interview with Lara St. John: Polkastra's Wedding Album

March 5, 2013, 10:55 PM · I've played in so many weddings; only something extraordinary could make me sit down and listen to wedding music, voluntarily. Leave it to Lara St. John to do something out-of-the-ordinary: She and her polka band, Polkastra, have taken all those wedding classics on a wild and hilarious ride in “I Do”: The Wedding Album, released a few weeks ago.


"We noticed that our original Apolkalypse Now album was incredibly popular with kids; and it also got people dancing a lot," Lara told me over the phone. And what is the one event that inspires people to get up and dance? A wedding! "Not only is there dancing, but it's a place where there's always music. Almost everybody has a live band at their wedding. It's a place where tradition is still alive, so we tried to work with that."

Musical humor dominates the album, from a riotous fiddle version of "Canon in D -- Mostly" to the "Kosher Chicken Dance," which somehow makes the Chicken Dance sound like klezmer music. The "Bridle Chorus" has a distinctly equine feel to it. But the album does include at least one serious endeavor, a sublimely beautiful "Ave Maria," featuring soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Toronto Children's Chorus.

The album follows the sequence of a wedding day, from morning to night: The Ceremony; The Party, with the traditional dances (of many countries), and The End of the Night -- the spinning after-affects of all this partying.

As with most weddings, all this fun took a lot of planning.

"This has been two or three years in the making," Lara said. "For example, I remember talking to Emmanuel Pahud's mother, of all things, after a Berlin Phil concert, asking her: In France, at a wedding reception, what would a typical French song be?" Lara came up with "Le Jardin d’Amour."

"Some countries just don't have their 'O sole mio' or their total stalwart 'this always happens at the reception' dance," Lara said. "I was really surprised. I was talking to German people and asking what it would be there, and they said, of course, it's Mendelssohn and Wagner -- but that's not what you do at the reception! What do you do at the reception? They couldn't name anything. Of course, Ireland was easy, there are all these great wedding tunes. The Albania one ("Napoloni") I came across years ago -- it's such a great blast of a tune. And every Albanian wedding has "Napoloni." I've never been to Albania, but I have many Albanian friends, and they all assure me!"

"We made a collection of all those songs that seemed to be very typical for weddings of each of those countries and put them all together into our 'Wedding Party from around the World' section," she said.

And why was "Ave Maria" spared comedic treatment?

"It's such a celestial song. The Wagner (Bridal Chorus) and the Mendelssohn (Wedding March) are marches, and there are fun things you can do with them because they're so incredibly famous," Lara said. "But 'Ave Maria' -- that had to be our straight one. The voices on it -- with Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Toronto Children's Chorus -- are just heavenly. It's such a tiny masterpiece, so beautiful."

"I spent a long time with Martin (Kennedy), doing the arrangement (for 'Ave Maria')," Lara said. She didn't truly know what it would sound like, until all the musical forces were gathered in the recording studio. And it worked!

"It was just so beautiful, especially when (the children) sang. I just lost it, I actually started crying, I was so embarrassed!" Lara said. "Here were 20 kids from the children's choir, staring at the person who is supposed to be telling them what to do: me. And I'm sitting there, sobbing! Sometimes everything all comes together in one moment, and it's overwhelming, in a good way."

But let's talk about what's really important: the Kosher Chicken Dance.

"The whole idea of the Kosher Chicken Dance came, actually, the day that we were recording it," Lara said. "Ronn (Yedidia), our Israeli accordionist, was noodling around, and he started playing the 'Chicken Dance' in minor. All of a sudden, Daniel (Lapp) decided, 'That's a great idea!' Then, it sounded so much like Hava Nagila that we decided to put a Hora in the middle of it, because, why not? The original track is actually five minutes long; we only used three minutes for the video. We even have a bottle chorus -- basically we have all possible permutations of the Chicken Dance."

And as you can see above, Polkastra released a "Kosher Chicken Dance" video.

"I learned, trial by fire, Final Cut Pro. It's all my editing," Lara said. "It's easier than you think, if you're a musician. What bothers me about other people's music videos is the (lack of) synchronization, whenever you have an instrumentalist in such a video. Even things like Beyonce and Lady Gaga -- you would think, with those budgets, they'd have somebody who would go in and do synchronization. But nobody ever does! To me, it loses all sense of reality. If things are not synchronized, it makes absolutely zero sense, whatsoever. A video is supposed to look like you're doing it! It's supposed to give the listener and the watcher a sense of fun, a melding the aural and the visual. As a musician, you can synchronize; you can feel the rhythm, feel how it gets faster or slower, and do your edits accordingly. "

When filming the video, they used a jam box to play the already-recorded music, always starting at the same point to make sure the film was at exactly the right moment.

Lara's friend, professional dancer Stephanie Cadman, plays the bride in the video, as she does on the cover of the album. "She's a choreographer and a great dancer, so I thought she could put a new twist on it -- without doing any moves we couldn't do, because nobody else was a professional dancer!"

Basically, Lara called up a lot of friends in New York and said, "Would you like to do the Chicken Dance in Central Park?" Naturally, they agreed, and they all made it look quite fun. "We had a lot of very jealous New Yorkers that day!" she said.

"The great bulk of it was filmed in Central Park: all the dancers, the accordion player, myself, that's all Central Park. However, my flumpet player was in Toronto. It was actually the day after we recorded the 'Ave Maria,' that we took footage of him, at a park in Toronto. Then my contrabassoonist (Mark Timmerman) and the chicken coop -- he was doing Glimmerglass Opera this summer, and so I took a train up to Cooperstown and we went to a chicken farm."

A chicken farm?

"Farmer Bob Sutherland was kind enough to loan us his chickens and his 1941 Ford flatbed," Lara said. "There were about 20 chickens, and we had to gather them at certain points, to make sure there were enough chickens in the shot."

"There we were, with a contrabassoon and a Guadagnini, occasionally picking up some chickens and sticking them in the shot -- we just sat on the farm all day and took all sorts of fun footage," Lara said. "Farmer Bob actually wrote us recently, saying he loves the video, but unfortunately, our avian stars are now in the freezer. I guess the chickens didn't get through the winter."



March 6, 2013 at 05:32 PM · When the contest for the album first appeared I found the Kosher Chicken Dance on YouTube. After reviewing the video and determining the musical importance I sent a link to my sister-in-law (jazz piano, bon mots, composer of oddities and such).

Her response was, “That is the most awesome thing I've seen in...well...ever!”.

I agree within reason, which has really stopped me in the past.


March 8, 2013 at 01:58 AM · That video is delightful! Thanks for sharing.

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