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The Frotations are the neo-soul project of lead singer and Worcester native Chris Kazarian. Or perhaps they’re better described as a hip-hop-inflected prog-rock fusion band brought to blood-pumping life by a formidable group of current and former Berklee College of Music students. Or maybe they’re what would happen if Erykah Badu and Jimi Hendrix got together.
The point is, the possibilities are endless. Kazarian (photo above by Matt Johnson) possesses a voice that is two parts butter and one part vinegar—creamy and effortless, with a delicate snarl. The Frotations, who play at Great Scott in Allston on Dec. 6, were founded in 2012 and released a modest, though impressive, 4-track EP in February 2014. The EP manages to achieve cohesion despite its wide-ranging tastes, from milky soul to muscular funk to blistering rock.
“When I write stuff on my acoustic guitar, it sounds very, very different than what ends up coming out [of the band],” remarks Kazarian on a recent November evening. He is sipping hot chocolate at a café in Boston, a rolled-up yoga mat perched beside him. “I gave them a lot of free reign [on the EP]. I knew I was with extremely talented musicians. The people that I play with—Pedro Zappa, João Noguiera, Vinicius da Silva and Shawn Dustin—these are incredible, versatile musicians and I knew they could go in any direction I wanted them to. And so I wanted to give them a bit of freedom.”
In performance, Kazarian exudes a cool-guy vibe, wearing vivid shirts unbuttoned to his clavicle and a long, loose afro. (The band’s name is a whimsical reference to the mesmerizing movement of its lead singer’s hair.) In person, he is thoughtful, talkative, and unabashedly enthused, with a wide smile and a voice that projects. Even in conversation, his cadences are musical.
Kazarian didn’t always consider himself a singer. In high school, he went out for football, and suffered a series of injuries before finally abandoning the dream that he now characterizes as somewhat delusional. He sang in choir as a boy and took up trumpet in fifth-grade. But it wasn’t until he was rejected from every trumpet program he auditioned for that he at last considered honing his voice—and only at the behest of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst music department, which asked him to re-audition after some vocal coaching.
Kazarian developed quickly in college, changing his UMass major from music education to jazz voice performance and then transferring to Berklee, where he is completing his final semester. But it is the experience of soul-searching and failure, almost more than his talent, that defines him.
“You come in, and it’s really sold to us—really it is, by the school and by the media, it’s not their fault, they just want students—you know, but they sell it to you that you’re going to be famous if you go to Berklee,” says Kazarian. “And so a lot of people drop out in arrogance. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t need this, I’m gonna go strike out on my own.’ You find out how broke they are a year later.”
“He stayed in school and painstakingly worked his way to success, enduring many setbacks”—it’s not the narrative usually ascribed to young stars, or to Berklee’s best and brightest. John Mayer, Melissa Etheridge, and Aimee Mann are among the school’s most famous dropouts. But for Kazarian and his band, a more studious attitude seems to have paid off. The Frotations bear the fruit of a detail-oriented and uncluttered approach. They are at once locked-in and loose, and deploy their virtuosity sparingly. The band wisely cedes the foreground to Kazarian, laying a rich, elastic foundation for him to spring off from.
Kazarian is currently at work on the Frotations’ next album. He has decided to upend his usual songwriting approach—he typically writes chord structure and melody first and fills in the words later—by starting with the album title and working backwards from there. Song titles, themes, and lyrics will precede any melody or musical motif.
“I love my EP, I love the music on it, a lot of people really love it,” he says. “But I still feel like it’s not getting across who I am. And it’s not really painting the whole picture of what I think and how I feel.”
Kazarian hopes that a more intentional approach will help him take on deeper issues and speak to a wider audience. He imagines that his new music will communicate “a sense of unity and a sense of connection.” For a singer who cites Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” as a major influence, such lofty ambition is not all that surprising.
“We’re getting extremely polarized in society, on every level. On gender, on race, and class, and politically,” he explains. “It’s a really important time for people to be reminded that we’re all on the same planet and on the same land. And I think it’s a tried-and-true message, it’s an old message. But it’s one that’s often forgotten.”
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