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Ladies who lunch

Australian vocal ensemble Coco’s Lunch one of four world class acts in Festival Vancouver at Whistler series

By Shelley Arnusch

Who: Coco’s Lunch

What: Festival Vancouver at Whistler performance series

Where: MY Millennium Place

When: Friday, Aug. 5, 8 p.m.

Jacq Gawler’s voice is like a lullaby. Never before has the Australian accent sounded as comforting and gentle as peach cobbler, the ubiquitous Aussie “yeahs” like sighs.

What would five of these voices sound like, blended together in perfect harmony?

Those that come by Millennium Place on Friday evening will find out when Gawler and the other four members of Coco’s Lunch — an Australian all-female vocal/percussion ensemble — take the stage.

The compulsion to associate Gawler’s voice with a baked dessert seems less farfetched when she reveals that food has always been an important component of the 10-year-old Melbourne-based group’s creative life.

It’s the root of the name, in fact.

According to Gawler, the group formed out of a regular gathering of jazz-trained musicians at a certain Café Coco in Melbourne.

“The gals would hang out, eat and sing together,” Gawler explains. “In their diaries it would say something like: Coco’s — lunch.”

Gawler wasn’t around for those early Coco’s lunches. Group founders Lisa Young and Sue Johnson are the only two of the five current singers who have been in the ensemble from the start.

But the current lineup hasn’t changed for the past eight years and Gawler says it looks to stay that way.

“We really think we’ve found the members that we want to be singing with for a long time,” she adds.

Compatibility is a key element of Coco’s Lunch. The group use their voices as instruments, layering harmonies and making use of sound in its purest forms, which is intertwined with poetic lyrics. Often the compositions, which draw from musical styles across the board, from classical to classic gospel to traditional aboriginal, are sung in made-up language.

“Most of us have a background in an instrument or a couple of instruments,” Gawler says, “so I think the original idea of Sue and Lisa when they founded the group is to work with voices, but from that instrumental improvised angle. They wanted to form an ensemble that had an instrumental feel to it but used voice in a really creative way.”

Even for trained musicians vocal compatibility isn’t something that can be summoned at will. Gawler says over the past eight years, the current group has developed a connection that has become the essence of Coco’s Lunch.

“We’ve worked together for so long that we often don’t need to look at each other or signal things,” she purrs. “We’re so closely tuned to one another we can feel when each other is breathing. We’ve developed that sensitivity.”

The connection allows the group to function democratically, with all five members equal partners in the composing of new material.

“We really have tried to not be limited by stylistic boundaries,” Gawler says. “We really do work at allowing each other to be as creative as we want to be with our compositions and not feeling like you have to stick to a style or an idea of what Coco’s Lunch is. Some of our songs have been influenced by traditional South Indian vocal percussion; some of our songs have been influenced by DJs we’ve heard and sampling we’ve heard. So we just try and be really free in our ideas and I think that helps to make something sound fresh.”

That freshness has won Coco’s Lunch acclaim in their home country where they have been honoured with numerous awards in folk/world and contemporary music categories. Their music has also been featured in soundtracks for several Australian films and documentaries and in 2004 the Agnes B fashion house flew them to Shanghai to perform an exclusive concert beside the catwalk.

Gawler laughs as she recalls the “surreal” experience. “That was pretty far out,” she says, even more so because fashion doesn’t figure highly on the group members’ priority lists.

“We’re very earth-mother,” she adds. “Half the time we’ve spent working in remote indigenous communities in the Australian desert. But it is great to do those gigs because it makes your performing life very diverse and gives you a lot of laughs and memories to look back on.”

The group will be making more memories on their current four-date tour of B.C., which includes tomorrow night’s Millennium Place show and their show for the ongoing Festival Vancouver.

A grant from provincial Olympic arts legacy initiative ArtsNow has allowed for the sharing of acts from the annual Vancouver music festival. Along with Coco’s Lunch, Festival Vancouver at Whistler includes British jazz pianist Joanna MacGregor, who performs at Millennium Place on Saturday evening, and world beat musicians JouTou on Sunday evening. High-energy Montreal percussion ensemble Rhythmo-Synchro will be in Whistler the following Saturday, Aug.13 for a matinee performance.

Gawler says she’s heard there is a sizable contingency of her countrymen in Whistler, but their appeal seems to break cultural borders. The tour marks the first time in Canada for Coco’s Lunch and Gawler says the future likely holds more world travel as more and more people become enamoured with the group’s unique vocal stylings, powered by something deep inside that humans may never fully understand.

“The voice is the most instinctive way for me to express music because it’s in my body,” Gawler says. “Feeling the vibrations of sound within you has a directly physical impact on your mood and the way your body feels. I think humans have an instinctive urge to sing.

“There’s something about singing with other people that’s so exciting, it creates a kind of energy that’s quite indescribable.”