There is a vein of singer-songwriters I refer to jokingly as “weepy folk.”
I respect it as I respect all genres (in this case, a sub-genre I made up as a joke), and some of it I like – I like a lot of sad songs. It is just difficult for me to listen to a bunch of intensely sad songs in a row. Everyone draws their own line about what music is too sad to listen to for an afternoon. Sometimes I’ll give a solo acoustic folk artist a listen and think, “That is a great very sad song that I have no intention sitting around listening to an album of.” But, when those same musicians put down their acoustic and pick up their electric, and add a solid rhythm section, those same songs come alive as rock songs I listen to on repeat. That’s what this installment of my indie rock guitar goddess she-roes is about: artists who have a quiet sad side, and a loud sad side.
I almost can’t listen to some of these. But qualities beyond infinite sadness propel them into my playlists. Perhaps they are simply the best weepy folk around, and so the sheer quality overrides the limitations of the genre. I can still barely take it sometimes. But the writing chops, the insane vocal qualities, the creative song structures, the visual styles, and the music videos snowball until I am unable to ignore them.
Everyone below has a rock band which I like better than their solo stuff. But they are succeeding in these bands because they are amazing vocalists, writers, and performers. They are the whole package.
Julia Jacklin and Elizabeth Hughes of Phantastic Ferniture.
Jacklin and Hughes are Australian musicians who formed the rock band Phantastic Ferniture. They are friends from the Blue Mountains area, both singer-songwriters with solo stuff as well as having been in at least one other band together. As Phantastic Ferniture they sell out Australian venues; Jacklin is the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, and Hughes is the lead guitarist and backup vocalist. I don’t know for sure but I assume they co-write the songs. The band has a small handful of music videos, including “Dark Corner Dance Floor,” and “Fuckin ‘n’ Rollin,” also strong is “Gap Year.” The videos showcase the chemistry between them as they dork-dance around cities and scenic Australian vistas. These are nice examples of indie band video production with simple concepts on a shoestring which nonetheless have impact and visual interest.
Elizabeth Hughes’ solo stuff that I could find include the songs “Video Shoot” and “Too Late,” both of which are uncanny. Here is a good interview with her which in part discusses her and Jacklin’s origin story of playing guitars together while volunteering in a South American orphanage. Hughes’ song “Emily” (audio only, there is a video but I can’t find it) has lines about Jacklin: “Julia I heard you singing/…I will never sing so sweet/I do not mind/Happy just to hear that she is my kind.” And here is the song Jacklin wrote about Hughes, “Elizabeth.” Jacklin has said she wrote it in response to Hughes feeling discouraged about their chosen life in the music business: “So harsh, the bright stage light/Showing the first four rows that you don’t wanna play tonight/But you know I want you to/You know I need you to/And I’d be there for you darlin’/Even if it all falls through…”
Jacklin has broken out internationally as a solo artist. When she put out her first solo EP it generated enormous buzz even before her first full album, the release of which became hotly anticipated as stated here.
I find Jacklin’s lyrics spectacular. Her songs are primarily love songs and breakup songs, often addressing issues of body autonomy and identity in relationship. “Head Alone” is an example with its lyric, “I don’t want to be touched all the time/I raised my body up to be mine…Now say you understand/you can love somebody without using your hands.” The single-take video is a treat. “Body” is another example with its lyric, “I said I’m gonna leave you/I’m not a good woman when you’re around/That’s when the sound came in, I could finally see/I felt the changing of the seasons, all my senses rushing back to me/Watch me turn my own head, eyes on the driver, hands in my lap/heading to the city to get my body back….” Her sensibility is not just lyrical but literary, the way the senses are invoked and bound up with states of mind and destiny. Her guitar playing is sometimes so spare it barely exists, supporting the ethereal songs with near-silent luminosity. But just when you think it’s another quiet Jacklin number, she rocks out.
Jacklin’s music videos are subtle evocations, always clever, often with pale color palettes and indoor suburban settings, or filled with golden light in wide open scenes of natural beauty. Her visual style tends to classic gowns and hoopskirts. Her latest release, “Baby Jesus is Nobody’s Baby Now” is Christmas themed, but the actual subject is surviving a terrible year including miscarriage. Jacklin’s instincts for irony are unerring and savage.
Phoebe Bridgers of Boygenius, and of Better Oblivion Community Center. She lives in Los Angeles. Bridgers has achieved solo success with recent Grammy nominations and so forth. The mainstream media love her as much as everyone else, and so interviews with her are easy to find as are late-nite TV spots. She has a recent collab with Kid Cudi that is an earworm, “Lovin’ Me,” sure to get her to an even wider audience. But she is known particularly for the sad songs of her solo career; the record label she started is literally called “Saddest Factory” which Rolling Stone called “aptly named.”
