Lisa Dank: Seattle’s compelling and polarizing pop star

High Horse by Lisa Dank

Juliane Popelka has created a rarity among Seattle’s music scene: a bona fide pop star.

Sure there’s been the pitchy, bad-hair-day-pop of Sanjaya and the excellent electro-pop beatboxing of Blake Lewis, but those two mostly gained fame thanks to reality television. Popelka is doing it by herself and in the process she has become the architect of one of the scene’s most compelling characters.

Popelka’s pop star is a self-made beast that blends Lady GaGa visuals with “Justify My Love”-era Madonna lyrical content making for a shocking and entertaining audio and visual treat. Chances are you’ve never heard of Popelka, but if you’ve been paying attention to local music you’ve already figured out by now that her pop star alter ego is Lisa Dank.

On stage Lisa Dank is an uninhibited force to be reckoned with complete with a commanding stage presence. Her shows include elaborate stagewear, props (including a giant fake penis and an animal’s jawbone she uses as a percussive instrument), backup singers and dancers accompanying her songs about sex, drugs and partying. She jumps into the crowd, writes on the floor, grinds on audience members and demands your attention.

Yes a lot of what Lisa Dank is doing has been done before, but it’s not being done right now and it’s unlike most everything happening in Seattle. This has made Lisa Dank’s stage shows notorious spectacles that are well worth checking out. Her next performance will be at Ear Candy’s Birthday Bash 2010 at Nectar Lounge Sunday ($6, 8 p.m.) and it will be her last local show before she drops her 13-track debut album on April 20 which is tentatively titled Baker’s Dozen.

“I’ve been told a lot that seeing Lisa Dank live reminds people of theatre and that’s the direction I think I want to continue towards. I want to make each show a performance, not just me singing and dancing,” she said. “I have people that come to every show and I want to start making it more like an ongoing, evolving show, so every time someone goes to see Lisa Dank they will be getting a different experience.”

Popelka considers her music, along with the music of locals like Queerbait!, Sap’n and others, to be a part of Seattle’s “fourth wave.”

So what exactly is the fourth wave?

“It’s underground pop music. I’m not talking about pop music that you hear on the radio. We’re talking about some of the stuff you don’t talk about in pop music,” explained Popelka. “It’s taking that four-four beat and that 80s dance melody and talking about things like smoking weed, zombies, werewolves, t–s and stuff like that.”

For those who need to catch up, the third wave was about local hip hop evolving from backpack rapping to participatory feel-good party rhymes. The general vibe of the fourth wave involves stepping up the third wave’s party atmosphere by having an emphasis on pop and incorporating a stage show that can come across as performance art, which fits well with Lisa Dank’s origins story.

As a child living in California Popelka, which means Cinderella in Czech, grew up a repressed Catholic living in California. Her parents would screen the lyrics of the music she listened to and at one point they were shocked to hear her singing along to “Like A Virgin” even though their daughter was a card-carrying member of the Madonna fan club.

“They were like ‘Stop signing that. We can’t have you do that anymore because you don’t know what you’re singing about,’” Popelka recalled. “They were right, I was like, five or eight and I was signing along to Madonna.”

Later she moved to Seattle for college, attended the University of Washington, spent time living in South America, and then quit her day job as an accountant to focus on music. She has since created her own pop Cinderella story of sorts, going from an unknown opening act to a headliner of club gigs in less than a year and that early encounter with Madge’s music might have molded what would become Lisa Dank. Or at least possibly planted some marketing ideas in Popelka’s impressionable mind.

“I know that people don’t expect to hear a woman singing about the types of things I sing about,” she said. “I know it’s all about the shock value and it works. It’s totally a marketing tactic, but you know it’s been working. I think going out there and saying what I say on stage is one of the things I am doing right and doing well,” she said.

Along with being one of the most compelling characters in the scene – Popelka is quick to emphasize her alter ego is a character (“In real life I don’t really openly talk about all the things I sing about,” she said.)– Lisa Dank is also one of the most polarizing figures in local music.

A recent preview of her upcoming Ear Candy show in the Seattle Weekly declared her popularity “has more to do with showmanship than actual musical ability. Her vocal control is hit-or-miss, and some of her songs are ridiculous enough to make you cringe.”

Those definitely aren’t kind words, but the same preview also goes on to state “moments of true pop musicianship do shine through the cracks” and that “Dank could transform herself into a female answer to Kid Cudi.” So there is some recognition given to Dank’s ability to entertain and the potential she possess.

“I’m not a professional. I don’t have the training. I just go out there and do my best. I don’t have a team of people like the Lady GaGas and Britney Spears of the world do,” Popelka said. “I didn’t go to school for music. I wasn’t allowed to study art. I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m off key sometimes during my shows, but you know, it’s not for every song. I chose to do this and I’m working my a– off to be good at it.”

While she acknowledges her weaknesses she also plays to her strengths by always working to evolve her stage show.

“I’m always driven to perform and I always try bringing something to the point where it’s almost like it’s offensive but you will remember it,” she said. “I want to give people an experience. If you go to a Lisa Dank show you won’t soon forget it.”

Social Networking by Lisa Dank

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