This 20-year-old is introducing jazz to a whole new generation
Rachel Altounian was in my French class, and she always smiled. She had this magnetic allure, even as a teenager, even in a stuffy high school tucked away in suburban Texas. The intoxicating promise of possibility surrounded her because she had the kind of personality that meant she would be someone.
Now, across the Atlantic, Rachel sits in Liverpool and on a piano bench. Her life is music: business, production, songwriting, performance. She’s a second year at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, home to notable alumni like Sandi Thom, Raghav, and Jonas Alaska. Her curriculum is a vortex of musical education, where there is always more to do and learn and days and nights combine in a never-ending medley of productivity.
Though Rachel may be cosmopolitan, she’s a weird Austinite at heart. Her origins bleed through in the hint of a twang over a Skype receiver. And perhaps it is because of her hometown and its legacy that Rachel stumbled upon her profession.
“I think growing up in Austin, music was kind of just all around me,” she said. With Austin City Limits and South by Southwest, she had access to the best bands in the world, and she only had to listen to find inspiration. Her parents were huge music aficionados, and her siblings played instruments. At 11 years old, she joined choir and band, and she was hooked. She cites her teachers as her greatest motivators because they imbued her with a passion that helped her imagine music as more than a hobby. Now, she sees her studies as a career, a job that dictates her actions and thoughts. But when she first moved to England for college, she had to adapt from a part-time dilettante in song to a full-fledged vocal artist.
“It’s overwhelming. It honestly is,” she admitted. “It’s different. It’s more stressful. But if you can make that adjustment and still find a way to love it like I think I have (and I’m hoping that I don’t have to adjust anymore), then I think that’s when you can say, ‘Alright. I’m doing music. This is it.’”
As an American citizen overseas, Rachel has thrown herself into European culture for a taste of what lies beyond our borders. Her only interface with the U.S. Top 40 songs comes from social media. When she runs around Liverpool, she’s in an international setting that allows for diversity and novelty.
“I’m getting the background of English popular music, Norwegian popular music, German popular music — lots of different countries,” she noted. “And it’s not just what’s popular now, but it’s what’s been popular for the last 20 years. Music that never ever reached Austin, Texas that I never heard growing up.”
It’s these new exposures that prompted Rachel to form her band, DeMille. After attending a concert, she couldn’t stop listening to ’50s music, and she slipped down the rabbit hole until her playlists were filled with retro hits. One day, she called her mother to ask for off-the-cuff advice. She said that she had fallen in love with jazz and that she wanted to write it. She knew nothing about it except what she had taught herself, and yet she had an inexplicable yearning to try her hand at it. Like any good parent, her mom told her to give it a go. Thus, Rachel conceived of DeMille.
In September 2014, she met up with saxophonists and bassists from her school, and they began a long-term collaboration. They’ve gotten gigs around Liverpool and Manchester, and they’re currently planning more tours.
Through DeMille, Rachel is trying to converse with and update the jazz movement instead of copying and co-opting it. “That complex music is starting to become something that is now relevant again,” she said. “It’s not just the nostalgic properties, but it’s also something new in its own way. It’s coming back, but in a different format, I think.”
While Rachel may allude to a time passed in her band, her solo work has more of an acoustic, ambient feel.
“It leaves room for interpretation, … and people don’t know everything about my life,” she explained. “I’m not Taylor Swift sitting there telling you all the details about all my relationships with my friends or romantic relationships.”
Her lyrics are personal and intimate without being self-indulgent, and they’re simple in their empathy. But though Rachel strives for universality in her music, it is still engrained within her, an extension of her being. It has given her a voice, and a noteworthy one at that.
“I didn’t really know how to express myself, and then one day I sat at a piano and started writing,” she said. “It was like I woke up for the first time. I just finally understood that this was how I express myself. It’s never not made sense.”
[Photos via Whitney Lewis Photography, Liam Miller, and Shea McChrystal]