To think you know Los Angeles-based vocalist Irene Diaz before watching her perform live is an exercise in futility. Maybe, it’s even better to say that watching her perform live is certainly the best way to get familiar with her, her music, and her developing ability to marshal the connective impact of her soulful and creative voice. Thus, her performance on Friday night, June 13th at Arlington’s Artisphere was a moment where the outsiders were let inside of the mind and spirit of a talent already renowned but likely on the cusp of so much more.
If paying close attention to all of the usual highlights that usually dominate the progressive taste-making landscape, Irene Diaz’s rise from coffeehouse torch singer to NPR darling to Kickstarter success story make her a favorite. But, for the mainstream ear, Diaz’s success is a story that is a bit more difficult to tell with such ease, as when the diminutive songstress takes the stage, the first impulse is to have a definite curiosity. However, once her voice unfurls as she sits behind her keyboard and plays oh so many love songs, the attraction is clear and defined.
The trope of the lovelorn singer-songwriter has a long and storied tradition that is recurrent every twenty years since the 1970s in American pop. There’s the space from Carole King to Linda Ronstadt that moved from America’s west coast to around the world, touching back down again and influencing the likes of Lilith Fair-era vocalists like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, carrying forth through Norah Jones. Yes, there’s also modern day pop acts like Adele, whose generational sisterhood is developing, and could very well include Irene Diaz.
All of the souls and influences of all of those incredible women (and more) were present in Artisphere’s intimate and planetarium-esque Dome Theatre. Usually, great singer-songwriters write songs that offer you the key to their soul, and listeners are invited inward. However, there was something about the Dome Theatre, and something about Diaz’s growing talent that made the performance feel more like a space where it’s not so much as Diaz had to give the crowd a key, but rather we were already in her soul, and she opened the doors and showed us how she uniquely lived in these very familiar rooms.
Phil Phillips recorded “Sea of Love” in 1959, but it’s easily one of the most beloved and oft-covered songs in the pop/R & B/singer-songwriter tradition. It’s been covered by everyone from Robert Plant to Cat Power, but when under the sway of Diaz, it was therapeutic. Diaz’s stage banter oftentimes reflected on the search for love and a yearning for finding a perfect mate, and thus her version of the classic was cautious and plaintive, wholly informed by the moment of truly finding one’s self in the love that has thus proven elusive.
As well, “Tricky Game” strikes a similar chord in feeling birthed in the similar but extending into a unique space. The power-chord driven nature of “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele’s thunderstorm of a hit ballad – feels quite similar to “Tricky Game” with its undulating piano lines. However, in Diaz’s strengthening handle on making the simple into the spectacular, the song that “took a year to write” shows itself worthy of such levels of focus and energy. In being an ode to the tumult of nervously ceding trust while navigating the course of love, it excels.
“Yes, I still work at Trader Joes, and they’re very supportive of [my singing career],” Diaz said at a point in the show wherein the veneer of “cool singer/songwriter” dropped and we could most clearly see the earnest and honest spirit that guided her artistry. Still relatively new to live performance in front of significant crowds and backed only by what appeared to be an electric ukelele, the performance didn’t quite hit with maximum effectiveness until that point. Had the reveal been on purpose, then it would be the stuff of fable, one part TV program The Voice mixed with two parts every made-for-TV movie about every rock-and-roll star ever. But it wasn’t and that’s what made it cool. The room became relaxed, and she immediately evolved from appearing as a very intriguing singing diva in Converse sneakers to being easily relatable to Linda Ronstadt and possibly so much more. Songs like the yet released “Another Observer” and eponymous EP single “I Love You Madly” thus struck home harder as she became not just another amazing talent, but instead very “normal,” yet very gifted.
In an era where “talent” feels as if its at a stone’s throw and “success” has millions of definitions, to hear someone like Irene Diaz fulfill so many classic ideals of excellence is rare. Furthermore, in just over an hour to sit in an audience, run through a gamut of emotions and leave wanting more is appealing. With a career being best seen as a journey, Diaz’s travels are certainly worth following.