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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out of the Woods

Masha i Medvedi took Russia by storm with a sweet song about a girl who likes to dance. Now they've released their first album.

For Masha Makarova, a fairy tale is coming true: She's playing Goldilocks to the four bears.

Songwriter and vocalist for the upstart rock group Masha i Medvedi, or Masha and the Bears, the young woman from the provinces is largely responsible for the band's quick, nationwide success. Just over a year old, the group found a hit in its first single "Lyubochka" in March and released its debut album, "Solntseklyosh," last week.

Makarova truly looked the part of a short-cropped Goldilocks at a recent show at Sixteen Tons. Slight of build and just 20 years old, she was dwarfed on stage by Medvedi guitarists Vyacheslav Motylyov and Maxim Khomych, bassist Denis Petukhov and drummer Vyacheslav Kozyrev.

In an interview after the concert, Makarova said the group's name was a natural choice when she and one bear, Motylyov -- both from Krasnodar -- joined up with the three Muscovite bears in January 1997.

"There are two Russian fairy tales called 'Masha and the Bear' and 'The Three Bears,' but there is no such story as 'Masha and the Bears,'" she said. "So we decided to put these two together and create a real-life fairy tale."

A fifth-year journalism student at Krasnodar State University, Makarova met Oleg Nesterov when he was on tour with his Moscow group Megapolis in 1995. Nesterov accepted a tape of her songs, liked what he heard and, later, after Makarova came to Moscow, offered to produce Masha i Medvedi. While the band members collaborate on writing the music, it is Makarova who contributes the lyrics. At Nesterov's suggestion, however, Masha i Medvedi again reached back to their childhood when coming up with the song that became their first single.

Based on the children's poem by Soviet writer Agniya Barto, "Lyubochka" tells the story of a little girl who goes to parties, makes friends and turns out to be a wonderful dancer. The group places its own stamp on the song through Makarova's strong, smooth vocals and the Bears' rousing, pogo-provoking guitars for the inserted chorus, "Liebe, liebe, amore, amore, liebe, liebe, lyubov" -- a play on the Russian name Lyubov, or Love, in German and Italian.

"The song was really a joke to begin with," Makarova said. "But I'm happy that it's become so popular, and it produces a real energy when we play it at concerts."

Childhood and fairy tales are a recurring theme on the new album, and its title refers to a style of skirt popular when Makarova was growing up. On "Earthbound Angel," the narrator is a carefree girl who has gone out into the world only half-dressed and who suspects she may die of cold. Taken in and thawed out by her lover, she suspects, with equal nonchalance, that she may just die of laughter.

But despite the upbeat themes, the music is hardly sugary sweet. Even a love song like "Without You" contains bursts of driving guitar and vocals.

Nesterov said the fishbone symbol on the new album cover is meant to convey this idea of the group's hard edge despite their friendly name.

"Honey is too sweet and sticky for these bears," he said. "They need something more substantial, so they eat fish."

Makarova's lyrics find the perfect vehicle in her smooth, powerful voice. She makes frequent use of a long, drawn-out wailing style, alternately reminiscent of Indian musical films, Sinead O'Connor and, as more than a few people have noted, the Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan.

Makarova said she has too many favorite bands to name her direct influences but that she's been listening to the '80s gothic-rock band King Crimson of late.

Masha i Medvedi manage to change speeds both within songs and on the album as a whole, and Makarova accompanies the group on flute for a softer track titled "Dvornik." The experiment with softness fails, however, on the album's penultimate track, "Moskovskaya," where Makarova laments lost love but offers nothing in the way of musical excitement or insight. Despite a few misses, the group must be commended for its willingness to experiment.

And unlike the Beatles, who waited a few albums before turning to spiritual exploration, Masha i Medvedi have already made a pilgrimage to India, where they shot the "Lyubochka" video in front of the erotically sculptured temple at Khajuraho.

"We only went there to shoot the video, but we felt like we established a spiritual connection," said Makarova, "India gets into your brain and your mind."

The band members attempted to create a physical connection with India, too. They shaved their heads and donned yellow and orange Krishna clothing before performing for a growing crowd at the video shoot.

"We didn't see any other people with shaved heads the whole week we were there," she said, "They thought we were freaks."

Masha i Medvedi are attracting attention in Moscow, too. Alek Kasparov, general manager of EMI-affiliated SBA Gala Records, called the band a fresh addition to the Russian music scene.

"Their music is very melodic but ... it's not the typical sleazy pop Russia has a lot of," he said, "There aren't too many bands with female vocalists in Russia, and you can tell that Masha is intelligent."

Although he compared Masha i Medvedi's sound to that of the Cranberries or Radiohead, Mikhail Korunoi, a music critic at Europa Plus Radio, said the band isn't simply imitating Western trends.

"It's progress for Russian music," he said, "but we'll need time to see how far they'll take it."

Nesterov -- who also produces the groups Nogu Svelo and Mango Mango -- said he's dipping into a new market with Masha i Medvedi.

"I'm 37 and Masha's 20; she could be my daughter," he said, "They represent a new generation, and I learn a lot from them about things I'm not familiar with."

Dmitry Suchkov at Intermedia agency said Masha i Medvedi are getting a fair amount of play on radio stations around the country. While the catchy "Lyubochka" peaked in May, "Day-Night," "Without You" and "Reykjavik" were among the 100 most popular Russian and foreign songs at the beginning of July. As of last week, "Lyubochka" was still among Russkoye Radio's top 10 Russian singles.

"For a group that didn't have an album out until last week, this is very good," Suchkov said.

With the album release, the band has been actively touring, playing several gigs in Moscow, a place Makarova said she enjoys both because of its "tension and spirit" and big-city convenience.

"I like the fact that you can buy good music on the Arbat, and walk around listening to it on your walkman while drinking beer," she said.

Makarova, who spent part of her childhood in Lithuania and a good deal of time in Moscow, said she's been happy to escape the confines of the Russian regions. On mention of her home city, she grimaced and shuddered -- a reaction that seems to support the belief that Krasnodar is not the most musically progressive city on the planet.

Nesterov was optimistic about the band's future and said it will record it's second album this fall. At age 20, Makarova appears to have the world at her feet. She said she plans to complete her studies, but will see where music takes her.

Makarova played down the success the band has so far experienced, saying she's simply doing something she enjoys.

"I'm just an ordinary human being who came to this party to have fun," she said.