Seattle’s Prom Queen Rally to #FreeBritney with Spears Covers EP Lucky

Photo Credit: Ernie Sapiro

Lately, pop star Britney Spears has been back in the news as she fights to end her court-ordered conservatorship, prompted by a fame-induced mental breakdown in 2008. Thirteen years later, Spears is fighting to regain her autonomy from her conservator father, who limits her access to her estate and allegedly restricts her reproductive rights.

The battle for Spears’ freedom has sparked widespread discussions about disability rights and the public voyeurism that contributed to Spears’ tragic predicament. As society’s scrutiny of Spears’ personal life escalates once again, Seattle and L.A.-based artist Celene “Leeni” Ramadan, also known as Prom Queen, has decided to put emphasis on a part of Britney that she feels is often overlooked—Spears’ talent and significance as a musical artist.

With that in mind, Prom Queen will release a new EP on July 30th entitled Lucky. The 5-song EP is comprised purely of Britney Spears covers, interpreted in Prom Queen’s quintessential macabre-pop language, with a portion of the proceeds from the album going to the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse.

“With this record, I want people to hear these songs in a different way, to celebrate Britney as an artist,” says Leeni. “If there’s a famous person who’s a man, and who is a brilliant artist but has mental illness, he is celebrated and he is given freedom and he is not being locked down by his mom. We make movies about men like this. These are celebrated stories for a man but for a woman to have any sort of challenges mentally is a problem and we need to lock her away and take away her rights and [say] oh my god, she can’t be a mother.”

Leeni, who is only one year apart in age from Britney Spears, has always enjoyed the pop star’s music and felt close to Spears, who she calls a “generational icon for people my age.” In fact, Leeni’s passion for Britney Spears actually helped her find employment after she first moved to Seattle in 2004.

“In 2005, I started really looking around for work and I was doing improv comedy and one of my improv friends was doing these singing telegrams through this agency called Livewire, and she got me connected with them. I became a performer for them and have worked with them for over a decade doing singing telegrams as different characters [including Britney Spears,]” she recalls. “I remember my first Britney gig – I was hired to walk around at the convention center downtown and all I had to do was wear this schoolgirl outfit and be Britney for a day and it was really fun. And then I remember also performing for some kid’s birthday party. It was so cute. There was a bunch of girls, and they just wanted me to show up and do a full Britney singalong with them.”

It was during her time working as a Britney Spears impersonator that Leeni said she learned Spears’ catalogue inside and out, and even then, knew someday she’d do a Britney Spears cover album. After all, Prom Queen loves to cover songs, something that garnered the band national attention in 2016, when Prom Queen’s mash-up of the Twin Peaks and Stranger Things themes, Stranger Peaks, went viral.

“I consider myself a melody junkie; there’s just melodies that I love and when you get to hear them in a different context – I don’t know, for me, it gives me goosebumps,” she says. “I want to hear a great interpretation of a melody that I love… Like when I did my cover of ‘November Rain,’ I was like, ‘That is a doo-wop song.’ I was so obsessed with making that song over the years. I think I started my first one in like 2009 and kept making that song until I felt like I got it right. I don’t know, I just always really love making covers.”

As for Lucky, Prom Queen has had the concept in her mind “for years,” and had been collecting and studying Britney Spears’ songs on a Spotify playlist, hoping to narrow down her extensive catalogue and choose the ones that would work best in Prom Queen’s style—which includes a slow country ballad version of Spears’ breakout hit “Baby One More Time,” a Dick Dale surf-rock version of “Toxic,” and a glimmering doo-wop adaptation of the EP’s eponymous “Lucky.”

“I’ve always wanted to do an EP of a single artist and Britney has kind of always been at the top of my list,” says Leeni. “I just feel like a great pop song is a great pop song and you can do a number of different things with it and if the bones of the song are good, you can really take it anywhere. I think these songs to me were some of the best. I had such a hard time choosing. I think these songs, it’s kind of my favorite cross-section of her [work.]”

Prom Queen started making demos of her favorite Britney songs in Spring of 2021, and sending them to her bandmate. She would lay down bass, the acoustic guitar and some sketches of the other instruments and then send them to other folks she wanted to include on the record—including locals Jason Goessl of Sundae and Mr. Goessl, guitarist Ben Von Wildenhaus, violinist Andrew Joslyn, and fellow Britney Spears-loving L.A.-based singer, Cassandra Violet.

