Smile Politely

The Claudettes rock and roll into Rose Bowl re-engergized with new singer

Four members of The Claudettes standing in the corner of the room.
The Claudettes

As the vibrant chords of co-founder Johnny Iguana’s piano reverberate through the air, and the sultry voice of Rachelle Williams fills the room, it’s clear that The Claudettes is a band that defies conventions. Led by the dynamic Johnny Iguana, the band’s pianist and founding member, The Claudettes have been making waves in the music industry with their genre-bending sound and electrifying performances. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Iguana to discuss the band’s latest album, The Claudettes Go Out, and delve into their creative process, their unique approach to music, and their unwavering passion for pushing the boundaries of the musical landscape. It’s clear from the get-go that The Claudettes are not content with staying within the lines of traditional music genres, but rather, they thrive on pushing the envelope and exploring uncharted territory.

One of the hallmarks of The Claudettes’ sound is their ability to blend diverse musical genres into a cohesive and mesmerizing experience. “A Lovely View,” the opening track on their latest album, is a lilting, gentle ballad, markedly different than the frenetic energy of their last album, High Times in the Dark. I asked Iguana if this was a conscious choice to start the new album with that song.

“That’s so fun to sequence an album and obviously that’s kind of almost an old-timey thing now that we live in a playlist world,” said Iguana. “All in the band really adore that song, and I feel like it’s arresting from the very beginning. That song has a great kind of almost like a soul kind of groove. But it’s like glacially slow compared to our last album. But then the album sort of starts to pick up and feel effervescent as it goes, but I think [“A Lovely View”] lures you in.

Temporally, 50% of The Claudettes Go Out! was recorded while the world was in lockdown and the other half when we all started to crawl out of our holes. Consequently, the album reflects the different times and feelings of both adjacent periods. 

The four members of The Claudettes standing in a hallway. 3 members are smiling and one member is laughing.
The Claudettes

“The ones that we recorded during 2021, we did live in the studio. “‘The American Sky,’ ‘Dozing in the Crypt,’ ‘Exposure,’ ‘Cowboy,’ and ‘The Show Must Go On’ were more like High Times in the Dark songs,” said Iguana. “That kind of punky, rock-and-rolling sound. We were just feeling mightier, stronger, more optimistic; buoyant. The songs we recorded before went from hopeless to hopeful-but-cautiously-so, and just the tones and delivery are kind of muted. It was kind of a muted world at that time. I was prepared to listen to it all and say ‘This is a sprawling mess. These need to be two different EPs,’ but I ended up feeling like they complement each other and I think it’s more interesting that way.” 

Over the years, The Claudettes have undergone several changes in their lineup, but their commitment to pushing the boundaries of American roots music has remained constant. Vocalist Berit Ulseth joined the band for two releases on Yellow Dog Records: Pull Closer to Me: Live in the Piano Room (2017) and Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium (2018), which were both well-received by fans and critics alike.

I asked Iguana about the impact of the lineup changes over the years on the sound of The Claudettes.

“The drummer and I started out as a duo: piano and drums. It was meant to be bluesy. But we have so many loves. There was classical, jazz, r&b, all kinds of things, and a punk kind of energy,” states Iguana. “I always wanted a Meat Puppets element in there that’s like, a song will be grooving along and then all of a sudden, ‘Wait, this is a trippy change. What happened? Oh, now it’s back’. Like a little lysergic dream in the middle there. A little peyote adventure in the middle of the song. I’m really fond of that, whether it’s through a little echo or just like a curious chord change that makes you feel like you lost your mooring for a second.” 

The newest lineup change features a new chanteuse, Rachel Williams, who has a commanding voice and presence onstage. Iguana says that the band has been re-energized by the spirit and enthusiasm of their new singer, but while recording their last album with their previous vocalist, Berit Ulseth, Iguana thought it might be their last recording with her.

“The album title The Claudettes Go Out!, was meant to be like a coded message from me. I sense that it was going to be Barrett’s last album with us and that she was ready to move on to life from the tour van,” said Iguana. “I almost put ‘With a Bang!’ on the back of the album!”

3 Members of The Claudettes sitting down in front of a mural. Lead singer Rachelle Williams is standing up between two other members of the band.
The Claudettes

“Then Rachel [Williams] came along. Rachelle was a Claudettes fan even,” stated Iguana. “She was recommended to us by a mutual friend, and it turns out she was excited [to join the band]. She’s a great singer, very different, and so I’ve gotten in a real zone now where I’ve been writing a lot for her voice. We’ve learned some new covers that we’ve thrown in the set that are just really wide-ranging that we picked for Rachel’s voice. Two-thirds of our set will be brand new.”

“Once Duke Ellington recounted a reporter asking him a very mundane question, which was, ‘How did you score all those chart hits? His very astute answer was ‘At any given time, I looked around at the people I had in the group, and I said, what do these guys do well?’ I really had a light bulb over my head thinking you’re a fool to try to go ‘I want to have a bossa nova song. Yes, this current drummer we have doesn’t really have a feel for that beat, but I’m going to make them listen to it and practice it,’” stated Iguana. “No, no. ‘What does that drummer do well?’ and then write for that. If you do that, everyone in the band is firing at the peak of their powers. Rachelle is a professional singer, but she also has a real soft spot for this band. That enthusiasm has kind of fired us all up. And we’ve been practicing and writing and playing a lot. [It’s nice] to have somebody who so much wants to be there at the helm, you know?”

While The Claudettes sound can be described as blues, rock, roots, jazz and even punk, when asked what words he would use to describe their sound, Iguana offers “garage cabaret,” a distinct term that conjures up the perfect image to describe the Claudettes visually and sonically. 

The Claudettes
Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St
Sa Apr 22nd; doors 8 p.m., show 9 p.m.
$10 advance / $15 day of show

Music Editor

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