PaviElle French skips the handshake and goes right for the hug. The dynamic performer we suddenly can't stop hearing about has her hair wrapped neatly in a blue silk scarf atop her head, and she's bundled in a tightly zipped red coat.
This passionate greeting is emblematic of the poet, playwright, and soul singer's artistry. She is no-frills, no-bullshit, and empowered to the core.[jump]
"My mom raised us to be very strong," she recalls. "She was a very strong woman, and she just really didn't play that shit." When her mother fell ill several years ago, PaviElle felt fate work in strange ways as she applied what she'd learned in nursing school to caring for her mother in her final days. "She's like, I know I'm dying, but nothing stops. You have to continue on. You can mourn, but you can't let it take over your life."
Fate twisted its knife yet again when PaviElle's father passed away just five months after her mother. It was then that she chose to take heed of her mother's precious advice, and moved halfway across the Pacific Ocean to Hilo on Hawaii's Big Island. She spent two years on Hilo, constructing a catalog of songs that she would bring back to St. Paul and turn into Fear Not, her emotionally wrought solo album debut.
Fear Not is a return to the era of soul and blues when smoke-filled nightclubs were packed for artists like Sarah Vaughan. Leading up to its release, PaviElle and her backing band, including her brother Ahanti Young and cousin O Tiyo Siyolo, enjoyed a residency at Icehouse, listeners leaning in over their dinner tables for fear of missing a single scat or run. Her bold performance style drew comparisons to Erykah Badu and Ella Fitzgerald. The success of the album and ensuing performances found PaviElle on First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2014 roster, as well as a performing slot at the Current's upcoming 10th anniversary bash.
"I grew up sneaking into house parties, and watching people dance," she says. "Everything was music. Everything in my life had a soundtrack." Raised in St. Paul's close-knit Rondo community, she benefited from a father who favored R&B and soul, and a mother with musical interests running the gamut. "I was very precocious," she says, "nosy, and very into stuff. I did a lot of studying and spent all my time reading about black history, and listening to music."
It was a tumultuous time in Rondo, but she never felt alone. "During the crack era, and gentrification, and all these other things going on around me... I always had a village, 100 percent, that was there to raise me."
At 17, she dropped out of high school to tour with spoken-word and music troupe Edupoetic Enterbrainment. She found like-minded souls there and a means of creatively addressing African-American issues -- something she was passionate about but couldn't explore at her high school. Those memories of Rondo in the early '80s still shape her. "I even said it in my play," she says, referring to Runnin', the autobiographical one-woman show she premiered last year at Minneapolis's Pillsbury Theatre, and plans to continue performing in 2015. "I feel like it is my duty to carry the 'Black-sthetique,' that high art, and represent my culture. I need to be able to have that right and that dignity to preserve my people in a way that they should be."[page]
Today, PaviElle works with high-schoolers, giving the gift of a colorblind education and a release through song and poetry that she had always wanted.
Even when discussing loaded themes like racism, PaviElle holds her head elegantly and evenly, a bright smile on her face. She is animated, eyes lit up, hands gesturing. As she steers our talk toward current events, her passion ignites. How does she maintain positivity when anger can so easily prevail?
"I'm angry too," she flares. "There's so many ways in which I can come at it. [Runnin'] was angry; it was sad. It was happy, it made you laugh, it made you cry. It made you do all these different things, but it made you think." She pauses. "You need to see all these different aspects of my life, and why I'm angry -- understand the crux, and get to the nitty-gritty."
Her coat is still zipped all the way closed over an hour into our conversation -- as if she refuses to break focus. She speaks quickly and eloquently, those bright eyes keeping us anchored.
"I always get painted as an angry black woman," she continues. "I want people to work together. As far as black people are concerned, and our plight, I am very pro-black.... I'm for the healing and the uniting of us. People can help us all day long, and people can be our allies all day long, but until we unite as a people it's not going to do much for us."
PAVIELLE plays the Current's 10thanniversary with Atmosphere, J. Roddy Walston & the Business, and the Trashmen on Saturday, January 24, at First Avenue; 612-332-1775
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS