It wasn’t looking good for Lady Lark at First Avenue two weekends ago.
Playing the last slot of the seven-act Best New Bands showcase on an especially icy night, the throwback R&B singer and her six-piece group faced a crowd that had visibly dwindled in size and energy.
“We kind of expected it,” the Lady in charge, Taylor Harris, noted after the fact. “So we just focused on the people who were there, making sure they had a good time.”
Did they ever. After that night’s punky sets by rock bands like the Bad Man, Blaha and Sass, there was something even more audacious and punk-rock about the unabashedly retro, infectiously happy sounds laid out by Harris and her smooth-grooving crew. The extra room on the dance floor became an advantage, too, as audience members danced and partied like it was 1989 with Janet and Mariah on MTV in their parents’ living room.
“We’ll take it,” Harris deadpanned of the downsized but upbeat crowd.
There probably won’t be as much room to dance on Saturday, when Lady Lark returns to First Ave as the second of four acts on the second of two nights celebrating 89.3 the Current’s 13th birthday. She’s part of an another eclectic lineup headed by vintage Oklahoma rocker JD McPherson. (Rosemount native Alicia Bognanno’s great grungy band Bully headlines Friday’s party.)
The fact that Harris and her band are playing another main-room show just two weeks later is even more remarkable when you learn they had their very first gig this time last year at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall.
“We’re still learning our game, so just to be able to experience First Ave once in that time is a dream come true for us,” she said, her eyes briefly welling up.
Talking over morning coffee with her chief collaborators, guitarist Oran Chan and keyboardist Kyle Pleggenkuhle, Harris quickly turned to laughing as she recounted how her transformation into Lady Lark really was something of a lark.
At 34, her only music experience was playing saxophone in the Eagan High School Band. But she was always a music fanatic, so much so that she wound up working for the Minneapolis office of the Pandora music streaming service after graduating from the University of St. Thomas.
Not to mention, she quipped, “I was a karaoke star in my mind.”
Chan and Pleggenkuhle certainly saw star potential. After they heard her sing along to an Allen Stone song at a party one night, the two childhood friends from St. Paul’s East Side urged her to come sing with them. They didn’t really have a musical game plan in mind, Chan remembered, “but we knew the direction from the first time Tay came in and sang with us.”
They drew up a list of 10 songs to help shape their sound, including tunes by SWV, TLC and Ms. Jackson. From there, they started writing their own songs in the same sonic palette.
“It’s the kind of music I grew up with, the music that makes me feel the happiest,” Harris said.
She makes no bones about Lady Lark’s songs being all about that: making people feel good. Even the one potentially sour-sounding kiss-off song in her repertoire, “Love (Is Just a Game),” is as catchy as this year’s flu viruses.
“There are plenty of songwriters who do brilliant work expressing about all the bad [stuff] that’s going on in our world today, and I’m happy they do that,” she said. “Our music is more about giving people permission to still enjoy themselves.
“We’re not ignoring the bad. We’re celebrating the good.”
So far, Harris and her bandmates have recorded one EP and a single, the latter featuring the very first song they wrote together, “The Rhythm,” charmingly more ’70s/“Solid Gold”-flavored than the MTV-ized songs to follow. After this weekend’s show, they plan on lightening their gig schedule to focus on a longer recording project.
They also plan to catch their breath for a bit. As Pleggenkuhle pointed out, “We’re still settling in together and learning at this.” He marveled at how quickly Harris has adapted, though.
“I never met anyone as fearless as Tay,” he said. “To go from her first time singing in the basement to what we’re doing now in just over a year, it shows just how brave she is. And she’s still evolving and pushing herself.”
Harris cracked up over the memory of their first few rehearsals.
“I didn’t even know how to hold the microphone right,” she admitted. “But that was part of the fun of it, the learning.”
Not sure how much more there is to learn, but looks like a lot more fun will come Lady Lark’s way.