For most American students, study-abroad programs are a chance to experience a foreign culture up close while furthering their studies in a new and exotic place. It's also a chance for them to get drunk and stumble around Rome or Madrid or Dublin instead of Columbia or Lawrence or Champaign-Urbana.
But when Janet Evra was a teenager in Gloucester, England, she chose to go abroad to the bucolic river town of Elsah, Illinois, to study at Principia College.
"I first ended up coming over to the states for a gap year, which is pretty common for British teenagers," Evra says. "I was taking all these classes in sustainability and sugar-bush management."
She had so much fun that she decided to stay. "I thought, I don't want to go home and study English literature," she explains.
After heading to Michigan for further studies, Evra returned to the area and settled in Alton, Illinois. By day, Evra puts those sustainability classes to good use through her work for an environmental nonprofit that specializes in floodplain management and watershed conservation. But a few nights a week, she and her husband Will Buchanan pack up his guitar and her upright bass to perform at spots like the Dark Room and Evangeline's, often for brunch or happy-hour crowds.
The pair began gigging around town a few years ago with a drummer, calling their group the Bon Bon Plot and specializing in breezy, soft-touch arrangements of bossa nova standards, French chansons and selections from the Great American Songbook. While Evra and Buchanan still play under that name, increasingly the couple has been putting Evra center stage, and her forthcoming debut album Ask Her to Dance (due in November) will formally introduce Evra as a singer-songwriter, not just an apt interpreter of other people's songs.
From the few songs teased off the album, it's clear that Evra and Buchanan have internalized both the construction of songs from the Gershwin brothers or Cole Porter as well as some of the gentle sway from the Brazilian music often covered in their sets. As with many listeners, Antonio Carlos Jobim provided a point of entry.
"I bumped into the Best of Jobim album when I was a teenager, the one with Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto on a bunch of tracks," she says. "I started to learn to play some of those songs; I taught myself guitar as a teenager."
As an upright bassist, Evra is tasked with handling the subtle syncopations of the Brazilian-inspired songs while singing atop them; it's a dichotomy she enjoys.
"I've always liked the sound of bass, the way that it holds down the low end of every tune and the way you can add a whole lot of flavor to it," Evra says. "I really enjoy holding down those rhythms. Those have come pretty easily to me. It helps that I'm singing it; I can hold down the meat of the song while singing over the top."
The title track off Ask Her to Dance exemplifies Evra's musical direction. Against a gentle bed of subtle samba rhythms, Buchanan's nylon-string guitar strums and unobtrusive cocktail piano dressing compliments of Adam Maness, Evra signs a song of missed connections and burgeoning desire.
"Funnily enough, it's one of the oldest songs on the record," she says of the track. "There are some lyrics about he picks up the phone and lets it ring twenty times — I wrote that when people still used landlines! Now it's just a vintage touch, I guess. I started writing it so long ago that I brought it up to date to finish off the lyrics." Evra says that her time living in the area and gigging around St. Louis helped flesh out some of the material, noting that grand old ballrooms like the Casa Loma were in mind as she completed the lyrics.
Playing cover sets for so long has given Evra and Buchanan familiarity with a deep and varied songbook, and as a longtime songwriter making her formal debut, Evra notes the connective tissue between those classics and her originals.
"We talk about our own stuff in reference to all of these other tunes," she says. "We say, this song could have the feel of something like 'Corcovado' or something. We're listening to this diverse bunch of music; we want to be really sensitive to show our sources but also bring something fresh to it as well."
As Evra approaches the release date for Ask Her to Dance, she's dropped a pair of videos (directed by Bill Streeter) to goose interest. It was a new experience for a performer more accustomed to serving as gentle background music at bistros and barrooms around town.
"It was something new for me, for sure. I guess I've been performing for a long time, so that part was not so scary," Evra says of shooting the videos. "But knowing what I do in the next few minutes could be immortalized — that was definitely new.
"It's still unusual to me that I am the star of the show, the person in the middle," Evra continues. "But that means I have more control over the project."