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Del Cielo is all-girl—and not just in the obvious way. At a Foods Not Bombs benefit show at American University, members Andrea Lisi, Basla Andolsun, and Katy Otto stand out in the stone-faced college crowd, dancing unabashedly in the brightly lit lounge to between-set tunes and singing along when the other bands perform, seeming more like teenyboppers than last-minute headliners. As other concertgoers indifferently plant themselves on the floor or have a smoke while they wait for their favorite group, the Del Cielo women bounce around the tiny venue, squealing hellos to familiar faces and taking pure delight in the scene.

When Del Cielo finally takes the stage, though, it’s clear why the group was chosen to wrap up the night, despite its being a CD-release party for fellow indie-rockers Paper Doll. The members of the band, whose name translates to “of heaven,” transform from ultimate fangirls to what’s promised on the show’s flier: “women who rock.”

Andolsun is newly the coolest person in the suddenly energized room, supporting each song with her confident bass and silky backup vocals. The slight, often-quiet Lisi likewise morphs into an indie-rock diva, accompanying her lyrics with Ani DiFranco-esque facial expressions and rockin’ guitar that brings the crowd to its feet. And drummer Otto is pure fire: Pounding her kit with enough force to send a cymbal flying, she mouths the band’s lyrics with a fury that makes you think they were culled from her private diary.

Even so, a post-concert listen to Del Cielo’s debut CD reaffirms the women’s offstage personae. For one thing, Wish and Wait features a studio sound that is way more nice-girl than women-who-rock. For another, the disc is full of sad-sack, the-way-we-were breakup songs. Otto, for one, doesn’t see a problem: “Seventy percent of our songs are about boys,” she announces.

Del Cielo hasn’t been making music together for long, but you might have seen its members around. Andolsun, 23, is currently also in Beauty Pill, an “eclectic” postpunk quintet that also includes ex-Smart Went Crazy frontman Chad Clark and Ryan Nelson, former drummer of the Most Secret Method. From 1999 to 2001, she played in the Manassas punk group Flickerflame, a project that spurred the Virginia native to leave school in New Mexico and settle in Richmond. “I really wanted to be playing music, and I couldn’t seem to get anything started in Albuquerque,” she says. “I visited my friend at [Virginia Commonwealth University] while I was home over spring break and thought that Richmond would be a fun place to live, because there’s so much going on there musically, politically, and socially.”

The choice proved fortuitous. “Basla lived in the apartment above me, and she came down to talk to me one night when I was playing guitar on the porch,” says current College Park resident Lisi, 22.

“I heard somebody playing guitar and I was like, Oh my god, that sounds amazing,” Andolsun interjects. “I never heard a woman play guitar so well, and I loved her voice, so I introduced myself.” The two ended up playing together in a short-lived, never-named project; they met fellow College Parker Otto at a party about a month later. Andolsun ended up filling in when the bass player for Otto’s own band quit, and the three got along so well they decided to form Del Cielo in January 2001.

“We were all really interested in playing with other women, but we didn’t really have that much in mind for the band until we worked together and grew together to develop our own sound and chemistry,” Otto admits. “It was something fun to do, and then it became a whole lot more as we were spending so much time on it, experiencing the same successes and failures and learning to count on each other for creative outlets as well as emotional support.”

The group played its inaugural show in Richmond in May 2001 and released its first recording, a split 7-inch with Colorado band Sin Desires Marie, a little over a year later. Wish and Wait, which the band recorded at Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios last June, will be available from New York’s Eyeball Records on April 8.

Otto, 24, a longtime participant in the D.C.-area punk scene, has also played in Bald Rapunzel, Homage to Catalonia, and the Blood of Christian Children. She has quickly become Del Cielo’s driving force behind the scenes as well as onstage: A co-founder of the local label Exotic Fever, Otto finds the idea of a publicist “silly and alienating,” so she tends to take care of promotion herself—though she insists that Del Cielo is a “consensus-based band.”

