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Elissa Janelle Velveteen: The Popaganda Machine.

February 17, 2017

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Text by Brianna Spause. Images by Brianna Spause and Ben Wong.

Sheltered. Censored. Segregated.

That’s how Elissa Janelle Velveteen, 30, describes growing up in a loving, yet conservative household, as a preacher’s daughter.

“Music was the bridge for me to get out,” Velveteen says. “I grew up singing in the church choir, where the principle taught was to be humble because you’re not singing for yourself. You’re singing for Jesus.”

At first, the singer-songwriter felt selfish commanding attention on stage. Velveteen says the showy, “Hey! Look at me!” attitude she found in the entertainment business was foreign, yet a lifestyle she welcomed to make her voice heard.

“I like to use music as a vehicle,” Velveteen says. “This is fun, but the reason I dedicated my life to it is because you can change the world with it.”

She calls it “popaganda.” It’s catchy music with meat to it, and it has a few goals.

“To reach and help people,” Velveteen says. “To inspire people. It’s not necessarily about me but you do kind of have to flag people down like, ‘Hey! I have something to say.’”

As with most things, Velveteen believes in starting small.

In the issues she cares about, Velveteen has the whole – we might not be able to stop Walmart right now from paying inhumane wages to factory workers overseas, but we can all stop shopping there, right? – kind of attitude.

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She brings focus with her raspy, sharp vocals in Molly Rhythm, the eclectic eight-piece rock/ska/punk band where she is one of the two dueling female vocalists.

To start off her career in Philly, she played her dark, cathartic originals on stage at The Fire’s weekly Monday night open mics. For 10 years, she was so reliable, they brought her on as a host and a bartender.

On a cold December Wednesday, Velveteen graces the same stage in a retro pair of lilac trousers and an intricate tulle hat. The Fire is having their annual Holiday Party. The smell of chili and the sounds of Velveteen’s vocals fill the small room.

As the night winds on, Velveteen plays the majority of her new album, One Sunken Ship. The set is like a journey as Velveteen dances from the acoustic guitar to piano to ukulele-and-kazoo combo and back again, practicing her popaganda by painting a realistic picture of society as she sees it.

“Y’all want to hear a little ditty about police brutality?” Velveteen says as she leans into the microphone, before going into “The Devil’s Hands.”

In the overall catchy tune, Velveteen begs the question, “Where do you get the nerve to call protect and serve legal abuse?” moving on to social commentary like, “We’re changing the channel, but not our behavior. Ignoring our neighbors and waiting on a savior that will never come.”

Lori Johansson, bassist of Molly Rhythm, says Velveteen’s lyrics are what have always drawn her into her music.

“She makes important points on big issues in a very poetic and thoughtful way,” Johansson says. “Her songs command you to pay attention to certain points with her ever-changing riffs and deliberate pauses.”

Velveteen says live performance is where she truly finds the most comfort. The act of engaging people with her message and the spirit of protesting society’s norms works best when she feels like she can engage one-on-one with people in a crowded room through music.

Johansson sees the charming effects of propaganda in both Velveteen’s solo and band performances, from the inside out.

“Words mean something different to individuals and they create synapses in your brain,” Johansson says. “If you hear new thoughts and ideas, it can increase brain plasticity to help you come up with new thought patterns. And music is a wonderful way to help people remember what you are saying.”

Josh Aptner, founder of Deviant Philly and drummer in the progressive rock duo Air is Human, also recognizes the sense of magic Velveteen finds in live performance.

Velveteen was the first artist Deviant Philly, an art collective new to the city, produced an album for. Aptner says when they were recording One Sunken Ship in the studio, something was missing and they couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

“Then we realized, it was the audience,” Aptner says. “She’s a performer, through and through. Even if you just meet her in person you can tell. She’s very gregarious. She’s more comfortable in that setting.”

To solve the problem of the studio stuffiness, they threw a big party and recorded the album live, and outdoors. Velveteen says she is pleased that you can’t tell the recorded album is live, adoringly calling the sound guys all wizards.

“We really wanted that live magic,” Velveteen says. “That’s when I thrive, when I can look at people and I can see them reacting to the music and get them dancing. If they relate and enjoy it, great! Maybe they’ll never reach that level like, ‘Oh fuck! That song is about sweatshops,’ but you’ve given them something. Maybe it’s a piece of you that makes them forget about their problems for a second.”

For Velveteen, the ability to get up on stage and share her thoughts through music is like putting herself on the autopsy table, and encouraging her audience to take a look around. She says experiences are all relatable if you boil them down enough, and she wants to share her coping mechanisms with others.

“I feel like everyone is so alienated now, they’re so alone in their own pain,” Velveteen says. “We are more or less pack animals in the way the reward centers in our brains work. Most of us – unless you’re a sociopath, we want to care about each other, and I want to make that happen for people.”

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