Music interviews Women in Music

When it comes to creative collaborations, rock string quintet Electric 5, know a thing or two about captivating an audience.

Electric 5’s lead single, an amazing cover rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, should go some way towards convincing you that you’re going to love this amazing unique quintet. They take their extraordinary talents as cellists and violinists and mix it with a huge splash of classic and alternative rock to create one of the most interesting genre bending crossovers of recent years.

I was also thrilled to discover that their innovative arrangements go beyond just simply Gnarls Barkley and includes wonderful renditions of some of the greatest songs of all time. That said, I recently decided to reach out and connect with Chicago based Electric 5 and run across group founder Adia, a more than willing spokeswoman to answer my curious questions. Maybe even more impressive than her amazing vocals and improv solos on her electric violin wah-wah pedal, is the fact that she found time to speak to me, in the middle of currently playing in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Anyway, without further ado, please let me introduce Adia, on behalf of Electric 5.

Adia, where and when did you and your Electric 5 musical partners meet? What are the names of your incredibly talented string colleagues?

First and foremost my silent partner, arrangement writing partner and partner in crime is a really great composer Dusan Sarapa, who is also my husband. He often handles the most delicate inner workings of the group and is truly the glue that keeps this whole thing together. As for my band members, we have all gotten to know each other through the Chicago freelance circuit and I just couldn’t be more fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most amazing musicians in this city. Jocelyn Butler is an absolute beast on the cello who usually handles the most difficult parts of our music. Having played with many incredible groups like the International Chamber Artists and the legendary Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues, she basically acts as the motor of our group. The phenomenal Violetta Todorova hails from the great Russian school of violin that I’m also a student of. Her technique and chops are impeccable. She is currently the concertmaster of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and just an outstanding violinist and soloist. So is Emma Smoler. She is the former concertmaster of the Central Michigan University Symphony and also plays with me for the Steve Edwards Orchestra, one of Chicago’s top bands. She’s been crossing over and dabbling with electrified string instruments for awhile and brings this invaluable experience to the group. Our second cellist Lillian Pettitt plays for several prestigious Midwest Orchestras and she’s the newest member of Electric 5. She was actually a last minute call-up once we realized we needed a second cello, and she had to show up to her first rehearsal without having any time to practice. It didn’t seem to have much effect on her – she just walked in the door and proceeded to floor all of us with her playing. We were all like – OK, welcome.

How did you come up with the idea of doing rock and pop covers as Electric 5?

I am a classical musician first so those are my roots, but I absolutely love rock and pop. So even as a child I always wanted to bridge the gap between these genres and play the music that I grew up listening to on the radio. However I rarely if ever saw anyone playing rock or pop on string instruments, specially not a whole group. I knew it was possible, I just didn’t know how to do it right. Then few years ago 2 Cellos caught my eye. I think it’s fair to say they are our biggest influence and I would say the gold standard for anyone trying to do this. They don’t use back up tracks and neither do we. Instead they are able to recreate the magic of every song they cover with masterfully written arrangements and superb musicianship – their cover of Thunderstruck still gives me the shivers. The final touch for us was to do something that I think hasn’t been done in the classical crossover genre and that is to infuse vocals and intense wah wah pedal improv solos into the whole thing.

Electric 5’s debut video, a cover version of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy is a stunning way to introduce the quintet to a new audience. How did you come about to choosing this particular song and where did the inspiration come from for the video?

First of all because it’s one of the greatest pop songs ever and we absolutely love it! Gnarls Barkley is such an incredible artist. We also thought it was the perfect piece to show the range of our group. Everyone is playing virtuosically, the arrangements are intricate, there’s soloing, singing and a little bit of everything that tells the story of who we are as a group. As for the inspiration for video I wish I could take credit for it but that idea was all our brilliant director Adam Moorman. It was such a pleasure working with him on this creative project, as well as the whole team at Guy Bauer, and we can’t wait to do it again. I also want to give quick shouts to James Auwarter who masterfully recorded and produced the audio, as well as our good friend Andy Gesner, the first music insider who believed in us and helped spread the word.

Which covers can we expect to hear from Electric 5 in the near future?

We are currently working on our debut album which will include Paint It Black, Somebody I Used To Know, Rolling In The Deep, Happy, Riptide, Chasing Cars and Oh Well. We also have a few demo tapes up on our website right now, Smooth Criminal, Manic Depression and Killing Me Softly, and we’ll be releasing full versions of those songs as well.

Having had a quiet listen to some of the songs you have already recorded (featured on your web player), your first recordings are definitely an interesting choice. What genre of music have you found the most demanding in terms of adaption to a classical instrument?

That’s a difficult question to answer because each genre and each song presents its own challenges, particularly when it comes to writing arrangements and that’s often the hardest part. With rock we usually need to write intricate and technically difficult to play parts in order to recreate the intensity and aggressive essence of the music. With pop on the other hand, since we don’t use back up tracks the tricky part is to recreate the bass line and the beat. That’s actually the main reason why we needed a second cello and why we are a quintet – our two cellists Jocelyn and Lillian essentially act as our rhythm section. What I find interesting is that we actually don’t know which songs will present a tough challenge until we start messing around with the arrangement and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately in this process you find out that there are some songs you have to literally quit on, because you just can’t get it quite to where you feel like you’re doing it justice. Enter Sandman is a good example, our white whale if you will, though we’re not done chasing it! Its funny to say now but Crazy was one of those songs too. We played around with it for months and it just wasn’t sounding right. For some reason though we all felt like this was the one, so we just kept pushing until it finally clicked.