But she has a wide range. For instance, the song “Motion Sickness” (about her abusive relationship with Ryan Adams, about which she went “time’s up” on his ass) is a good example of how her lyrics can be sad, angry, and funny at the same time. The video has a sense of humor too. She has spoken about this song here and there; somewhere she says she was more hesitant to release it than any other song because it was mean. Elsewhere she says it’s about someone she hates. In the writing process, it began as a standard slow acoustic Phoebe number, but it translated well to electric with an up-tempo trap beat. See also “Kyoto,” about her estranged father, for which she got a Grammy nomination: “I want to kill you/if you don’t beat me to it…” This video provides a great overview of how her slow acoustic folk songs can get translated into peppier rock songs during the production process.
This year the Grammy nominations for “Best Rock Performance” are “entirely dominated by women for the first time ever” according to Billboard. Nominee Bridgers went to the same high school as nominees Haim. Hilariously, she says, “I saw Haim when their parents were still in the band…”
Bridgers’ visual style features signature bleach white hair which sometimes changes hues, and a propensity for flair like the skeleton outfit which has become an odd trademark.
She is also in the band Better Oblivion Community Center, a duo with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. This is her most exciting work for me. They co-write the songs and you can feel the energies of creative ferment bubbling away. Here’s the Billboard interview with them, and the FaceCulture interview — this is the one with the cute moment @17:25-18:00 where they’re asked if they’ll keep going, and Oberst defers to her because she’s blowing up, and she fist-bumps him reassuringly.
Oberst praises her songwriting acuity, production ideas, and her work ethic. All of that is evidenced in their best tune “Dylan Thomas,” which honestly is everything I want in a rock song. The rhymes are so good all through: “Strapped into a corset, I climbed into a Corvette…I’m getting used to these dizzy spells/I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel.” Here is live footage of the band’s cover of the excellent solo Bridgers song, “Scott Street,” but with Oberst on lead vocals. You can hear the Bridgers fans in the audience going nuts, and Bridgers beams as Oberst pours everything into it, passing the mic out to the crowd and then leading them in the song’s coda; this looks like a good time. And, it’s the perfect example of how a Bridgers tune can come boundingly alive with a full electric band. The lyrics are so good, I’ll listen to it either way: “Walking Scott Street feeling like a stranger/An open heart, open container/I got a stack of mail and a tall can/It’s a shower beer, it’s a payment plan/…I asked you how’s playing drums/You said ‘It’s too much shit to carry’/And what about the band?/You said ‘They’re all getting married…’”
Bridgers’ other big project is the band Boygenius with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker.
I haven’t listened to a ton of Julien Baker, but I listened to a smattering of things and was like, “Very talented, very sad, etc.” and left it at that. Here is her Tiny Desk Concert from 2016 and her other one from 2018. She’s an example of a quality sad act I really can’t listen to. I love everything about her — lyrics, vocals, instrumentation, composition – but she has built a wall of intensely sad songs I can’t make it through. But, she knows her stuff, and her rig rundown legit fascinates me even though I’m not a fan per se. I get more enjoyment hearing her talk gear than hearing her actual act. She has a degree in recording engineering and it is a pleasure to listen to her geek out on her equipment. But as soon as she starts playing, I’m out.
Lucy Dacus also writes sad songs. Her solo act is electric with a backing band. She definitely caught my attention with her cover of Edith Piaf’s “Ma Vie En Rose,” re-arranged as an arresting and beautiful rock tune. But my favorite song of hers is “Night Shift.” KEXP’s live studio version is, to me, an archetypal indie rock guitar goddess she-ro performance. The song is about those shoals of love which are unnavigable. A long slowburn pays off with a tragic crescendo; to me it has the emotional resonance of tragic opera in an indie rock idiom. It clocks in at six and a half minutes long so it will never see mainstream radio play. The structure is as a two-act play; it works perfectly for the long-form buildup and then, essentially, a blistering three-minute climax. The song is pretty and also muscular, a suckerpunch with alternating periods of soft to loud, and then doubling down on soft, and then doubling down on loud. This song is a masterpiece. God bless Lucy Dacus. What kind of a mind writes and composes a song like this?
So when you put Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus together you have Boygenius, the supergroup of acoustic sadness that is iconic for how talented they each are, and for their creative gestalt. But I can’t listen to them. I’m sad enough!
Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females. She is from New Brunswick, New Jersey. Paternoster is not weepy folk by any stretch of the imagination, and so she is the outlier here. Punk AF, she’s in the established power trio Screaming Females of which she is the only female which is excellent. Here’s a good interview with her on Billboard’s Soul Sisters podcast where she tells her origin story, going from being “a young queer… obsessed with Sleater-Kinney” to being listed by Spin Magazine in 2012 as one of the best 100 guitarists of all time (#77). Spin describes her guitar sound as “if Sleater-Kinney joined forces with J Mascis in a New Jersey basement to channel late Black Flag and early Smashing Pumpkins.” Here is the Screaming Females’ rig rundown in which she says she goes for a sludgy sound, and she doesn’t like reverb. She thinks reverb is a crutch; she’s “tired of guitars sounding like they’re in wells.” Preach!
