Treya Lam’s favorite musical instrument is the viola. I am so stupidly charmed when I learn this fact – the viola the forgotten middle sibling between violin and cello – that I yelp aloud. Then her song “Go and Grow” comes on, with its poetic alliteration of V and S and G sounds, its tender standup bass (plucked by Catherine Popper), its piano and yes!, a glorious viola solo, topped by Lam’s weirdly exquisite voice: “ssssprinnnnnngggg has spprunnnnggg.”
It’s a voice that’s difficult to describe, possibly because Lam, a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, is classically trained. Now, don’t let this put you off: in this case, the classical training makes the music deeply accessible, not opaque. But the voice! She wields it like a weapon, ascending and descending, full of lush vibrato, dancing expertly over chord and tempo changes, occasionally dragging out an S or H just to make you shiver.
That voice charms and then haunts. It’s a bit like a cross between Cat Power and Nina Simone – two of her idols – with maybe some Susie Suh and Cat Power thrown in. It’s not always a feminine voice; like Simone’s, it has a weighty masculine quality at times that enthralls. Lam identifies as genderfluid, wears her hair cropped short and topped with a dramatic feathered hat.
Lam’s debut album, Good News, was released in June. Adopted from Taiwan by Chinese-American immigrant parents, she writes about the small joys to be found in a world full of loss and uncertainty. Daffodils, violets, lionesses, redwood trees, wind and waves: her metaphors come from the natural world. On “6s + 7s,” she sings, “and I am a lioness / a roar in my chest / but I still purr like a cat.” Indeed.
Good News, Treya Lam’s debut album, is out now on Short Stuff Records (the one and only Kaki King’s label).