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Gabriel Kahane's 'The Ambassador' is LA history in a song cycle

by James Kim and Cameron Kell | The Frame

Singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane performing his song cycle, "The Ambassador." Ben Cohen

Los Angeles has inspired many musicians to write songs about the city, but singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane has gone above and beyond — he decided to make an entire album dedicated to the architecture and landmarks that have made this city famous.

The album, titled "The Ambassador," has a track list that reads more like a tourist map. The song titles — including “Griffith Park,” “Union Station” and the title track about the former mid-city hotel — are each accompanied by the corresponding street address.

When Kahane visited us at The Frame, host John Horn asked about his relationship to Los Angeles, the multimedia nature of the live production of the album, and how he went about writing songs about restaurants.

Interview Highlights:

If you were deciding, would this show be reviewed by a theater critic, a music critic, an architecture critic or a film critic? You get to pick, who are you sending to review your own show?

[laughs] It's funny that you bring that up, because when we did the premiere at BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music], we agonized over whether it should be reviewed by a music or a theater critic.

I had gone to the length of collaborating with these fantastic theater artists — John Tiffany, who directed "Once," and Christine Jones, the designer behind "American Idiot" and "Spring Awakening," among other things — and it felt like we were trying to explode the notion of what a concert is and to take away the crutch of direct address [to the audience], which normally I lean on quite heavily. I'm chatty with the audience, as I'm chatty with you now. [laughs]

Without spoiling it, we should describe what the show looks like and how it's presented when it's staged.

Christine Jones' conceit for the design is stacks of books, a reel-to-reel player, an old '90s boom box, and so on and so forth. It's this idea that emerged for her out of the first day of our workshop, where, apparently, before I introduced myself to anyone, I brought five huge bags of books and I said, "These are my books." Before saying, "Hi, my name is Gabriel." [laughs]

She later disclosed to me that when she works with musicians, she's really just trying to look inside the artist and evoke what comes to her, but I think that in a more abstract sense, her design puts on stage the question of how cultural artifacts relate to place, and how we think of place, how memory operates, and how cultural artifacts triangulate with place and memory.

But that's almost the creative inspiration for the work itself.

It is, yeah, which is why I think it's a good design. [laughs]

Did you initially imagine this as a musical composition or a theatrical stage work? What was the chicken and what was the egg?

This is a weird situation in which the chicken and egg arrived at precisely the same moment. I was commissioned by BAM and then UCLA quickly came on board. And shortly thereafter Sony Masterworks courted me to make some records for them, so I realized that there was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

I had been spending a lot of time in L.A. and I knew that I wanted to make a piece to wrestle with the pathos and the ache that I experience in this city. This is a city that I've grown to really love, despite having lived on the East Coast and then Northern California, where you're supposed to hate L.A. Beginning in my mid-20s, I started spending more and more time here and just totally fell in love.

I'd like to talk about the 1991 killing of the black teen, Latasha Harlins, which is the basis of the song "Empire Liquor Mart." Her shooting death and the light sentence —  probation given to the Korean liquor store owner who shot her in the back of the head — inspired songs by Tupac and Ice Cube. What does her death mean to you? 

Unfortunately it's part of a pattern that continues. I wrote this song eight months before the Michael Brown shooting and maybe a year-and-a-half after the Trayvon Martin shooting. And I think that on a certain musico-literary level — and I feel a little bit ashamed to be talking about someone's life in that context — but this project for me was trying to get a handle on how I felt about Los Angeles and why Los Angeles affects me the way that it does. That song began as a sort of prose just about what is the experience. If I want to imagine an afterlife, what is the experience of this girl from the moment that she dies? 

Because the song is written from the girl's perspective. 

Yeah. The French philosopher Baudrillard said this thing about how Los Angeles is best viewed from a jet at night. And then I read elsewhere that to see during the riots from above — coming in to LAX — to see both the fires and the lights of the city was one of the most spectacular views one could ever have. And then I began to imagine that as Latasha ascends to some sort of afterlife that the only salvation in this otherwise totally senseless death was the idea that she gets to see this incredible spectacle as the city is unraveling and eating itself. 

There's a sadness to that song. There's a wistfulness to some other songs. In "Villains" you write, Who needs history? Was history ever any good? In "Ambassador Hotel" you say, The Ambassador has been bleeding out and now they've let her die. And yet, so much of Los Angeles right now — "Union Station" and "Griffith Park," which you write about — are both being preserved and being celebrated. So are you optimistic about architecture and preservation in Los Angeles? Is this album and stage piece celebrating those buildings and their future? 

Yeah, I think I am optimistic. I think that there's a current of melancholy that just runs through a lot of what I do and I think that it would be a mistake to read this record as throwing shade at Los Angeles. I think it's quite the opposite. I think it's a love letter to the city. 

Gabriel Kahane will perform "The Ambassador" Feb. 27-28 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

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