- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

As the lead singer, lyricist and focal point of the New York-based musical ensemble Shivaree, Ambrosia Parsley projects a complex persona that is at once sexy and scary, melancholy and wisecracking and more than a little bit ticked off.

Marrying elements of jazz, country, lullabies, artiness and movie soundtracks with poignant lyrics and seductive melodies, Shivaree’s twisted cabaret pop defies easy categorization but provides a remarkably apt soundtrack for life in these troubled times.

So why does the offstage Miss Parsley sound so well-adjusted?

“I’m extremely lucky to be able to spend my time doing things that make me happy,” she says. “I think I grew up pretty spoiled without ever having to think about the state of the world. People of my generation and slightly younger, we all grew up feeling pretty safe, compared to our parents. And then all of a sudden, I felt threatened, and that really slapped me upside the head. I never lived through anything like this, and I feel a huge responsibility to catch up. You better listen and read and pay attention. It’s scary.”

A recently ended yearlong stint singing a weekly humorous recap of current events (over a prerecorded big-band backing track) on the liberal talk radio network Air America gave Miss Parsley an opportunity to live up to that responsibility. Her artistic motivations, however, remain somewhat cryptic and personal rather than overtly political.

“The songs are kind of like ghosts coming back at you,” she says. “This old memory, this thing that was stored away that wasn’t so funny when it happened. But maybe the wind blows a certain way one day and shows you where the wink was in a certain situation.”

Looking for that “wink” is mostly an internal process. A former “choir kid,” Miss Parsley spent a lot of time on her own as a child, singing to herself and making up songs, and that’s still her preferred method when writing songs for Shivaree.

“I’ll work on a song forever and ever and ever a cappella until it sounds like a song to me in that pure form,” she explains. That’s when she hands it off to her band mates, who provide the chords and the final arrangement. “It’s like giving somebody a naked body and seeing what kind of clothes they put on it. And it’s always different from what I would imagine,” she says.

The well-dressed songs on Shivaree’s latest CD, “Who’s Got Trouble” (Zoe/Rounder), do a good job of patrolling the border where the personal and the political overlap. Taking its inspiration from an umpteenth rainy-day viewing of the classic film “Casablanca,” the CD echoes the movie’s twin poles of decadence and heroism, evoking the desperate lengths to which people will go in pursuit of pleasure and redemption when they are living under trying circumstances.

Though Shivaree has found commercial success in Europe, America has been a harder market to crack, and that means playing smaller clubs where the immediate goal is to help sell a few beers. A short tour opening for the singer-songwriter Michael Penn will bring Shivaree to the D.C. area on Tuesday for just the fifth time.

“I hope a few people come, or the man at the bar will be mean to me all night,” she says, sounding like a woman who knows a thing or two about staying on a bartender’s good side. “I’ll try to wear something snappy,” she promises. “And I’ll smell nice, and,” she exclaims, “I’ll be on time.”

Time for one final question: If the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, — “What would I put in the basket?” she finishes, as if this were the question she has been waiting for her entire life. She ponders before answering carefully. “My dogs,” she says finally, “and a really nice bottle of wine.”

A long pause seems to signal the end of our conversation — when Miss Parsley suddenly remembers that her basket is not quite fully stocked. “Oh, and my man. Don’t want to leave him out.” Miss Parsley laughs as she explains, “He would be so sad without the dogs and the wine.”

WHAT: Shivaree (acoustic), opening for Michael Penn

WHERE: The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria

WHEN: Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $17.50

PHONE: 703/549-7500

WEBSITE: www.birchmere.com

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