Beantown rocker kicks up her heels like nobody’s business.
BY FRED MILLS
The BLURT staff put our heads – and ears – together and we
have the latest pick for our Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept Secret”: it’s Alice Austin, from Boston
(and soon to be from Los Angeles).
She describes herself as “indie-rock with
spurs,” and that’s an apt phrase – in her compelling vocals we hear a little
bit of Neko Case, a little bit of Jenny Lewis, hints of P.J. Harvey and Holly
Golightly, all wrapped up in a steamytwangysexycool package. Meanwhile, Austin also plays some
stomping electric and slide guitar while incorporating stylophone lo-fi drum
loops, so random comparisons to White Stripes, Black Keys and the Pack A.D. are
not totally offbase, either.
Last year Austin released her album To A Star in the Yard, which she
performed, recorded and produced by herself. Prior to doing the solo thing she
played with Boston
outfits The Stark Raving Mad and the Lavas (one critically acclaimed album,
2007’s Wall To Wall). Before that she was based in
Burlington, VT, where she played with Zola Turn, issuing 1999’s Ninja Jane and landing a short-lived
deal with L.A.’s Brick Red Records (a subsidiary of Gold Circle Entertainment)
before myriad band pressures and industry vicissitudes ultimately prompted a
name change, to Queen Tangerine, which cut the 2002 album Queen Tangerine with famed producer Keith Cleversley.
She therefore brings over two decades’
worth of experience to the table, and while Austin may essentially be a “new”
act operating under her own name, she’s clearly got the hunger and the savvy to
make things happen for herself as she prepares to make the big move to the West
Coast. Based on the strength of the material showcased on To A Star in the Yard – which includes such gems as the whooping,
avant-Delta blooze “Graveyard Before Dark” and the barrelhouse punk of “Sharp
Side of the Knife” – we wouldn’t expect anything less from her.
BLURT: What got you
into music initially?
My mother is a singer in a jazz band, and my father was a guitar player and
recording engineer. As a kid, I suffered through many a sleepless night while
my mom and dad (in bands together, and separately) had band practice. I also
went to just about every gig, since career musicians don’t really get paid well
enough to afford fancy (or safe, for that matter) babysitters. I think I
learned how to sing with my mom when she had me pausing and restarting the
turntable as she was trying to decipher lyrics to Motown songs and jazz
standards. We sang along the whole time, and I learned the harmonies.
You hail from Burlington, Vermont
– Phish, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Who else is from there? What was
the music scene like when you were starting out?
I was playing in bands in Vermont a long time ago. Probably 12 years
ago was when I first started… I loved Club Toast, and Club Metronome. They
both got lots of fantastic touring acts en route to Montreal. I remember seeing Pavement, the
Throwing Muses, Frank Black, Superdrag, Dandy Warhols, and great local bands
like the Pants, the Chrome Cowboys, Envy, Lindy Pear, The Red Telephone, Chin
Ho!, the Fags, Wide Wail, Invisible Jet, and so many others that were probably
not known outside of Vermont. It was a pretty good time for Vermont… and there are loads of incredibly
talented musicians and artists there who just live to play and keep it real.
Zola Turn and your
frustrating big label experience with Brick Red Records: the band had already
amassed a decent national rep, so is this a cautionary tale, or just another
story of an indie artist getting the shaft?
The ugly and honest answer is that I completely sabotaged
the opportunity. They set us up really well. Two records, the full budget that
all bands dream of, complete with van, gear, touring, stylists, etc. I was more
of a punk than I had a right to be. I would give the world for that now, but I
was young and dumb. Brick Red signed an all-female band. That was what they
were marketing, it was an angle for them. However, I felt like we were seen as
a novelty act and no one would ever take us seriously as musicians. I was so
sick of the gender identity, so I brought a couple of dudes on board for our
label showcase at SXSW. Brick Red was visibly mortified, which wasn’t really my
intention, but that was the beginning of the end. They really didn’t give us
the shaft, they were just trying to find an angle for us and it wasn’t working
for me. Hence, all the name changes. Just looking for a new identity.
