All the right strings

Singer-songwriter and cellist Ashia Grzesik has made it her personal mission to make the cello as versatile, theatrical and sexy as possible.

Singer-songwriter and cellist Ashia Grzesik has made it her personal mission to make the cello as versatile, theatrical and sexy as possible.

She has been playing since she was 9 years old, when she joined a youth orchestra in the Bay Area. After moving to Seattle and joining the city’s Youth Symphony, she ended up with a bachelor’s degree in music, which led to a gig playing and singing with Cirque de Soleil in their resident Las Vegas show. She moved to Portland for love and stayed for the warm reception to her peculiar, avant-garde sound.

“I started tagging it as cello-folk-cabaret,” Grzesik said. “It’s a pretty good mix because I really love folk and blues music. I put the cabaret on the end of it to give people the sense that it might get more theatrical, more spunky rhythms and more jazz-like, and whimsical.”

If originality is your thing, Grzesik is for you. Her sound is unlike anything else out there. It’s full-bodied, surprising and completely irreverent. She’s been known to perform comedic theatrical displays with an aerial dancer, and continues to nurture her flexibility as an artist as part of the Vagabond Opera and the Portland Cello Project. In the process, she managed to find time to release Pay to Be Loved and is working on a follow up with a slightly different tone.

“The first one was about various love songs, very abstract. This next one is going to be stories about others based on Americana and Eastern European immigrant stories. It isn’t [entirely] autobiographical but it’s semi because I am Polish and yet have a love for American bass, blues and folk. There will be the cabaret as well, and the brightly colored songs.”

There is not a huge selection of cellist-singer-songwriters in the industry today, in part because of the difficulty of the instrument, also because of the further difficulty with making the instrument create new sounds and in part because of the difficult feat of blending vocals with such unusual accompaniment.

“Sometimes I have to collaborate with myself,” Grzesik said. “My voice and my cello have to get along. What’s satisfying is when my voice and my cello create a whole new instrument together. You’ll hear that sometimes. That’s when I know I’ve hit the sweet spot.”

Grzesik has enjoyed a history in theater that is extremely evident in her sassy, dramatic sound when instruments are used as characters performing their roles in a musical play. However, as she has grown as an individual and a musician, her reasons for creating such innovative musical numbers have changed.

“Sometimes I feel like those years of wanting to express myself emotionally are starting to wane from growing up. I might get started on a musical idea that will start out as a love song but end up being funny and hard. It’s not like, ‘oh, I have to express myself dramatically because I’m a young girl and I’m angry’ anymore.”

Instead, Grzesik has been paying attention to her surrounding cultures, breathing more substance and philosophy into her lyrics. As the child of Polish immigrants, she takes time to reflect on her unique perspective of American culture, channeling her observations into her work.

“Growing up here with access to the lenses of immigrants is amazing to experience. America is great for the ideals of democracy and freedom and liberty, but these past couple of years it’s as though the system is collapsing beneath itself. I’m just searching now, I think many Americans are searching for what it means to be American, and find our roots, and we’re just trying to find out who we are right now in the world.”

As you may have guessed, much of her new music takes a stand. It’s rich, ornate and powerful, spun with underlying messages targeted toward listeners interested in paying attention to a talented musician with a strong point of view. Instead of whitewashing the larger-than-life music with futile emotional discharge, she loads them thoroughly with metaphor and statements on the current state of affairs in America.

“Some of [my music] is saying we have nowhere to go and nowhere to roam, that’s something a lot of Americans are having to deal with. They are getting kicked out of their own homes. The ideal, the American Dream is being destroyed and leveled.”

To say Grzesik isn’t sugarcoated would be an understatement. Of course, her vivacious, charming personality can’t help but bleed into some of her songs. She maintains a sultry sense of humor, which is a welcomed break during long stretches of her intense songs.

“I think the cello can be really humorous. I’ve started to write really off-color songs in the line of cabaret. Songs I’ll just sprinkle in here and there as encores or last set songs. I like to call them sweet and dirty, just sexy silly songs. It’s been really great to explore the funny side of sex, the silly side of it.”

Her entire set arrangement is designed to tell an overlaying story, with heavy songs and silly songs carefully intertwined to keep the audience engaged. Because of the R-rated nature of some of her music, inspired by her years in Las Vegas and association with burlesque and cabaret culture, it is not unheard of for people to storm out. Grzesik explains it is the impact that matters, not the nature of it.

“I just hope that they walk away changed somehow. Whether they are just completely disgusted and they walk away angry, or they’re in reveled [sic], I always hope to bring change to an audience member. If they’re amazed and they love it and they want to stick around then I’m so happy. Regardless, there are hopes that they find what they’re looking for eventually.”

Much of what anyone is looking for can be found within Grzesnik’s repertoire. Sex, politics, economics, humor, culture shock and one more reason to regret skipping out on that middle school orchestra class.