ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
To a new album now from singer Inara George. She's best known to pop fans as the voice of the indie rock duo The Bird and the Bee. Her new solo record does not sound like indie rock. It's called "An Invitation," and it's a collaboration with an arranger who has been in the business for decades: Van Dyke Parks. Tom Vitale has this story of the collaboration.
TOM VITALE: Inara George and Van Dyke Parks go way back - way back. In fact, Parks was in Baltimore to greet Inara the day she was born in 1974. Parks was a close friend and collaborator of Inara's father, Lowell George, front man for the 1970s rock band Little Feet.
(Soundbite of song, "Spanish Moon")
Mr. LOWELL GEORGE (Lead Singer, Little Feet): (Singing) Down the street, I heard such a sorrowful tune coming from the place they call the Spanish Moon.
VITALE: Lowell George died when Inara was only 5 years old, but Van Dyke Parks stayed close to the family. For George, the 65-year-old Parks is like a wise old uncle.
Ms. INARA GEORGE (Singer, Songwriter): He knows so much about so many different things, whether it's composers or actresses or inventors or Plato, I mean, it -just sitting with him for a period of time, you always have a sense that you've come away knowing something more.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. VAN DYKE PARKS (Musician, Composer, Arranger): The greatest American pianist who ever lived is Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He was born in New Orleans in 1829, lived for 40 years. The night of June 6, 1857, Gottschalk sailed from Havana to the island of St. Thomas and skirted the north shore of Haiti.
VITALE: Parks' recorded interests have certainly been diverse. Over the past 40 years, Parks has written, arranged and played keyboards for everyone from The Byrds and The Grateful Dead to Ringo Starr, Judy Collins, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and U2. Parks is perhaps best known for his work in the 1960s with the Beach Boys.
(Soundbite of song, "Surf's Up")
THE BEACH BOYS (Rock Band): (Singing) A diamond necklace played the pawn, hand in hand, some drummed along, oh, to a handsome man and baton.
VITALE: But it was a movie that ultimately led Inara George to call Van Dyke Parks and ask him to arrange for her.
Mr. PARK: Inara came to me and she said, I just came out of that movie "La Vie En Rose" with Edith Piaf. And she was standing there, she didn't have to flail at a guitar or even lug it around to sing those songs. She just had an orchestra do it for her. Would you do that for me? And I said, yes, I will.
So Inara George sent Van Dyke Parks a dozen songs she recorded at her home on her computer with just her voice and guitar, and Parks went to work.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. GEORGE: (Singing) Wanna find the bottom of my heart. Wanna be alone until I'm lonely. Wanna lie down. Wanna be still, modify my will. Wanna be a kite and fly above your house, and then drop down into your room.
VITALE: George says she never realized that Parks was going to write arrangements that would precisely mimic the phrasing on the demos she sent him until she walked into the recording studio.
Ms. GEORGE: I was totally blown away because any inflection that I had done before, Van Dyke had sort of hinted to that. And so singing these songs became really simple and really kind of exciting because the orchestra was always sort of telling me what to do or telling me what was coming.
(Soundbite of song, "Duet")
Ms. GEORGE: (Singing) Have you ever seen the ocean? It's so much darker at the bottom. Hold my feet to the fire. Wanting something that I'm giving, a lot can happen to the living, back to back, but hand to hand.
VITALE: The 28-piece orchestra on "An Invitation" includes 17 strings, five woodwinds and a French horn. Van Dyke Parks plays accordion and piano.
Mr. PARKS: I wanted a string section that's big enough to sound small. You can't do that with a trio or a quartet. It's in the face. Remember "Eleanor Rigby"? Larger string sections, as the great film composer Alfred Newman told me once in a car, smoking his last cigarette, he turned to me and he said the quietest sound in the world is a philharmonic. I believed him, and I've heard that, that there's a point at which strings can disappear.
(Soundbite of song, "Duet")
Ms. GEORGE: (Singing) All the words sound so accidental, rise and fall like an old balloon. Oh, my words. And my marble-heavy mind, wasting time.
VITALE: Inara George says it was refreshing to create music that was, in her words, organic, with acoustic instruments and without the electronic overdubbing and sweetening she's used to with her group, The Bird and the Bee.
(Soundbite of music)
THE BIRD AND THE BEE (Rock Group): (Singing) Would you please clap your hands. Pardon me, the music gets moving.
VITALE: Inara George and Van Dyke Parks are not sure whether their old fans will go for their new music.
Ms. GEORGE: I'm sure that I'll alienate some people, but I don't know who the audience is, but I think there are plenty of people that are interested in hearing things that are challenging.
Mr. PARKS: No, it's not The Beach Boys. And, no, it isn't The Bird and the Bee. I think that that will be a problem soon forgotten.
VITALE: Van Dyke Parks and Inara George are talking to concert promoters in Europe and Australia, hoping to perform the songs on "An Invitation" on tour with a full orchestra later this year.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.