through the years, the way that we remember things differently as we change."

Seeking to fund a matching grant from the East Bay Community Foundation, True Life Trio has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,700, and on Thursday will offer a sneak preview of the work-in-progress at a fundraiser at Studio Grand, which will also feature special guest percussionist Dan Auvil, a top secret Balkan brass band, and a solo set by oud master Gari Hegedus (who's collaborating with the trio on the project).

Combining Eastern European tunes, poetry, movement, and original music, "Like Never and Like Always" takes the women far outside their comfort zone. While they usually accompany themselves in performance, they recruited the string wizard Hegedus, thinking it would be "interesting to be free of instruments, though Leslie will play the violin a bit," Graffagna said. "Gari can create these amazing textures with all these string instruments, underscoring our singing. He'll be writing music to help carry the story along. He's such a great improviser, with a combination of being rooted in tradition but also interested in experimentation."

In many ways, the urge to explore notions of identity and memory is inextricably tied to the musical passion that animates True Life Trio. In the East Bay, where the embrace of music and dance from West and Central Africa and their diasporic descendants in Cuba, Brazil, and Jamaica is so common as to be unexceptional, the emotional pull of Eastern European music on people with few old world connections is an enigma in search of an explanation. As Graffagna put it, "Why did we American gals get so obsessed with this music that's so foreign to us?"

Boyle's Balkan music epiphany was "like in an out-of-body experience," she said. The daughter of the respected LA singer-songwriter Karen Tobin and recording engineer Tim Boyle, she started writing songs at age thirteen, and played guitar in various pop and jazz combos through high school. She first heard Balkan music during a brief stint in college in Santa Fe, and ended up moving to Oakland in 2004 specifically to join Kitka. Immersing herself in the vocal traditions of Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, and other Eastern European cultures at the Balkan Music and Dance Workshops in Mendocino, she discovered she had a knack for the music's thick, astringent harmonies and irregular meters.

"At first I was really green and didn't know anything about the music," Boyle said. "I would make up harmonies and sing a third above, because that's what you do in country music. But when I got into the scene, I was really welcomed into the family by Julia and the musicians in Brass Menazeri."

In 2004, as Boyle joined Kitka, Bonnett was just on her way out after a six-year stint in the group, looking to focus more on playing Cajun and Scandinavian fiddle (she performs with fiddler Joe Finn at Ashkenaz's annual New Year's Eve Balkan Bash). A lifelong musical explorer who has delved into the ancient songs of Transylvania and performed new music by Pauline Oliveros, Bonnett rejoined Kitka from 2007 to 2012 until True Life Trio became her primary creative vehicle.

For Graffagna, who grew up outside of Chicago, a passion for Eastern European music was more of an acquired taste than a revelation. Having been deeply involved in music as a teenager, from studying piano to singing in musical theater and church choir, she studied Russian in college without being particularly smitten by the music. After moving out to the Bay Area in 1987, Graffagna on a whim answered an open audition ad placed by Kitka in the Express.

She joined the ensemble, which was already about a decade old, and for quite some time "was on the fence about the group. The music felt so strange and foreign," said Graffagna, who ended up co-directing the ensemble with Shira Cion and Janet Kutulas from 1997 to 2010. "But after several years it got under my skin. I started going to Balkan music camps put on by the Eastern European Folklife Center, and found it so satisfying to sing this music. Once I started dancing, the rhythms really came to life."

True Life Trio came together about four years ago, when Graffagna was looking for a creative outlet after leaving Kitka. She also performs with the inventive Near Eastern quintet Janam, but was missing singing harmonies with other women. A few informal get-togethers with Boyle and Bonnett found the women walking around Lake Merritt after singing together — an activity they enjoyed so much they decided to launch a new band. It didn't take long to settle on a "nice, tidy simple and descriptive name," Boyle said. "This is like life. You get together with friends, take a walk, and sing."

The group raised its profile considerably in 2012 with a concise seven-song debut CD, Home, which captures the band's far-flung repertoire. From the stirring Albanian tale "Malino Mome" to a haunting rendition of the Mexican ballad "La Llorona" to Cajun standard "Old Time Waltz," True Life Trio creates music steeped in tradition but crafted in its own image.