“Cassandra Violet is a friend of mine and she’s a big Britney fan. She wrote a piece on Medium about Britney and she just released her debut album and she has a song about Britney Spears, and she and I have collaborated a few times so I thought it would be really great to have her sing the harmony on ‘Lucky,’” Leeni says. “And then I got Andrew Joslyn to do the strings, so those are real strings on the EP.”

Each musician recorded their tracks for Lucky in their respective home studios, for COVID safety, and sent them back to Leeni, at which point Tom Meyers, Prom Queen’s drummer, engineered and mixed the EP. Prom Queen has already released their video for “Baby One More Time,” and the band is currently working on a video for “Toxic.”

As for what she hopes this EP can achieve, Leeni hopes it reminds her fans that Prom Queen is still making music, and that it gives fans some fun nostalgic pop music to enjoy over the summer. She also hopes the EP’s celebration of Britney’s music can underscore the importance of Spears’ struggle, advocating that the pop star should get to choose what the rest of her life looks like—even if it means never returning to the stage.

“I hope that she can get her freedom. I hope they can end the conservatorship. I hope that she can even get a restraining order against her father or whatever she needs, but you know, I don’t think that she needs to be in the public eye ever again if she doesn’t want to,” says Leeni. “Whatever she wants to do with the rest of her life, I want it to be her choice.”

Follow Prom Queen on Facebook for ongoing updates.

How Latest Single “Swim Test” Took on New Meaning for Cassandra Violet Amid L.A.’s Dire COVID Outbreak

Photo Credit: Anna Azarov Photography

“Swim Test” – the latest single from Cassandra Violet Wolken McGrath (the L.A.-based singer-songwriter better known simply as Cassandra Violet) – was inspired by her father, but as the COVID-19 pandemic took a deadly turn in Los Angeles, the song has taken on a new meaning.

By day, McGrath is an English teacher at a high school in Boyle Heights, an L.A. neighborhood that’s been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. “My students are the most resilient people I know. They’re amazing. I know that we’ll get through it, but it’s very hard,” she says. “Everyone needs a little morale boost right now… as the pandemic is dragging on further and further, it’s feels like we keep sinking.”

In that respect, “Swim Test” is a way of cheering on people as they try to move forward through incredibly challenging times; it was inspired by McGrath’s father. “Sometimes dads can be kind of a mystery, and there’s just a few memories that you hear from them that become etched into your mind,” she says. “One one of the memories that he told me was that he can’t swim, and when he was applying to college, he had to pass a swim test. He just faked it and doggy paddled and passed it.” It was an anecdote that McGrath’s dad shared in passing, but it stuck with her. “I always thought that was completely insane,” she says. “Even the idea of taking a swim test to go to college is insane to me.” 

But there was something inspiring about the story too, a underlying theme of figuring out what you’re doing when you’re in the midst of it and getting to the other side alright. “That’s all that’s all anyone ever does, figure it out,” she says. “No one knows, but you hack away at it and you survive.”

That story became the basis for McGrath’s new single and video, “Swim Test,” out today, January 15. The single is a precursor to her debut full-length album, Maybe It’s Not Too Late, scheduled for release in May. Two other songs from the forthcoming album, “Superbloom” and “Nobody But You,” have already been released. 

McGrath worked on Maybe It’s Not Too Late with her friend Joe Berry, a synthesizer player and saxophonist who plays with M83. About half of the album was recorded prior to the pandemic. After COVID-19 hit, McGrath turned her closet into a makeshift recording booth and continued work. It was challenging, she says, but the process also helped her stay in contact with people while at home. “To hear your drummer playing to your song that you’ve recorded in a closet, it’s still cool,” she says. “It steel feels, in a way, like you’re together.”

McGrath, who also plays guitar, clarinet and is a “prodigious whistler” has had songs featured on TV series like Ozark and Undercover and has released several singles and EPs since 2014. She wrote “Swim Test” in late 2019 – “I wrote it plucking two strings on the guitar over and over again,” she says – and was able to debut it on stage a few times before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Los Angeles venues. “I played it live in several venues and never told my dad that I wrote a song about him,” McGrath says. “I guess I felt sort of shy.” Though she told her dad about the song recently, she said he probably wouldn’t hear it until its release.

