Making accordions hip, one babe at a time
Accordions: sexy or not? Renée de la Prade thinks the answer is just a matter of age and perspective and, with the help of an ever-expanding army of squeezebox-playing sirens at her side, she’s determined to wipe away what’s left of the instrument’s hokey reputation.
Since 2009, de la Prade has organized and published an annual Accordion Babes Pin-Up Calendar and accompanying compilation CD featuring music performed by the women who grace its pages.
“People past a certain age might believe the stigma that accordion isn’t cool, but a lot of younger people don’t even realize the accordion went through a dorky phase,” she said of the instrument that, for many, conjures images of such un-sexy things as Weird Al, bratwurst and lederhosen. “Others hear accordion and they think Gogol Bordello, They Might Be Giants or Tom Waits.
“I want to have the babes calendar shift the culture so much that in 20 years people will be saying, ‘You just started playing the accordion because you want to look sexy.’”
De la Prade’s short version of the Babes’ beginnings is, “I’m an accordion player and I like to wear sexy outfits. That’s where it all started.” The full story includes her own coming to terms with the instrument.
She describes her father as a Francophile from Vermont, the son of French-Canadian parents who listened to accordion-laden French music that, in keeping with typical child-parent relations, she found really dorky as a kid. But at age 19, while working in a music shop full of jig-diggin’ Irish musicians, she wanted to expand her musical horizons.
“Playing guitar was like chopping wood in Irish music, and I wanted something that could play melodies and harmonies,” she recalled. “So I thought, ‘Am I a mandolin player? No. A banjo player? No. A fiddler? No. But an accordion player? Hey, maybe.’”
Her father approved and bought her what she described as a “top-of-the-line, beautiful walnut button box.” Within months, she was busking the street corners and train stations of Boston, where she attended music school.
“The accordion is great for street performers,” she said. “People have seen a million guitarists, but an accordion is kind of rare. So even when I could only play 10 keys on the right hand I was getting great feedback.”
Fast forward a few years and de la Prade was working in Oakland’s Smythe’s Accordion Center and playing regularly around the Bay Area. A photographer wanted to take pictures of her and her accordion in front of Mission district murals in San Francisco, and she was inspired by the results.
For two years, de la Prade would run out of the repair shop’s back room every time she heard great accordion playing and a woman’s voice in the store, and she would give them a business card and invite them to join her project.
She said the project came together in 2008 when Isabel Douglass, who she described as a “world-class musician and drop-dead gorgeous” signed on and offered to help with layout.
“We printed 1,000 units and they sold out in three weeks,” she said. “I’d never heard of any accordion compilation CD selling like that, so I figured we were doing something right.”
The annual release also includes a few revue shows and a visit to Duffy’s Tavern (which this year occurs on Sunday, March 24). This year’s lineup features de la Prade and fellow Accordion Babes Luz Gaxiola, Skyler Fell, Joan Wilson Rueter, Diana Strong and Amber Lee Baker. In addition to plenty of squeezebox action, the babes also use a fiddle, a guitar, a trombone, and a glockenspiel. And of course, CDs and calendars will be for sale so that fans will be able to enjoy the Babes all year long.