SO THERE I was, on a stool in the kitchen of the Veltz family's Vienna home, watching the clan gather around one of those islands of counter space you see on cooking shows on PBS. Clockwise around the counter were daughter Laura, mom Jeannie, daughter Allison, dad Kenneth and son Drew, both of the guys holding guitars.
I was thinking, gee, this is kinda cute. Here's a family that's also a band. A band called Cecilia. And I'm in their kitchen and they're going to play for me. I expected . . . Oh, I don't know what I expected, but whatever it was, as soon as the Veltz family launched into their song "No Time," whatever expectations I had were demolished by the wondrous sound they made.
If you care at all for melody, harmony and good songs, you must go see Cecilia. If you want to let music do what it's supposed to do (fill your heart and soul and make you glad to be alive), you must go see Cecilia. Yeah, you might say, "It's pretty, maybe too pretty for my taste," but that's just because you're agloomy, fin de siecle sort of person who wallows in the cheap ironies of smarty-pants "modern rock" poseurs and have forgotten the simple pleasures of pop music.
If ever a group could explain those pleasures, it's Cecilia. Sitting on that stool, as the first chorus of "No Time" came around, I felt chills. Truly. It was one of those moments. The separate voices blended into some extraordinary whole, much bigger than the sum of the parts, and the pleasure the Veltzes all took in making that fine noise was evident in each of their radiant faces.
So I'm sitting there wondering how kids and parents can get along so well as to play music together, thinking either this is really creepy, like some self-contained cult, or else these are the coolest people. After spending time with them, I've decided that the Veltzes are in fact the coolest people. I liked them so much I asked them to open for my own band recently and felt it an honor to share the stage with them.
How did Cecilia happen?
"It was kind of a natural thing," says mom Jeannie. "We were always singing and harmonizing, in the car, on the road. We'd make up songs about our pets. We must have had 50 songs we'd sing to our dog."
Kenneth has been a musician since he can remember, hanging out as a boy in New York with his dad, a jazz drummer. "That's my first recollection of him, me going to his big band gigs as a little kid and sitting behind his drum throne." Kenneth became an accomplished drummer himself, also picking up guitar along the line, and was insistent on following his muse. "I knew I didn't want to do what my dad did, which was give up playing music and try to go into business, something he wasn't cut out for. The joy was gone from his life once he gave up music."
At a friend's wedding in 1974, he met Jeannie. She'd written a song for the wedding and asked Kenneth to accompany her on it. "Music brought us together," says Kenneth, "and has kept us together in some real ways." Married a year after meeting, the Veltz couple performed together in a number of bands and were able to keep music a big part of their lives once the kids started popping up on the scene. Kenneth became a composer of scores for documentaries, a vocation that brought the Veltzes to Washington.
As the kids grew up and showed their talent, Kenneth says he never pushed them. "All of the kids had different strengths and different directions. We just let them develop, trying not to become stage moms and dads."
Last year, Kenneth decided to get back into playing drums. He'd call up bands with ads looking for drummers and schedule a meeting. "We went around to these auditions," says Jeannie, "and nothing was really clicking. One evening we were driving home and we started thinking, `Boy, our kids would be fabulous. These people we're hearing aren't any better than they are. They can do this, singing and playing guitar.' We came home and basically said, `Why don't you start a band?' And since Ken had always written [songs], it was natural."
So the kids started working up some of the tunes their father had written. "At first it was the three of them," says Jeannie. "But then they asked Ken to come on board on guitar and drums. They'd be practicing in the kitchen, and I'd always be around doing something, and I'd naturally just start finding a harmony part, and singing it in the background, and finally they just said, `Why don't you be in the band?' I fought it, worried that the element of `mom' would inhibit them, make them do something or not do something, but we started practicing together and it just seemed to make sense."
Once they'd worked up two sets of songs, Cecilia went looking for a place to perform. They pitched a gig to That's Amore, the Vienna restaurant where son Drew was working as a host. Their regular appearances there started drawing big crowds. They recorded some demos in their house and started mailing them out. A buzz grew.
Kenneth lined up a trip to Nashville and got Cecilia a showcase at the fabled Bluebird Cafe. That appearance led to 13 others in 14 days and a rash of offers from song publishers and record companies. Those deals are all on the table with lawyers looking at them, and no one in the family seems at all intimidated by the prospect of imminent fame and fortune.
"Everyone is up for it," says Jeannie. "We're like five racehorses waiting for the gun to go off." Drew seconds that: "I can't wait to be able to do this all day, every day. I can't wait to get out on the road." Drew is 21, and plays a subtle and absolutely right style of guitar, gently holding up the vocal parts, weaving in and out of them. He spent some time in the local ska band the Shenanigans, but says he's pretty happy in the family context. But why doesn't he sing? "Well, they say I have a good voice, but I think the guitar can make all the sounds I need to make."
Youngest of the family, 17-year-old Allison, is perhaps the most fired up about all this. "I'm very ambitious, I won't deny it," she says. "I was never satisfied with singing in my room, and I always wanted to be in front of people." She sang along to Mariah Carey records, able to follow that diva's vocal tricks perfectly by the time she was 13 (according to her mom), but she has developed her own style that's closer to Alison Krauss than Mariah. It's a powerful voice, but with plenty of control and technique. Allison says there may be solo projects farther down the line, but says "there's great comfort in singing with your family."
She shares most lead vocal duties with her sister, 19-year-old Laura. Hard to believe, but Laura says she used to sound like Ethel Merman. "I was doing lots of musical theater in high school, and was used to over-dramatizing everything, so I had to learn to sing for the song, in this family context." Not many 19-year-olds cite '50s Las Vegas stars Louis Prima and Keely Smith as primary influences, but Laura does, saying their vocal blending helped her learn to sing with her sister. She's begun writing songs as well, adding the lovely "Beautiful Blue" to the band's set list. The bottom line, Laura says, is that "everyone has a part. We're all minimalists, really, and we contribute to something greater."
And that "something greater" is something great, a blend of folk, rock and pop, filled with hooks that don't leave your head, and lyrics that can get powerfully emotional but not maudlin. "I don't really think of the fact that my dad wrote these songs," Allison says. "I think he wrote them out of emotions he felt, but it never really seems like the songs are about him, or about him and my mom. If it felt that way, I guess it might seem weird to be singing them, but they feel a lot broader than that."
So what's next? "I'd like to see us signed by November," Kenneth says. "And once that record deal is in place, I'd love to get in the studio and record something that will come out in the spring of the new millennium. I think that'd be cool. Long term, I'd like Cecilia to put out five, six, seven records, become some kind of force in the music world. Really, I just want us to get busy and do our thing."
As for the name, look it up on your list of patron saints. As for me, in 10 years I'm going to be able to say I sat in Cecilia's kitchen and heard them sing.
Catch Cecilia Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. during the Clarendon Day street festival on Wilson Boulevard in front of the Clarendon Metro stop, Sunday evening for two sets at the Metro Cafe (1522 14th St. NW; 202/518-7900), Oct. 22 at That's Amore (150 Branch Rd. SE, Vienna; 703/281-7777) and Oct. 27 at IOTA (2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703/522-8340).
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Cecilia, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)