What can modern mainstream popular music learn from classical music?

I think it boils down to the purity of the classical instrument sound. Computers, synthesizers, beat machines and auto-tune have revolutionized the way the music is recorded, produced and consumed in the digital age – and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just think that we shouldn’t forget to incorporate in mainstream pop the beauty and purity of sounds that real live instruments have been producing for centuries. Sometimes it is best to go back to the roots of the music instead of reinventing the wheel.

The focused gaze of the former concertmaster, Emma Smoler, of the Central Michigan University Symphony.

Your onstage interactions must surely create a sense of excitement when it comes to your performance. But forgive me I have to ask, is there any competition or rivalry between you? After all you are all superb musicians in your own right.

You are forgiven! For our music to work, everyone pretty much has to be able to play their ass off and that’s what I was talking about earlier. Jocelyn, Violetta, Emma and Lillian are all virtuosos in their own right and I am so blessed to have them with me on this journey. Taking turns featuring each one of our unique strengths is what makes us who we are. So no, there’s no competition or rivalry whatsoever. We all play a lot of classical and these songs give us a chance to do something out of that realm. Something that is so much fun, and that’s the bottom line. We just love playing this music together.

I’d loved to know who are some of the great music artists (classical or comtemporary) that inspire you?

Well my personal favorites are old school cats like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Whitney Houston. I also really dig Florence, Mos Def, Jennifer Hudson, Jose Gonzalez, Beck and bands like The Roots, OutKast and The Black Keys, too many to name. I do find it kind of funny how my tastes are evolving. For example a few years ago I couldn’t listen at all to a group like Rage Against The Machine, and then the other day they came on while I was in a car and I just kind of lost it – so much good energy. Now as far as my violin playing style that’s a story in itself. I started out listening to some of the few crossover violinists out there, guys like Jean-Luc Ponty, Gilles Apap, Johnny Frigo, Jesus Florido, Stuff Smith and Stephane Grappelli. But that’s where I kind of took a big left turn. So my father-in-law of all people happens to be an incredible guitar player from Croatia and I really think one the world’s greatest Jimi Hendrix cover artists. So when I met him years ago it was a pretty incredible experience. He kind of opened my eyes to a whole new world on playing. He taught me a lot of licks himself, but he also inspired me to start learning from rock and blues guitar gods like Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Slash, Albert Collins, you name it. If I liked their solo I tried to play along with them. After a while it started becoming a part of me and I started throwing in my own little things. That’s basically how I play the way I play today.

Earlier this year I saw Kate Miller-Heidke, one of Australia’s most loved contemporary artists, in concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, playing songs from her back catalogue of best known pop songs. In short, it was a surreal feeling being part of something so different and special, particularly for me as a non-opera/orchestra participant. Are there any artists like Kate, for instance, that you would like to collaborate with?

I know what you mean! When done right it’s so beautiful to hear orchestral instruments in a pop setting. I also think it would be great if we could come and play in Australia some day and have a chance to collaborate with Kate, she is really awesome!! If I had to name others, I’d say that an opportunity to collaborate with artists like Jose Gonzalez, Beck or Danger Mouse would be a dream come true. But I’m honestly open to collaborating with so many great musicians out there today.

Finally, what advise can you offer any young promising classists who might be considering crossing over genres as a performer?

A lot of classical musicians are afraid or uncomfortable to go outside the box. Don’t be. Capitalize on what makes you different, what makes you stand out from the crowd. You have to immerse yourself into whatever genre of music you are drawn to and learn everything you can about it. Listening is key. Take down solos or songs of artists you admire note by note so that you can use your classical chops and add new tricks to your trade. Once you feel comfortable in that new genre of music, don’t be afraid to take risks and improvise. You’ll probably play some bad notes and not sound like Hendrix on your first try, or your tenth, but once you take that leap and with lots of practice it will only get better.

Chicago-based neo-soul rock violinist, singer and songwriter, Adia.

A huge thank you to Adia for her time, patience and contribution. You can discover the latest news from Electric 5 via their engaging Facebook page or twitter feed @Electric5music. You can also visit or contact Electric 5 via their website, which includes an amazing opportunity to be able to book them for an exciting private event. Furthermore, stay tuned via this site for updates on Electric 5’s forthcoming debut album.

Photo credits: The header image of Electric 5, and of Emma Smoler and Adia, are copyrighted and courtesy of Electric 5 music. They cannot be used without Electric 5 expressed permission. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clip embedded.

3 comments on “When it comes to creative collaborations, rock string quintet Electric 5, know a thing or two about captivating an audience.

  1. A wonderful interview. I’ve always loved the melding of classical with pop, rock or other genres (think “Nights in White Satin” or “Bittersweet Symphony” for example). A week ago, I saw jazz artist Diane Schuur perform with our local Coachella Valley Symphony, and it was fantastic.

  2. Pingback: Interview with Jazz Bassist Linda May Han Oh – Rearview Mirror

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