McGrath hadn’t initially intended to release “Swim Test” prior to the album, but as the months at home dragged on and the pandemic grew more intense in Los Angeles, it’s one that became more poignant; a post-holiday surge has left hospitals short on beds and deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. In a less expected twist of events, the song also arrives a week and a half after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “It’s stunning, the events that have transpired, it’s truly jaw-dropping,” says McGrath, adding that it’s important to be kind to ourselves in this moment. “Even if we feel like we don’t have everything together, it’s okay. If we’re alive and breathing, we’re doing okay.”  

At its core, “Swim Test” is about persistence, about pushing forward even when you’re on the verge of giving up. “That is how I think a lot of people, including myself, are feeling right now,” McGrath says. “I just wanted to remind everyone to stay strong and to not drown.” 

It’s a message that couldn’t be more timely for the U.S., especially in McGrath’s hometown. “My heart is breaking for L.A.,” she says. “I wish I could sent love to everyone.” With “Swim Test,” she may have done just that.

Follow Cassandra Violet on Facebook for ongoing updates.

TRACK PREMIERE: Cassandra Violet “Invisible Man”

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Photo by Polly Barrowman

Cassandra Violet, much like Batman, lives a double life. When she’s not teaching high schoolers, she’s creating music that spans the genres of rock, folk, and pop. In the past, Violet’s music slanted toward melancholy modern folk, with songs like “Beyond The Fray” and “Lady” painting portraits of desert sands and long lost love.

Her new track “Invisible Man” is a refreshing drink on a hot day. There’s an aggressiveness, an edge to Violet’s voice that takes center stage, balancing the sweet piano and subtle horn section. In a year full of negative headlines and desperate news stories, “Invisible Man” is a sunny diversion from the darkness.

We spoke with Cassandra Violet about breaking out of her folk roots and how a horn section really does make all the difference.

AF: You’re a rare bird: a native Angelino! You grew up in Venice, which I’m sure has changed a lot since your childhood. What was it like growing up by the beach?  

CV: Venice was really different when I was growing up there! It was less expensive, for one thing, so artists who weren’t wealthy could actually live there affordably. I remember there being some gun violence and gang activity. It definitely was not the Google mecca it is now. My parents still live there (both of them are artists) and every time I go over there, it’s so strange. Like everyone is under 30 and brewing their own kombucha and going to spinning classes. Not to hate on Venice!

AF: Yes, it’s all Andrew Keegan and hot yoga nowadays.

CV: It’s just this insane example of what happens when a place gentrifies the most it could possibly gentrify.

AF: In terms of the art community, do you still see it coming up out of the concrete? Or has the scene mostly moved?

CV: I know artists who still live there, but a lot of them are from my parents’ generation, I think. I know there are exceptions, but I think a lot of creative people have moved further east.

AF: At what age did you first take interest in music?

CV: I was really young when I realized I loved to sing, and that I could imitate a sound when I heard it. Also, my dad taught me how to whistle when I was little, probably around five years old. I got really, really good at whistling, better than him.

I started to play the clarinet in fourth grade, and in middle school and high school I sang and played clarinet in band and orchestra. I really loved music but I always felt really constrained playing classical music. I wanted to experiment more, and I really loved writing, but it took me a long time to sit down and write a song.

So, I guess you could say I come from more of a classical background. The only music that my parents played around the house was classical music and jazz. My dad loves Wayne Shorter. And that was a great musical education, but I had to figure out my own way of creating and accessing pop music. The point of making music for me is that it’s a pure form of expression, and it is completely free for me to do whatever I want, and become whatever person I want to become.

AF: What were some of your early pop music finds?

CV: Gosh. Ever since I can remember I have gravitated towards women singing autobiographically. When I was younger I was obsessed with No Doubt and Fiona Apple and Lauryn Hill. I also always loved pop singers from the ’60s like Dusty Springfield, and obviously jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, who have this insane control of their instrument. But I’ve always been most inspired by music that makes me want to move, so I changed things around.

