Happenstance. Seven years ago, two witty Geminis, Arianne Benick (vocals) and Julia Johanan (keys), met at a party. Soon, they created a women’s group, hit up yoga and, one day, they randomly busted out “Takin It Slow,” now track 5 on the debut EP from Cincinnati band iolite.
With a taste of old Blues, Jazz, Reggae, Soul and Funk, iolite aims for a cavernous yet raw-heart, ultra-smooth sound that reaches beyond audio, entering the visual realm. Here, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith meet Norah Jones and Massive Attack.
It’s tight and super smart while still playful, holding a definite timeless feel that has drawn the band a diverse fan base. In form and feel, songs show off natural veteran talent while giving off an innate, rich, old-school Jazz club vibe. Picture men in fedoras, long, thin cigarettes, shiny shoes, sharp suits, classy dresses, the sound of keys and low conversation. Stories and secrets.
All five members of iolite are practiced, talented musicians and they’re in the right place here. Tunes flow out with the ease of musicians who know both careful study and the nature of digging into the chest’s center, pulling out the goods. The combo deal.
But along with this soulful edge, the women are quick, spontaneous, engaging, animated and intensely funny and creative. We talk about the minute-by-minute drive to search for the art in things. Both Benick and I have been known to “get in character” at the quickie mart or grocery, wherever and whenever the mood strikes, just for kicks.
With a smoky, resonant voice, Benick says she wants more than just performance: “We’re trying to create integrity, be true to ourselves, our personalities and create a positive energy with it (while) also experimenting with sounds.”
Johanan adds, “We want our music to reflect that desire to be more, to elevate our consciousness.
It’s an artform for us.”
Benick got her start young.
“I would rollerskate repetitive circles around the garage and sing ‘Like a Virgin,’ ” she says, laughing.
First, a shy flutist, at age 24 she hit the stage, but not without gutting out lessons and practice. Benick says, “I had to work, ’cause I knew it scared the shit out of me to get in front of people. But I knew that meant I had to do it. I got through it and now it’s very natural.”
With lyrics, Benick’s a perfectionist.
“I want to say exactly what I mean,” she says. “I don’t want to shortcut it. I want to believe in what I’m doing. I’m an optimistic person and I think that’s gonna come through, even on songs that come from a dark or angry place.”
From Minneola, N.Y., Johanan holds a B.A. in Electronic Media from UC’s College-Conservatory of Music. On piano at age 5, she first learned from the church lady, later diving into Jazz. She grins, saying that theory is “all good,” but “it doesn’t all have to make sense if it sounds cool.”
On scoring the other three musicians, Benick states, “Well, it took some time, that’s what’s up.”
Dan Barger (sax, flute, percussion) plays in nine — yes, nine — bands. Joining this past January, well-known singer of Marvin & the Experience and numerous other projects, Marvin Hawkins (drums) has been a close friend of iolite for a while. The original bassist for Arrested Development, Shimon Israel is a Grammy-nominated player who worked with Johanan in the Reggae outfit Kaan-Shuz.
Johanan says, “We’ve always been lucky to work with really talented people. The others, they have to be into the creative process … it’s something deeper for us.”
Recently, iolite gained attention from Skope Magazine, Progression Magazine, awaken music and others. Come September, they’ll tour New York, including one haunted club gig. Collaborating on the soundtrack and script for a future Fringe Fest project, iolite is closely involved with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. The planned result is a dark but comedic film noir murder mystery, Dexter-ish in nature.
For the band’s EP release, the members created a theatrical scene at The Mockbee building in Brighton that included cardboard, life-sized trees.
“We try to create an atmosphere … manipulate the energy to create magic,” Benick explains. “We’re both big art geeks. We’re so visual. I want people to walk in there and be like, ‘Where am I?’ ”
IOLITE (www.myspace.com/iolitemusic) plays The Greenwich the first Thursday of every month.