“It is important that we run our band in a feminist way, so I don’t do anything without the full knowledge, input, and approval of my two best friends,” Otto explains. “However, since I run my label and set up shows, I also have those sorts of resources….We are very lucky to be part of a still-thriving DIY community, and we try our best to be participants in that and not just take from it.”

Giving back is a concept integral to Del Cielo, and the group devotes much of its energy on- and offstage to a variety of causes. When Otto isn’t practicing or touring, she keeps busy as a grant writer with the Empower Program, a D.C.-based group that works with young people in an effort to end home- and school-based violence and psychological abuse. She also helps organize the Visions in Feminism Conference, a program of workshops and entertainment focusing on modern feminism presented annually at the University of Maryland, College Park. Del Cielo also sometimes holds bake sales at shows or finds other “fun” ways to help raise money for various local youth- and women-centered foundations.

Even Exotic Fever, a project with a capricious origin, quickly became a vehicle for helping others. “My friend Bonnie [Schlegel, of Bald Rapunzel] heard a band that she really liked, and she asked the guys in [record label] Resin to put it out,” Otto says. “And when they wouldn’t, she was like, Whatever! I’m going to start a record label!

“At the same time,” Otto continues, “my friend Sara [Klemm] was putting together a benefit comp for a books-to-prison project, and the three of us decided to put that out together. So [the label] kind of started out as a joke, but then we thought it was really fun. Now we’re really serious about it, and it means a lot to all of us. One of the things that I’m proud of is that Bonnie used to work at the Vietnam Veterans of America organization and we put out a benefit comp for them, with bands like Q and Not U and Death Cab for Cutie covering Vietnam-era songs.”

In its two-and-a-half years of operation, Exotic Fever has given a home to such punk bands as Light the Fuse and Run, Delta Dart, and Circle Takes the Square. With a goal to “transform the cultural face of this city,” Otto & Co. also try to support writers and visual artists, even hosting a projects forum on the label’s Web site to help creative types find each other—whether you’d like to promote your ‘zine under “Writing” or, er, a particularly inspiring stripper in “Miscellaneous.”

“A lot of people think the label’s a porn site,” Otto says.

Despite its heavy involvement in the D.C. scene, Del Cielo still finds time to tour extensively. A current jaunt is taking the group to Massachusetts, Ottawa, and Ohio. The women are quick to point out that their friendship is key to maintaining the pace.

“I couldn’t imagine being in a band with people who weren’t two of my best friends,” Lisi says. “I think it’s really evident in the music we play. Practices are so easy, because we are all on the same page, and touring is the most fun I’ve ever had, because I love being around Katy and Basla and think they are such amazing people. I think the three of us have a very strong connection that makes our music even better.”

“It never seems like work,” Otto adds. “We have just as much fun in our van goofing off as we do making solid decisions about songwriting, recording, and performing.”

So far, there’s no firm timeline for a second album, though half of it is already written. “Andrea’s a songwriting machine,” Otto says. “Our band could never play all the songs that she has.” For now, the group has released a second 7-inch with the now-disbanded Kill the Man Who Questions, and it sprinkles its live sets with unrecorded material. “We’ll play songs at our shows that I haven’t finished,” Lisi says. “I figure they can’t really understand what I’m saying anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

Though all three members of Del Cielo cite accepted indie influences such as Sleater-Kinney and Discount when describing their pop-punk sound, Lisi admits that she’s a “true radio geek at heart, always writing love songs.” Also admired is local hardcore band Majority Rule: “I think we all love them because we identify with the way they run their band as a DIY entity, and also how they structure music and cross a lot of genres,” Otto says. However, she adds, “it might be of note that we finally decided on a cover song to work on: a Gin Blossoms song.”

Still, Andolsun, Lisi, and Otto draw their radio-listening line somewhere: “Punk” princess Avril Lavigne gets a thumbs-down. “I don’t like her attitude about women,” Andolsun says. “She said she doesn’t like hanging out with girls, that she was too cool to hang out with them.”

“She better get used to hanging out with girls,” Lisi adds, “’cause that’s who all her fans are!” CP