"It felt very freeing to be starting this group from scratch," Boyle said. "Leslie has been playing Cajun music for a long time, and she roped us into doing a couple of shows with her. We're branching out to do more Americana. We'd never heard each other sing in English before! I'm starting to write some more music, and it's a natural forum to showcase that. And the world of Eastern European music is so vast. On paper it can look like too much of a hodgepodge, but it kind of works. We program shows like a journey, and the continuity is our voices." - Andrew Gilbert - East Bay Express

"Bringing The Real World in 3-part harmony"

They bring the world. Via gorgeous harmonies, the East Bay’s True Life Trio travels through a wide spectrum of styles and traditions.
Their debut recording, “Home,” a seven-song EP, is a wondrous introduction to the trio’s multicultural musical expedition.
Trio member Juliana Graffagna says, “We wanted to get something out to the world that reflected the diversity of what we do. We’re proud of it.
It was a huge accomplishment to get it out there. But you’re always on to the next project.
We’re already planning our next CD right now.” Graffagna, Leslie Bonnett and Briget Boyle all sing and play percussion. Bonnett adds fiddle; Boyle guitar; and Graffagna bass. They met as performers in the Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble.
“Our backgrounds, all of us, from singing in a larger chorus,” Graffagna says, “is Eastern European and Balkan music.
That’s sort of the mainstay. But we definitely branch out. We incorporate different Americana styles, Cajun music, specifically. Leslie Bonnett has a strong background in Cajun music. So it’s been really fun to explore that and add three-part vocal harmonies, not often heard with that genre.
“So we’re going from Eastern Europe down to Louisiana.
We do a little bit of Appalachian music, as well. And Eastern Europe, in and of itself, is quite broad, so we do the music from the Balkans, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, then we go up into more northern Europe, into the Ukraine and some Polish music. So it’s a pretty wide range of stuff that we’re exploring. Also we do a fair bit of Georgian music, as well, which is really wonderful. The traditional music is set up for three-part harmony.”
They’ve also touched upon the musical traditions of Mexico, South Africa, Italy and other regions. Though each musical tradition has its own personality, there are common threads.
“For one thing, most of the music is folk music, so, just in terms of the subject matter, there are so many rich songs about real stuff, about love and conflict and war. There are a lot of songs about separating from your family. And that crosses all genres. Then, in terms of doing traditional music in general, there’s a vocal quality that you can use, that we take advantage of in all these different styles, a sort of more folk voice, using a chest voicing, which is a powerful, strident sort of tone to use.
The commonality is that it’s all folk music that sprang up from rural areas everywhere, having to do with the land and the basic stuff of life.”
The trio also performs original material, such as Graffagna’s lovely “Butterfly Dream.”
Originally from Chicago, Graffagna has been singing and teaching European music for 25 years. She has traveled extensively and worked with countless musicians.
“I feel that I am steeped enough in the music that it has colored the way that I hear music and see music. So it’s natural for me to then spin off and write my own things. It’s fun taking elements from these different traditions and incorporating them into my compositions, but then making it modern and singing in English.
It’s a challenge, but a labor of love, for sure, for all of us.”
“Butterfly Dream” is one of the soaring a cappella numbers on the “Home” EP.
“Some of the music, you don’t want any instruments in it, because the harmonies are so rich, in and of themselves. It’s just perfect without. And some of it, frankly, sounds strange or too modern somehow, with instruments. It’s about being respectful of the traditions. But it’s also about making the most beautiful sound that we can make.”
Other tunes, especially the lively Cajun numbers, cry out for instruments to augment the vocals.
“It seems like there are endless amounts of tools in our little tool chest to pull out to vary the texture of the sound.”
The group creates unique arrangements of traditional numbers. Sometimes, it’s a matter of taking music originally designed for larger choirs and extracting the essential harmonies, so they can capture the majesty with three voices.
“We’re trying to find ourselves in all this music, since we’re not Macedonian or Ukrainian or Appalachian, for that matter. Without trying, you’re imprinting yourself, no matter what you’re doing. That’s a natural extension, putting our own personalities into it.”
Graffagna, already a singer, studied Russian language in college, and then tuned in to
Slavic folk music. “That’s what piqued my interest originally. And then I fell in love with the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus and wanted to sing like that.
“Leslie grew up in the Bay Area, doing international folk dance. That’s how she came to it. Briget got hooked up with Eastern European music at the College of Santa Fe. We all met here in the Bay Area and we chose each other out of this bigger group to branch out and do this thing, because we get along so well, personality wise.
And though our voices are so different, we think it’s a really good blend with the three of us. We all trust each other tremendously and our abilities to make something that sounds profoundly beautiful to us. So it’s a lot of joy.
“And it’s ever-changing.
We’ve only been together a few years, but we’ve already done a lot of different kinds of projects. We did a Jewish music program and a Polish music program and the annual Christmas revels pageant at the Scottish Rite theater in Oakland.”
On Thursday, the Trio plays a house concert in Mountain View.
“We do the house concerts more and more. It’s definitely the trend, certainly in the Bay Area and, I think, all over the place. For people who really want to hear music without glasses and plates being jostled, it’s a nice, quiet, home setting.
And for musicians, it’s terrific, because it’s so personal. You often don’t have to be amplified. So it’s a really pure, natural sound. And you’re three feet from the person in the front row, which can be intimidating in some ways, but mostly it’s just very nice. It feels very honest and a nice way for everybody to share music.
“The people that come, they’re really interested in hearing what you have to share with them. You get to hang out with people after the shows. A lot of these places have their own little established audience and then you bring your own audience in addition. So it’s a pretty good mix.”
The trio is in the planning stages for a recording/performance project about memory that will incorporate poetry, spoken word and dance, as well as traditional and original music.
Whenever they raise their voices in song, True Life Trio uplifts the listener, regardless of the song’s subject matter or language. “We want to transport you,” Graffagna says. “We want to bring people along on this journey. We just feel lucky that we get to be the vessel, we get to actually do the singing, because it is such a pleasant feeling to emit these sounds and blend in that way and breathe together. We get all that and then it’s a huge benefit that it’s something that other people want to experience, as well.”
Email Paul Freeman at - By Paul Freeman - The Daily News

