To most of us, this would sound like a dream come true: “I basically went to Hawaii and sat on the beach for a year straight.”
When PaviElle French said it, though, the dream was laced with tragedy and personal drama.
“I really was just running,” the St. Paul singer and actor said, echoing the title of her new one-woman show opening this weekend at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.
A wrap to what has proved to be French’s breakout year, “Runnin’ ” follows the September release of the St. Paul native’s emotionally wracked debut solo record, “Fear Not.” She built up to the record’s release earlier in the year with a once-a-month residency at Minneapolis’ Icehouse supper club, featuring her buoyant eight-man band that includes members of Sonny Knight’s Lakers.
French, 30, has been performing since she was in elementary school, starting in choirs and later with Penumbra and Steppingstone theaters. At 17, she dropped out of high school to go on tour with EduPoetic Enterbrainment, a spoken-word and musical ensemble centered around African-American issues.
“I felt stifled in school and would take it to any teacher that I didn’t think was telling the truth,” she said — laughing over the fact that she now works with high school kids at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. “I think I can help some of the kids that other staff are having trouble reaching.”
Her one-woman show, part of Pillsbury House’s Naked Stages series, will incorporate a little bit of everything she has done artistically: acting, writing, dancing and singing. It will also tell her life story, which — as the theater’s program describes it — involves “addiction, death, sexuality and self-worth.”
The addictions were her father’s, a proud Vietnam veteran who battled demons throughout her childhood. The deaths were her dad’s and her mom’s; both died of cancer just months apart when French was in her mid-20s, a devastating blow that led to her exile from Minnesota. The sexuality is her own (she’s bisexual), and the self-worth grew out of all this and more.
Talking on the day protesters shut down Interstate Hwy. 35W in Minneapolis to protest the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, French was quick to point out, “I couldn’t do this show without addressing systematic racism, too.”
“I sat down to just write a play about my life, about survival and losing my parents,” she said, “but racism is a part of my life. I need to be talking about it if I’m given a 45-minute platform to talk about my life.”
French grew up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood “pretty much at the epicenter of local black culture at the time,” she said. “I’m so about that old-school black aesthetic.”
She recalls being called a racial epithet for the first time in the third grade. She said one was slung at her just a summer ago by a boss at a job where she obviously doesn’t work anymore.
Racism was one of the things she escaped, albeit temporarily, when she fled to Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island in the aftermath of her parents’ deaths. “I didn’t know anybody there or anything about the place, but I was accepted and felt safe there,” she said. “That’s exactly what I needed.”
It was there on the beach she came up with the songs that would make up her repertoire. They included many of her original tunes, plus — though she didn’t know it at the time — some of the covers she would reinvent once she started performing back in the Twin Cities, including Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” and Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It.”
“They obviously fit a theme,” she said (in a word: determination). “I would just sing what I felt like I needed to sing. It turned out to be my lab.”
She returned to Minneapolis in 2012 determined to make a go of a singing career. One of the standout tracks on “Fear Not” — which would provide the title to her play — the hard-charging “Runnin’ ” shows the conviction she brought back with her, as she sings:
“I need to step up / I need a change / I gotta make this pay / All this work and [expletive] to show for it / Sometimes I don’t want it no more / This passion inside of me won’t let this music be.”
In concert, French channels the slow-funking soul vibes of Erykah Badu and the flowery R&B funk of Curtis Mayfield alongside the improv scatting of Ella Fitzgerald and occasional rapping. Her band includes her percussionist brother and bandmate, Ahanti Young, along with Sonny Knight & the Lakers bassist Casey O’Brien, who produced “Fear Not.”
“It was just a case of capturing her emotions upfront and keeping it personal and intimate” in the studio, said O’Brien, who has performed with Eyedea and No Bird Sing as well as Sonny Knight’s Lakers (the Lakers horn section also plays with French). “She’s the rare kind of singer who has a lot of power but also a lot of control.”
Her Icehouse gigs are on hold for now, but there’s word her next performance with the band will be a high-profile set as part of 89.3 the Current’s 10th anniversary celebrations in January (details of which will be announced next week).
While she has gotten out of the “dark place” that had her flee halfway across the Pacific Ocean, French said it’s still there in her music.
“I figured out a way to capitalize on my pain and use it in a constructive way, which was to pour it into my music,” she said. “That’s what kept me from really going crazy. Maybe it can help other people, too.”