My favorite musicians are women. Who’s the coolest member of the Pixies? Kim Deal! You don’t even have to think about it for a second. And my favorite genre is indie rock. Indie is not major label, and not pop enough to score strings of giant hits. The term is frequently applied to punk-lineage garage-y guitar bands, but not exclusively.
The past few years I’ve discovered many indie chick rockers and all-female bands. Here are some highlights. This (not comprehensive!) list showcases indie women who play guitar or bass, either solo or in bands, who have been active in the past five years. Therefore many of my classic faves have been excluded — for instance a suite of 1980s and ’90s rockers. I will write about them one day, but here the focus is on contemporary artists.
My descriptions are fleshed out with links to music videos, interviews, rig rundowns, and live performances. This part one of two, and I plan to give Duluthians their own essay in part three. Here goes — some of my indie rock guitar goddess she-roes:
Vagabon is the stage name of Laetitia Tamko. Her Wikipedia entry describes her as a “Cameroonian-American autodidact multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and music producer based in New York City.” I love autodidact multi-instrumentalists.
Vagabon’s music encompasses many styles; the Village Voice described it as “freak-folk” in 2016. I would characterize her sound as one of understated power with unique arrangements. She creates quiet, serious songs with atmosphere and warm, velvety vocals. The Vagabon NPR Tiny Desk Concert conveys this well. Her lyrics are sensitive and direct with the 100 percent authenticity that makes indie musicians so valuable. The songs she writes are luminous and very sad, almost too melancholy for me to listen to very many in a row. I also have this problem with Phoebe Bridgers and Julia Jacklin: I want to listen to them all the time but they are so sad it makes me sad. But I cannot stop listening to Vagabon’s sleeper hit “Water Me Down” with its electronic melodies and positively mesmerizing music video. All of her music videos are exceptional. She is a thoughtful performer. I would also direct your attention to this beautiful track she landed on the soundtrack to the movie “Antebellum.”
Laura Lee of Khruangbin
Lee is the bassist of the Houston, Texas trio Khruangbin (pronounced KRUNG-bin which means “airplane” in Thai). This band was apparently formed at Lee’s suggestion, with her two friends Mark Speer and Donald “DJ” Johnson.
Khruangbin is one of my favorite new discoveries, and being a Houston native (I try not to brag about it) I feel a weird loyalty to the group. Its origin story is fun: Speer had a guitar gig for a tour with Yppah who was also looking for a bassist. Speer taught Lee to play bass over six months, then she nailed the audition. After the tour she approached Speer and said, “Let’s start a band of our own, because I want to quit my job and do this forever.”
In Khruangbin, DJ lays down break beats, Lee composes melodic bass lines over top of them, then Speer plays incandescent “Thai funk”-inspired guitar on top of that, and then they refine it in their practice space which is the Speer family barn in rural Texas. The result is a highly original sound that is hard to fit into a genre; “Thai funk” is the term used most often but the band’s influences are global. It is sort of a psychedelic world-music jam band. There are almost no vocals; when they do occur they are more like backing vocals.
Among my favorite Khruangbin songs is “Connaissais de Face,” built around Lee and Speer having a sultry conversation with their incredibly sexy voices, spoken over their always interesting guitar-bass interplay. Here is an (unofficial) lyric video for it so you don’t miss any of the words. (Sample: “I’ve lived at least nine lives.” “Are you a cat?” “A tiger is … kind of a cat.”)
All of Khruangbin’s official music videos are great — heartbreaking, even — but they do not visually feature the band. I find the band so interesting to watch that I hoover up all the concert footage on YouTube I can find; here is perhaps the best clip (albeit as a five-piece instead of the usual three-piece) which really conveys the energy of this group. The members have a fun visual style, which includes Lee and Speer wearing wigs in every band appearance, and also amazing outfits. Speer is no slouch in his gold lamé suits and cowboy boots, but Lee really takes the cake in the amazing outfits department. Image search “Laura Lee of Khruangbin” to verify what I’m saying.
