Elle PF’s daring, feminist orchestral rock blossoms on 'She Wrote It'

Peter Jamus

Peter Jamus

Ranelle “LaBiche” Johnson is in a jam.

The leader of the orchestral synth-rock band Elle PF is trying to figure out how to fit a string quartet and two backup singers into the crowded, carpeted northeast Minneapolis basement where her three bandmates and a drum kit are already vying for space with two house dogs—Ashley, a hyperactive border collie mix, and Zephyr, a big white lumbering Pyrenees.

“We can set it up over here,” LaBiche says, pointing to a side room. “Maybe I’ll just wake up early and do it.”

“We can help,” says Jenessa LaSota, who plays bass and sings harmony in the group. “Ranelle, we’re a DIY band, not a Do It All Yourself Band.”

LaBiche could probably use that reminder. She’s not just Elle PF’s lead singer—she’s also the band’s producer, keyboardist, and songwriter. She even plays all the strings on their recordings. She’s your classic introverted musician: charismatic on stage with a mic in her hand, shy in person. Yet even offstage she carries herself with quiet intensity. When she does speak, she does so precisely and can command a room.

Now, though, her bandmates laugh, and she joins them. She relents: Yes, they can help. In a week, the group—LaBiche, LaSota, guitarist Tyler Phelps, and drummer John Acarregui—will perform at the Cedar Cultural Center to celebrate the release show of their debut album, She Wrote It.

LaBiche, who grew up in Willmar and Spicer, is hardly new to the Minneapolis music scene. Her previous projects include Tiger Vs. and Bae Tigre, and some common characteristics run through all her work—the way she builds layers, her knack for catchy keyboard lines, her ornate production style. These all contributed to the airy, dreamlike atmosphere of the 2015 Bae Tigre album, Perennial Bygones.

But her style has evolved. LaBiche started out as a bedroom producer, but as her band lineup changed (with only LaSota a constant presence), she’s learned how to fit more people in the room. She still writes the songs, but then the band will improv around them in practice. “We’ll jam in the same key until something sticks and her face lights up,” LaSota explains.

LaBiche sees Elle PF as “the evolution of a solo project into a live project.”

She adds, “I wanted to recreate the songs that are written, write new songs and record them with the live band because it’s a totally different feel with slightly different arrangements.”

The result is a richer, darker, more rock-driven sound, with a fuller string section and live drums for funkier beats.

“The core of a lot of the music is the driving rhythm section,” says Acarregui. “So even with all the textures and lush orchestra, the grove is the bedrock. That’s why, hopefully, some of the songs make you want to move.”

By the time the Elle PF set gets going around 10 p.m., the crowd at the Cedar has started to fill out. LaBiche has the look of a jazz singer at a speakeasy, with a black 1920s-style flapper dress and matching lace gloves. The lights dim.

The show, like the album, begins with a snapping staccato beat, like a military drummer from 1776. We’re going to war.

This is “Perennial Bygones,” a revamped Bae Tigre song, and like much of LaBiche’s work, it’s a slow build.

A menacing, otherworldly bass wobble hits. It repeats four times, then LaBiche and LaSota start a delicate, steady, dissonant vocal harmony on “ooh.” Repeat again and Phelps adds a guitar riff. Repeat, build, and Acarregui layers in another rhythm. Repeat. LaBiche hits a percussive chord as the string quartet makes its entrance with a swelling melody. Repeat.

We’re 50 seconds in. The crowd is transfixed.

The band layers its sound with a machine-like precision that suggests electronic music. Another thing that gives them an electronic vibe: LaBiche writes transitions between the songs, so they flow seamlessly from one into the next. This also adds to the theatricality of Elle PF shows—with LaBiche the conductor behind the keyboards, not a moment is wasted.

The transitions also have another benefit for LaBiche. “I wanted to make the show more interesting,” she says. “Less space, less awkward silence. Doing the transitions is definitely about elevating the performance. Also, so I don’t have to talk.”

It makes sense that LaBiche writes daring, complex music with the sensibility of a classical composer: She played violin in orchestras throughout her youth. She’s borrowed her tendency to use slow builds and loops from the minimalist composer Steve Reich, she says, and her lush melodies, from the romantic tradition and from impressionists like Claude Debussy.

But her rock theatricality has other origins. “I liked listening to emo music and metal, and my favorite band was Metallica,” she says, remembering her high school years. “I had an Iced Earth T-shirt.”

While it’s easy to just get lost in the music, Elle PF’s work is also unmistakably political and fiercely feminist. The lyrics to “Slumber” target white liberals who skirt social responsibility while patting themselves on the back. “We know and we claim to be ‘woken,’ tucked in so safely in our own beds as if we did our best,” LaBiche sings to a tune that sounds like a twisted children’s lullaby. After the closing couplet, a call and response between LaSota and LaBiche that’s delivered with the crisp diction of a church choir—“Olly olly olly oxen free/Molotov cocktail on me!”—we hear distant chants from a protest and fragments of speeches.

These are sounds LaBiche recorded at a protest at Minneapolis’ Fourth Police Precinct after officers killed Jamar Clark in 2015. As the sample plays to a backdrop of subtle ambient touches—LaSota with a jazzy bass line, Acarregui tapping the cymbal, Phelps with a psychedelic guitar riff—the song’s cutting irony gives way to something more optimistic, driven by the voices of Black Lives Matter. Where there was thinly veiled despair and alienation, there is now a touch of hope and a hint of togetherness.

“I remember it being extremely emotional and just a lot of different kinds of energy,” LaBiche says, recalling the protest. “A lot of people in the community experiencing a lot of pain and then coming together and having that be healing and powerful.”

LaBiche described the process of making She Wrote It as empowering, in that it allowed her to push her boundaries as a creator. Now she is working on booking more shows. And she’s still writing.

“I’ve already been working on new music and bringing new music to the band and I’m just going to keep doing it because I love making music,” she says. “I guess that’s what you do. You just keep making stuff.”

Elle PF
With: Harakiri, the Fuss, Beasthead
Where: Kitty Kat Klub
When: 9 p.m. Sat. Nov. 10
Tickets: 21+; $5; more info here