Gangster Choirboy 

Active Child's Pat Grossi talks choral music, harps and hard-core rap

Call it hymnal pop or choral chillwave or harp-powered synthrock or whatever you want—but the deeply spiritual music fashioned by Los Angeles' Active Child, aka Pat Grossi, is anything but ordinary.

Given the far-ranging, almost diametrically opposed creative influences of his childhood, it's no wonder his debut, the Curtis Lane EP, recently released by Filter Records, stands out as easy yet indelible.

The shimmering, keyboard-drenched "Wilderness" is breathtaking, perfect early-morning music for watching stars cascade across the night sky, only to be extinguished by the rising sun. "I'm in Your Church at Night," meanwhile, with its harp-plucked notes and Grossi's trembling voice, carries the listener into another realm, where the soul grows tangible, coruscating just beyond reach.

It's music only an ex-choirboy could generate.

Grossi isn't the only ex-choirboy taking part in this recent phone interview. Turns out I sang in a boy's choir in Florida for many years—until my voice broke.

"My voice broke, too, but I'm still a soprano," laughs Grossi, whose speaking voice is pure low-register surfer-dude. "I don't know how that happened."

Indeed, his haunting falsetto is eerie and feminine enough to make the listener wonder if maybe Joanna Newsom secretly broke into M83's awesome analog-keyboard stash and recorded a side project. Further spins, however, reveal a formal vocal training that his female counterpart lacks.

After hanging out in a public-school choir in New Jersey, the director suggested he apply for a spot in the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Chorale. A pre-teen Grossi convinced his mother to drive him down for an audition, and he nailed it. Soon, he was touring the globe, from Switzerland to South Africa.

"I got to see the world at a young age, which is something rare and valuable," he says. "The experience really developed my musical education."

He recalls performing plenty of pieces by British choral composer John Rutter, as well as works composed and arranged by the choir's then-pianist, Joseph Martin, who, Grossi insists, "writes some pretty amazing stuff."

Immersed in the sonic waters of "Pie Jesu" and requiems, he moved with his family to California as a teen and began to discover the rough language and stark musical vocabulary of hard-core rap via his father, then an employee at Priority Records.

"Hip-hop was just kind of there for me because of my dad's connection," explains Grossi. "All around the house, there were cassette tapes and vinyl records by all kinds of artists—(like) NWA (and) Public Enemy. My brothers loved rap, and I adopted it, because they thought it was cool. I was a huge hip-hop-head until college, which was when I finally learned about other pop-music genres."

Having long admired the harp, he picked up the instrument only recently (he's also adept at guitar and keyboards), and he loves it—except when he has to transport it by plane, which requires de-tuning before flights and re-tuning before shows.

He's now touring by van, so keeping a harp performance-ready will be no problem for his Tucson appearance.

In the background, someone switches CDs. What's he listening to these days?

"M83's Saturdays=Youth," he says. "I can't get enough of it. I love that early-'80s sound. Also, Kate Bush. She's a really big influence, for sure."

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