"True Life Trio, Home"

What do a Wailing Woman, a rebel fighter and a mountain all have in common? They are the subjects of traditional folk songs that have now been re-envisioned by the True Life Trio on the CD Home, a collaboration between Briget Boyle, Leslie Bonnett and Juliana Graffagna.
La Llorona, the 6th song on the album tells the story of a woman, who for the love of a faithless man, murdered her children. An old legend of Mexico, it is said that on certain nights her crying can still be heard. La Llorona has been depicted as a horrific figure, a monster and is often used to caution children and young women against bad behavior. In the True Life Trio's version it is instead, her grief, aching and remorseful, that is evoked. The violin rasps with a deep throb, adding an Irish quality to the folk tale. It is an interesting musical choice as the legend of La Llorona shares a similarity with the story of the Banshee, the female Wraith of Ireland whose baleful wailing signals death to those who hear it.
Not all the songs on the album are so tragic. The Old Home Waltz, originally written by Cajun musician Shirley Bergeron, steps lightly and brings a warmth to the opening of the album.
Despite the fact that all the songs on the album except Butterfly Dream are renditions of traditional songs, this is not a cover album. Nor it is an ode to 'world' music. True Life Trio has created unique musical journey that gives a timely immediacy to the enduring spirit that originally inspired the songs.
On the border between Italy and Slovenia, rises a mountain that has, over the the centuries, inspired many a song. Da Pa Canen E Se Zmudow, the fourth song on the album is an a cappella rendition that is both haunting and arousing in equal measure.
The Trio singers know well the power of the unaccompanied voice as they are all former members of Kitka, an all female vocal ensemble, and have also spent much of their life studying Eastern European and Balkan singing styles.Particularly harmonic, Balkan singing is often the grounding center piece to the rhythm of the songs, coming, as it does, straight from the gut.
Because of the power of each of the songs, this is not the CD to listen to while throwing a dinner party. The Albanian wedding song might fit nicely on a playlist but each song is a small work of auditory art meant to be intently listened to. Each is meant to provoke a different emotional experience.
In an age of American Idol and nasal irony, the True Life Trio have brought us back to the cathartic power that music can possess. That sparse yet resonant musical orchestration and the mixing of powerful voices is all that is needed to help us release our pain or to spur us on towards acts of beauty. - Ginger Murray - SF Weekly



True Life Trio performs riveting vocal harmonies from Eastern Europe, the Americas & beyond. This innovative trio explores the creative possibilities of cross-fertilization of different traditions with unlikely timbres connecting Bulgaria to the Bayou. TLT’s improvisation-laced repertoire includes original songs and folk tunes from far-flung lands such as Macedonia, Louisiana, Albania, Ukraine, Mexico, Poland, Italy and Georgia. Featuring the powerful vocal talents of three dynamic performers whose musical collaboration was forged in Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble, the trio delves deep into a vast array of folk music that lends itself to three-part vocal harmony, massaging and expanding the boundaries of these traditional styles.  The result is a sweet, sonic explosion that melts in the listener’s ear and that is uniquely True Life Trio.

Band Members