But she also has a quieter side which warrants her inclusion here. She performs and records solo under the name Noun, sometimes with one or two backing musicians. Many Noun videos are just her and an acoustic guitar, like this attic video and this recent live socially distant benefit set. A lot of Noun songs are blues-y, like in this live studio set. On the other hand, some Noun stuff sounds punk, like “Fame and Famine.” Here is the new song, “Drag.” Screaming Females’ hardness resonates more with me – but “Drag” is good, you can hear an uncharacteristic openness to pop, albeit a hesitant one. All of which demonstrates Paternoster’s versatile interests and talents. I ask myself, is she trending towards more of a mainstream sound? In the recent Screaming Females’ “I’ll Make You Sorry,” she asks herself, “Am I losing faith in my own anger?”
Paternoster doesn’t have a visual style as such; she doesn’t care about appearances except being herself in street clothes. She has a great seriousness as an artist and as a performer. Her vocals and lyrics are always bracingly honest body-blows.
In Screaming Females she co-writes the songs with her bandmates, but she is the leader and frontperson. The band did a duet with Garbage, covering Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” which was a tall order but they pulled it off. Paternoster’s guitar and vocals drop in like a bombing run.
The music videos of Screaming Females are good in that mode of cheaply-produced-indie-rock-videos-that-nonetheless-maximize-their-concept. A couple of them are excellent. As front-person, vocalist, and guitarist, Paternoster takes center stage. The rhythm section stands back and lets her do her work, but they really keep shit nailed down. (Bassist Mike Abbate reminds me a little of Duluth punk AF bassist Pete Biasi.)
I’m fanatical about their song “Hopeless,” a tour de force. Lyrics: “I’m not hopeless, helpless, or begging you to stay/it’s just turning out that way…” That’s her real fresh blood on her guitar. The other video I can’t stop watching is for the aforementioned song “I’ll Make You Sorry.” Not all their tunes sound like this, most are even harder. These songs are proof that punk’s not dead, it just started smooching with metal. Screaming Females were forged in part by the crucible of nearby New York City’s music scene and you can hear its influence. Here is a good live show from Baltimore‘s Insubordination Fest and you can see: Paternoster shreds.
Ella Williams of Squirrel Flower. She is from Arlington, Massachusetts as stated in her Rolling Stone profile. Here is her introduction video by Polyvinyl Records. Her origin story is that her mother’s water never broke – Williams was born in an intact amniotic sac, a fluid-filled membrane. Technically it’s a rare event (1-in-80,000 births) called an “en caul” birth, but “born swimming” is how Williams puts it; the title of her 2019 album is “I Was Born Swimming.” It is a recurring image.
First impressions of her work fit the mold of weepy folk as in this acoustic sesh of sad, sparsely arranged songs, sort of like blues played underwater. Hmm…
But she performs solo with acoustic or electric. Sometimes her electric sets are backed by a rhythm section, power trio style. In recording, she added a second guitar. The songs are still slow and sad and sparse, but big. Like “Streetlight Blues” which has that quiet/loud thing going on, and when it gets going it really swings. Crank it. Williams puts a country-fried edge on that slo-mo blues thing. Open arrangements build to power chords and a wall of sound. Just as often they stay sparse according to the needs of the song. Here is “Headlights” that is somehow not a folk song but an ambient rock song.
She has a fun cover of the Caroline Polachek song which became an instant standard, “So Hot it’s Hurting My Feelings.” Williams’ cover version gives the song the Squirrel Flower treatment of slowing it down in a soft arrangement, with a slight twang over a rock hard underbelly. It’s worthy. And her song “Red Shoulder” has a breakdown with a guitar-wall flavor that keeps reminding me of Dinosaur Jr. which I appreciate very much. Her voice is the real star, clear as a bell.
I like all her music videos but this is the one I find indispensable, “Conditions.” Huge space-rock guitar licks with that slow tempo make this really hit, instantly becoming one of my favorite songs. It’s perfect, fight me. The lyrics are a prodigious complete mindfuck. Somehow during the course of the song, she has talked you into bed and then abandoned you, and then describes the aftermath: “Don’t look at me like that, like you’ll kill me/I can outrun you, and I’ll do it gracefully.” This is a lyricist navigating violence against women with razor-sharp irony. (She tackles the topic again in “Not Your Prey” where she sings, “I tried hard to forget and you didn’t want me remembering/…Feel you lurking, on the move, eyeing my back, making me shiver/But if you touch me I’ll lash out/Don’t fuck with me. If I must, you know I will/I’m not your prey, I’m not your kill. ”)
The sultriness of her delivery is thick as syrup. The “Conditions” video kicks the power of the song up another level. It cultivates high-school gym-class imagery, casting her as an outcast weirdo non-jock coming into a sexual dominance that she uses as a shield and a weapon. Her unsubtle boredom fires out of her eyes even as she’s being indescribably alluring. It’s a crime this video doesn’t have millions of views.
I would love to see another guitar to make her live act a foursome. For the wall-of-guitars I crave, I listen to Squirrel Flower’s studio stuff. I like the stripped-down sound of her live sets too, but for me the fullest expression is her studio sound. Because it’s loud.
Related: The Musician as Inventor.
All my essays here.
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