Together with her beguiling hip-swaying dance moves, Lee is kind of a whole phenomenon. An amazing performer. This in-depth article about the band has some great interview material from her about what it’s like to live with her own stage persona. She also addresses her Mexican-American heritage. I haven’t seen her do that elsewhere; the interview delves deep into how the band’s wigs and alternate identities function very well to keep their privacy. Turns out Laura Lee is her first name and her real last name is Ochoa. Here is a Khruangbin rig rundown; Lee’s section begins at 16:40.
This is an English four-piece all-female band with an instrumental tropical surf-rock sound. Also one of the best band names around. With that name plastered on it, the group’s merch is in high demand and I may have bought the last T-shirt. When a personalized hand-written postcard was included with my order, I freaked out like a teenage fanboy.
The Los Bitchos Facebook page describes the band as four “gals from the underground realms of London, tripping out on tequila and Cumbia vibes.” The group’s music videos emphasize that its members are basically having a big ol’ party.
Originally a five-piece, the band’s sound featured the back-and-forth of two guitarists, Carolina Faruolo and Serra Pitale. With Faruolo’s recent exit, now all guitar duties are being handled by Pitale and fan reaction appears positive. (It’s funny, but Faruolo was the band’s shortest member, and their drummer Nic Crawshaw is quite tall, well over six feet; with Faruolo’s departure the average height of the band must have increased by several inches.)
I first discovered Los Bitchos in this live in-studio performance video; one easily perceives Pitale’s driving guitar is in fact the center of the group.
Alex Luciano of Diet Cig
Diet Cig is a pop-punk duo featuring guitarist/vocalist Alex Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman. They formed in New Paltz, N.Y., which apparently has a thriving music scene. I love hearing that about a town — I can imagine it somehow. 80 miles outside of New York City, there must be creative ferment and synergy just from proximity to the big city. Duluth’s scene likewise benefits from being “a dark satellite of Minneapolis” (I stole that). Sounds fun! I remember live music.
The Diet Cig Bandcamp page describes the group as “two homies just making tunes and eggs on the reg.” This illustrates the band’s humor, which is central to the experience.
Sometimes they play as a three-piece or a four-piece, but the core is the two-piece and I find them most powerful that way. Nothing against their side musicians, but as the traditional duo there is nothing to distract from Luciano’s hyper front-person showmanship. Although diminutive in stature, she takes up the whole stage with her big energy; additional band members reduce the space she has to work with.
Big props to Bowman, who is a monster on the drums. He is irreplaceable and his one-on-one interactions with Luciano while playing are priceless. But Luciano totally steals the show. Her boundless energy has her jumping all around the stage doing high kicks, running through the audience, and climbing on the amps. Normally at the end of their shows, while playing a guitar crescendo and singing at the top of her lungs, she stands atop the bass drum, sometimes on one foot as she kicks at the cymbals with her other foot. Here’s a good example at the 2:20 mark. It’s really quite a spectacle and she is one of the best performers on this list, highly expressive and always joyous. She is strikingly elf-like and incorporates theatrical eye-rolls, comedic faces, and yells things in between lyrics like a running ironic commentary on the events of the song. Their NPR Tiny Desk Concert is one of the best things on the internet and includes her jumping up and down on the tiny desk and then leaping off the bass drum in a rain of glitter.
I have heard interviewers pigeonholing Luciano’s lyrics as “concerned with youth experience” — she wrote many of them before age 20 — but they are universal. For instance the “Barf Day” song/video is silly but at the end she rides off playing guitar on the roof of an ice cream truck and it all seems so right. Don’t miss the “Dinner Date” video, which obliquely suggests childhood abuse the way she says she had the “lamest date to the daddy/daughter dance” while staring from the screen with a black eye. She once introduced this song by saying, “This one’s for anyone with a shitty dad — it’s not your fault!”
Diet Cig also has some sadder tunes that totally rawk, among them “Bath Bomb” which is one of my faves, even though it daggers me in the guts when she cries out “I’m sorry!” — you feel like she’s breaking your heart. Here is the audio and here is the in-studio live performance at KEXP. This is very effective songwriting. And here is the video for “Maid of the Mist,” which is also savage, and it’s also funny and a banger. As a guitarist, Luciano has peerless punk sensibilities and compositions. The band is very socially conscious; for instance Luciano announces from the stage that all their shows are safe spaces and just raise your hand if you are being manhandled or hassled, and they will stop the show to make sure you are safe. Here’s a video where Alex does a rig rundown from 3:15 to 7:05.
