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Austin In the clubs: Monarchs

Relative latecomer to music scene brings it all to stage

Peter Mongillo
Celeste Griffin, here with her band, Monarchs, says songwriting and performing give her an outlet for dealing with her life experiences.

Celeste Griffin did not start playing music when she was 3 years old. She did not beg her parents for a guitar and start writing songs at the age of 11. Like a lot of other kids, she took piano lessons for a few months, but aside from that, the closest she got to becoming a musician was studying dance at the University of Georgia.

Then, a couple of years after college, back in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., she "discovered" songwriting when she was playing around on her mother's piano.

"It never occurred to me to be a singer," Griffin says. "Songs just started falling out of me. It was really bizarre."

She moved to Austin in August 2008, where she attended graduate school for community planning at the University of Texas. She continued working on music and recorded an EP over her winter break that year and another in 2009.

Fast-forward, and Griffin has a band, Monarchs, and a proper record, "The Rise and Fall," which she recorded with Austin producer Mike McCarthy, who produced albums for Patty Griffin, Spoon and most recently Craig Finn of the Hold Steady.

It's a good album, and not just for a relative rookie. Backed by a solid cast of local players, Griffin's voice is at once smooth without sounding overly polished, a less-fragile version of Chan Marshall of Cat Power. The songs are profoundly personal and can get dark, which gives the music a strong emotional foundation.

Some of that darkness comes from the fact that "Rise" is a concept album of sorts, tracing the ups and downs of a relationship — "the process of going through what was happening," Griffin says. Throughout the course of 11 tracks, Griffin is both sad and standoffish. On the opener, "Arm's Length," she sets the tone with cold statement: "Your love is selfish." By the time she gets to the more sublime "Date Night," things are warmer, almost dreamlike, with a droning guitar creeping in the background.

At times during the album it can feel like Griffin is telling the story of her life over a cup of coffee. She admits there is a therapeutic, get-it-off-her-chest element to the process.

"Songwriting is like journaling for me. That's why they're very emotional and very personal," she says. "It always makes me feel so much better having an understanding of what I'm feeling and laying it down, expressing it."

The one exception to the personal feel of the album is "Business Casual," a bouncy reggae tune that Griffin was inspired to write after Michael Jackson died. The song finds her sarcastically lashing out at the lack of communication in a media-saturated world and paints a disturbing picture of an open-casket funeral in which the deceased looks too perfect.

"I was thinking about how gross the exploitation of people's deaths can be in the media," she says.

Musically, the song also stands out for the use of percussion and a more adventurous rhythm, something Griffin has begun to incorporate into live shows but says she would like to do more. Though the album is rooted in rock, she says that her dance background draws her toward more interesting beats. "I kind of align myself with soul, funk and hip-hop," she says. "I want to be able to start dancing on-stage one day. I just want to be able to break it out."

pmongillo@statesman.com