How did you wind up
in Boston? It
has a rep for having a highly competitive scene…
I love the Middle East and TT’s, and lots of
great bands here. I needed to get out of Vermont
because my attitude sucked and I felt like an idiot for blowing the whole
record deal. I moved to Boston
with Jeff Moxley, who was a guitar player in Zola Turn and Queen Tangerine. We
started a new band called the Lavas, which was refreshing and I had high hopes
for. We barely existed outside of the home recording studio, due to typical
health and personality dysfunctions, but wrote a great record. Since then, I’ve
been playing solo and met lots of awesome folks who have been encouraging and
helpful. I have to say, though, there aren’t enough venues for all of the
bands, and that is why Boston
has a bit of a back-stabbing reputation amongst scenesters. I have never been
cool enough to hang with the cool kids, so it hasn’t bothered me… well, I AM
moving to Los Angeles
in a couple of weeks… but music is only part of that. Sunshine in the winter
doesn’t suck much, either.
Tell us a little more
about the Lavas and your other Boston band, the Stark Raving Mad.
The Stark Raving Mad was a band I played with for not even a
year, but a cool one nonetheless. One of our rehearsal recordings came on my
mp3 shuffle the other day… funny. We sounded pretty garagey, Velvet
Underground-y. The guitar player, Sean Toohey, and the bass player, Julia Austin
– sister – now live back in Vermont,
so it was impossible to progress. The Lavas I would love to do again, and may
try to write a record in LA. It will satisfy my riffrock needs. Jeff Moxley is
there, and if we can be in the same room without throwing instruments at each
other I’m sure we can do a rocking record. On another spectrum in LA, I have an
emerging band called Grand Isle (name of a town in Vermont where we met) I’ve been writing with
over the past year, which has more of a psychedelic country feel to it. There
are 2 singers, myself and Craig Gurwich of Summer at Shatter Creek and now Gold
Why did you decide to
go the solo route? On your website you mention that you like the spontaneity
aspect of it.
No, it’s actually not my favorite thing, but it seemed more
positive to put it that way. In Boston,
it seems like all of the really great players have been around the block and
have a full plate… kids, houses, higher education, you know, jobs and stuff.
All that stuff makes a great musician, in a way – it’s real life experience,
feeling. Sure is hard to have a band practice, though.
How did the To A
Star in the Yard album come together?
That was one of those survival records. I needed the
distraction of learning how to record myself and fake it on the drums. I was
homeless for a year and spent most of my time recording on my laptop, which
would have made me want to vomit a few years back… but oh-sooo-convenient. I had
a bad home life situation and had to start from scratch. I got rid of all of my
gear except for what I could fit in my car, got rid of that thing too, and with
a little help from my friends, landed on my feet. That’s a decent record, and
I’m proud of it. As far as promoting it, I played a lot of shows around Boston
and the Northeast US, did a tour down to Austin, TX for SXSW last March, and
I’m going to keep working it when I get to California.
You call your solo
gigs “a one-woman rock show” – does that mean you’re playing multiple
The “one woman rock-show” is just to differentiate from
being a folkie. I have nothing against folkies, I rather like them, but my
music is edgy and electric for the most part. A lot of people just assume that
solo shows are acoustic singer-songwriter folk, so it’s a very basic
description. Some of my tunes are garage-bluesy and countrified, but the
intention is to blow off a little steam.
Lastly, with all the
changes that have gone down in the music industry since you were starting out,
what would you tell a young girl who’s thinking about getting into music?
I would tell young musicians of any gender to live a life
that is not all about playing gigs and being self-absorbed. Poke your head up
out of the gopher hole for some perspective and you will make glorious music
and a live a life with some meaning. The world doesn’t owe you anything.
definitely find a job that you can learn to love or at least appreciate.