This is an all-female four-piece progressive alternative band from Los Angeles. I say progressive because when I first started listening, the members’ unusual harmonies and melodies sounded so different I snobbishly considered it naïve. But the more I listened (and I could not stop listening) the more I realized they are deliberate artists who do not give AF what I think. They are aiming for untraditional arrangements and an unsettling sound, and they have achieved those things.
Everything they do is outside the box and that always appeals to me. I don’t love the vocals every time, but I don’t always love the vocals of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Joy Division, or New Order, and I listen to the hell out of those guys. I listen very closely to Warpaint’s songs because all their choices are interesting. They are one of the most original acts on this list. There is an influence from the Cure and other ’80s gothy bands, and New Order is a strong bass influence which all right-thinking people will appreciate. Overall though it is difficult for me to detect many precedents in terms of songwriting, structure, and arrangements. I find myself thinking, “What??” For instance the haunting song/strange pop object “Billie Holiday” which is yet in part a cover of “My Guy.”
They have had a couple radio hits, among them “Disco//very” and “New Song.” The origin of “New Song” is illustrative of the band’s originality in a weird way. I read this somewhere, I think, but the story goes they wanted to write a radio hit and had stalled out in the studio. Their manager suggested they think of an artist they loved and try to make a song that sounded like that, and see what happens. The band decided to try and make a song that sounded like Prince, and the result was “New Song” which became a hit. What’s weird about it is: “New Song” sounds nothing like Prince. What that tells me is Warpaint’s sound is so unusual and original that even when trying to copy someone else, they wind up sounding unique.
Warpaint’s music videos are normally lo-fi and approachable, but I don’t love them. I have found the greatest enjoyment watching live concert footage. Here’s a good example. The two guitarists, Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, trade lead guitars and vocals. I think they may both be geniuses. The two of them were voted #1 “Best Alternative Guitarists in the World Right Now” in 2017. The bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg is kind of a whole situation. And drummer Stella Mozgawa just fully wails and has also played with Kurt Vile.
Here is a Warpaint rig rundown video from Premier Guitar; in it, Kokal mentions godlike progressive guitarist Adrian Belew twice so you know I’m loving that.
Yvette Young of Covet
Young is the guitarist in the math-rock trio Covet, hailing from San Jose. The band’s bio at its Triple Crown Records artist page says it was “founded by guitarist Yvette Young with the intention of fusing lush post rock soundscapes with the subtle technical intricacies of progressive rock.”
Seeing them described as math-rock, I expected a more metal-y sound without feeling or soul, as “math-rock” sort of derisively implies. And for sure I can definitely detect nerdier formalist influences such as Rush and 1980s King Crimson, with lots of time signature changes and stuff. The drummer and the bassist are basically metal dudes. But Covet’s mostly instrumental sound is gentle, soft, and well, nice. Young describes it as a “sparkly, twinkly sound,” although she also can dig in and make it heavier. With a piano theory background and open tunings, she utilizes a two-handed tapping style on the neck which as Eddie Van Halen put it is “like having a sixth finger on your left hand.” Meanwhile the guitar-bass-drum interplay is precise and emphasizes insane technical virtuosity without being cold. Kind of a hat trick.
Here is a sick prime example, their song “Falkor” where Young plays a seven-string so it’s good she’s got that sixth finger. (She is also a painter; the painting on the guitar is hers and she supplements her income painting guitars.) Her mastery of guitar is complete and total as seen in this interview with Dweezil Zappa.
Here is Covet’s in-studio live performance on Audiotree, and here is a live show from a gig in Columbus, Ohio (music starts around the 3:15 mark). Here is a great video concept. And this is a Covet rig rundown from Premier Guitar where Young says, “Sometimes I do something I consider impossible just out of necessity.” I love hearing that — especially from a guitarist getting technical.
Related: The Musician as Inventor.
All of my essay series here.
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