AF: When you’re not weaving tunes, you work as a teacher for the LA Unified School district. You’ve said in interviews that you like to keep those two worlds separate, as your music is of an intimate nature. Do you find that your students influence your creative side in spite of that separation?

CV: I think the separation is pretty essential for me to be able to feel like I have complete freedom to create whatever I want to create. I will also say that the world has gotten pretty dark, and I think making art is one thing that everyone can do to make their voice heard. I constantly tell my students that art is the most powerful thing they can have access to, and encourage them to make art, because they have amazing stories and because art brings people together in these trying times. I always tell them to be vulnerable when they are performing, so I guess it is a little bit of pot calling kettle black. But I don’t want to think about work when I am making music! I want to be completely free.

AF: You said your last EP Body & Mind was created “alone in my apartment with a guitar, a loop pedal, and a tambourine.” What was the process like for your new record?

CV: I write songs by making a loop on my trusty Boss RC50 loop pedal, and then adding words, and then adding more chords. My loop pedal is covered in dust and has probably 100 loops on it right now. For this EP, I really collaborated with Derek Howa, who produced it and also cowrote and arranged the record. We wanted it to sound contemporary but with a retro feel. Brijesh Pandya (drums) and Brad Babinski (bass) were really important to the sound too. In the middle of arranging the record I went to New Orleans for New Years Eve and became obsessed with brass instruments, and I immediately wanted a horn section on the EP. Ryan Kern wrote the horn arrangements and Jonah Levine and Conor McElwain played horns. But all of the songs started with me in my living room on a loop pedal.

AF: “Invisible Man” has such a bright, cheery, upbeat sound. Can you give us a little background on this track?

CV: Yes! I had written some really dark songs with a folky vibe, and I was starting to feel kind of trapped by this folky persona. I wanted to write something honest and true, but I wanted it to sound as poppy and catchy and shimmery as possible. Derek also really helped create that sound with the chord arrangements and the synth lines. So, the song itself is about this sort of universal loneliness and longing for connection, and also about missing someone you love, but you want to dance to it and sing along.

AF: Question lightning round! Album you can’t stop listening to right now.

CV: SZA’s Ctrl.

AF: Favorite Los Angeles music venue to perform in.

CV: Oh gosh! Well I’ve performed a lot at Resident, which is always a great space. I performed at the Regent this past summer opening for Joan Osborne, which was wonderful. LA always has new great spaces to try out, too.

AF: Favorite secret LA hole-in-the-wall.

CV: I mean it’s not super secret. I find myself constantly going to Tacos Ariza next to Lassens, even though they usually have a C rating and I got mugged there once, years ago, at night. Burritos are comforting I guess

AF: Other than upbeat tunes and a horn section (which I find thrilling beyond words), what can fans expect from your new album?

CV: Fully realized songs you can dance to, about super personal and vulnerable topics, including body image, loneliness, self-doubt, and female empowerment, sung in three-part harmony! I think the topics are pretty relatable, and I really wanted it to be music you can move to. I also want to mention my amazing backup singers, Heather Ogilvy and Pamela Kilroy, who do three-part harmony with me and dance moves when we perform these songs live. It’s good vibes about personal heartaches all around.

Are you a Los Angeles native? See Cassandra Violet LIVE October 22nd at Lovesong Bar and again on December 2nd at the Moroccan Lounge. And be sure to keep an ear out for her new EP, out this December.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

VIDEO OF THE WEEK: Cassandra Violet “Lady”

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Folk pop singer Cassandra Violet came out with a new music video for the track “Lady” from her upcoming Body & Mind EP, to be released this coming January.

Inspired by the infamous cat-calling video documenting the verbal and sexual harassment we femmes in the city know all too well, Violet portrays a young woman helpless to the control of a male cult leader.  While the period garb, desolate backdrop, and hazy effects might set the video in the past, when the two sisters escape the oppression of the cult leader, they overlook a modern city, fearful of what awaits them.

Thus, the story hauntingly answers the question of what it’s like to be a woman in society, even to this day.

Violet’s vocal prowess is reminiscent of folk pioneer (and fellow blunt-banged beauty) Joni Mitchell, with her effortless command of the drum-powered build up that helps drive the narrative through.

Check out the video here:[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]