By Greg Toland
Varlet is a study in contradiction.
Their songs are chippy and quaint, yet the lyrics are X-rated. Their singer was an American Idol star, yet is now treasured by hipsters that hate television. Their keyboard player was a classically trained musician, but dropped out to become a rocker (he’s also gay and plays in metal bands).
“Varlet likes to write controversial songs, songs that are borderline offensive, yet happy,” said front-woman Lilly Scott, who began singing at the tender age of three, took up piano at four, and by five was singing the national anthem at Invesco Field. “I’ve always liked intense lyrics. I write songs that mean something personal to me, but could be interpreted differently by other people. They usually end up being pretty provocative.”
Thankfully for the censors over at FOX, Scott stuck to classic covers during her 2010 American Idol appearances, making it to the Top 16 before being eliminated after Simon Cowell referred to her selection of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” as “a risky thing to do.”
“You hear people talk about ‘it,’ and you’ve got ‘it,’” Ellen Degeneres told Scott after an earlier performance of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “I forgot we were even in a singing competition, I was just a fan, in a seat, watching an amazing performance. By far the best performance of the night.”
After her Idol elimination, Scott appeared on Ellen’s talk show, where she received enthusiastic praise from the queen of daytime television. Yet those Hollywood credits didn’t transfer to the Denver music scene when Scott returned home to her band Varlet, which she’d been playing with since the age of 17.
“I love the Denver music scene,” said Scott, “everyone’s really rad and extremely talented.”
If anything, Scott’s American Idol performance was more of a hindrance to Varlet than a leg-up. Denver scenesters are very suspicious of a musician’s corporate industry success, leading many to disavow Varlet contemporaries like Tennis and The Lumineers after their national recognition. Though the members of Varlet have maintained a strong following in their hometown, performing at local summer festivals like Westword Music Showcase and The Denver Post’s Underground Music Showcase. In the fall of 2011, the band released their debut EP, The Drifter.
“I feel a lot of support in the music scene, support I wouldn’t get if I was a quarterback on a football team,” said keyboard player Vaughn McPherson on being openly gay in the Denver indie-rock scene.
Like Scott, McPherson began playing instruments when he was barely out of his toddler years. The melody bug stuck with him through his high school years, leading to his studying classical music at Metro State – yet the world of musical academia soon began to conflict with McPherson’s inclinations to rock out.
“I was living a double-life,” McPherson said. “I would wake up at seven, go to classes, then around eight in the evening meet up with the band and be in the studio until around two, then get up the next morning and do it again, heading to class reeking of whiskey.”
When the opportunity presented itself to join Lilly Scott in Varlet – along with Will Duncan, David Scott and Cole Rudy – McPherson could finally put his formal training of classical music into the informal world of rock shows, lending an age-old sophistication to Varlet’s seedy, bar-culture sound.
Increasingly, Denver’s indie-rock scene has been filled with gay-identified musicians, such as Ian Cooke, Jen Korte and Joshua Novak. Yet while previous generation’s LGBT icons would militantly put their sexuality at the forefront of their public persona (i.e. Boy George; K.D. Lang), today’s hipster homos see their persuasions as more incidental to who they are, rather than the singularly defining aspect of their character.
“I am out and proud of my sexuality,” McPherson said. “But that makes up so little of my personality.”
Varlet’s EP, ‘The Drifter,’ is available for download on iTunes and bandcamp, as well as for purchase at record stores around town. The band is currently in the studio recording their full-length album, which will be released in March, 2013.