The new sound of music
These von Trapps are singing indie rock in Portland, not folk songs in Austria
The modern-day Trapp family singers were hanging out on the craggy patio of a Washington, D.C., café, each wearing some variation on skinny jeans, bangs and combat boots.
Melanie, 25, had wrapped herself in a leopard-print trench, while Sofi, 27, was clad in a cropped red leather jacket. Amanda, 24, was in head-totoe black. And then there was August, just 21, who let his hair do all the statement-making, the bleachedblond wisps of his bangs swooping over one eye, Bieber-style.
“What,” Amanda asked wryly. “You were expecting lederhosen?”
Well, uh, yeah. But could you blame us?
The musical foursome known as the von Trapps is the spawn of the wholesome, singing Austrian clan of The Sound of Music fame. Their grandfather, Werner, was one of those von Trapps, who skipped around the world in the 1930s and ’40s as the Trapp Family Singers, belting out madrigals and the folk songs of their native Austria for audiences shell-shocked by successive wars.
The older generation of singing von Trapps became the very loose source material for a Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway musical and then for one of the most-watched movies of all time.
But siblings Melanie, Sofi, Amanda and August are leaving behind the Austrian lullabies for something unexpected. They moved to Portland, Ore., to forge careers as indie-rockers. Ask them who they want to sound like and they’ll tick off names such as Fleet Foxes, Beach House and Sufjan Stevens.
In April, the von Trapps lobbed their first EP of original music, “Dancing in Gold,” out into the universe, where EPs are generally greeted like cosmic space junk. Unless, of course, your name is von Trapp.
In that case, four songs were enough to prompt a call from their agent wondering how they’d feel about maybe opening for Loretta Lynn in Washington.
So here they were, sipping coffee at U Street’s Lincoln Theatre, where the great-grandchildren of the Captain and Maria von Trapp would share a bill with the Coal Miner’s Daughter.
After immigrating to the United States in 1939, the Captain, Maria and the first generation of singing von Trapps settled in Stowe, a hilltop town in Vermont. They bought a farm and opened a ski resort, the Trapp Family Lodge.
They pursued other passions. By the time Maria’s memoir was adapted into the 1959 Broadway musical, and the fair-haired, porcelainskinned Julie Andrews was cast as the dark-featured matriarch a couple of years after that, the Trapp Family Singers had abandoned gigs for good. The von Trapps scattered, landing all over the country.
So Stefan von Trapp, Werner’s son, and his wife, Annie, didn’t have much interest in music, the kids say. “Our parents had no clue what it was to go on tour or have kids in the music industry,” August said.
It was dairy farmer Werner (the one who was re-envisioned as the blond, chubby-cheeked Kurt for the silver screen) who taught his grandchildren to sing on his visits to the family home in Montana. Stefan and Annie indulged them and ferried them to vocal lessons after that, the kids say. But taking all the children to a single lesson proved fateful: The young von Trapps became harmonizers, kinda like the old von Trapps.
And, of course, they already had the name. Doors open for von Trapps.
In 2001, the family was invited to sing at Ground Zero for firefighters on lunch breaks. It was the first time they’d left Montana for a gig. August was just 7, but soon they were getting requests from all over the world. These days, they’re under the wings of modern orchestral act Pink Martini and produced “Dancing in Gold,” with Israel Nebeker of the Portland band Blind Pilot.
At the Lincoln Theatre, where the four performers stood at their mikes and harmonized through a sparkly, if spare, 25-minute set, it wasn’t until Melanie announced they were the von Trapps that the audience began to shift in its seats and murmur. Of the von Trapps? When they were done, a few in the audience even rose to give them a standing ovation.
If the name opens doors, it can also bury the von Trapps under expectations.
“There are times when it has that nice ring of fate to it,” August says. “But we’re not trying to do what they did already.”
Among their sprawling clan these days, in fact, no one else seems to want to inherit the family business. So far, they’re the only ones who have wanted to use the name for their own musical group, although they did toy with other suggestions.
“There’s a whole generation of people for whom it was an annual event to tune into The Sound of Music,” said Thomas Lauderdale, founder of Pink Martini. He recalls that even he was “very curious to see what this new generation was like.”
At the Lincoln Theatre, they left the audience with one last song, which, Sofi announced with an expectant smile, was about a flower that grows in the Alps.
It was “Edelweiss.” And though the von Trapp elders never actually performed it — like “Do-Re-Mi,” it was pure musical fiction, written for the Broadway show — their hipster descendents didn’t mind indulging the fantasy a bit.
From left, Amanda, Melanie, August and Sofi von Trapp are descendants of the famous von Trapps.