Sallie Ford finds her way
ASPEN – Sallie Ford answers the phone, and her voice is a little girly, a little giggly, lighthearted. Which is what you might expect of a single, artsy 24-year-old who has traveled from Portland, where she lives, to Seattle to meet up with a friend and go see the Black Keys show later that night. But it is definitely not what I expected after listening to “Dirty Radio,” the debut album by her band, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside. The album, released a year ago, is a blast of hard-hitting, retro-leaning music rooted mostly in jump blues. Ford belts out lines like “I’ve dealt with abuse,” in the song “Cage,” and “I want to suck you up in straw” in “Against the Law,” and the sound and lyrics and song titles like “Poison Milk” and “Nightmares” bring to mind a seedy but happening dance club in 1940s Kansas City. And Ford herself, with her “I ain’t messing around” voice, seems like someone projecting a certain image. When I comment that Ford, over the phone, sounds nothing like the “Dirty Radio” singer, she laughs. And agrees.”God, no, not at all,” said Ford, who brings her four-piece band to Belly Up Aspen Friday for their Aspen debut, opening for the Rhode Island rock band Deer Tick. “A lot of that record I made was how I think old blues sounds, the lo-fi quality, the way they enunciate their words. I was listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Victoria Spivey, Billie Holiday. When I was singing, it was like my alter-ego doing it.”But that alter-ego is not yet a fixed presence. At 24, Ford sees herself very much as a work still in-progress. The singer on “Dirty Radio” – the sassy, raw-voiced blueswoman – was a suit to try on, and Ford says she has moved past that stage. “Dirty Radio” was recorded some two years ago, and Ford is onto the next thing. Her latest influences include ’60s surf rock and contemporary indie stuff from San Francisco, including Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees – “real raucous-y kind of rock, garage punk rock,” she said.There was a time recently when Ford & the Sound Outside were spending a lot of time shuttling between tour dates, and Ford wasn’t listening to a lot of music, or at least not absorbing a lot of new sounds. When that stretch ended, Ford found she had a different set of interests.”I’ve been getting into geekier guitar stuff. I’d never cared about guitar sounds, but I got a ’60s Jazzmaster and a bunch of pedals,” said Ford, whose fashion sense, down to the geeky glasses, might be called thrift shop-anti-chic. As for a vocal direction, Ford has been paying close attention to British rocker P.J. Harvey: “That kind of raw, that kind of distortion in her voice. I said I wanted my vocals to be hot – like they’re making a frying sound and distorting. Almost too loud, but it becomes an effect. Learning to be more aggressive with my voice.”••••As a kid, Ford wanted her voice to be anything but aggressive. Raised in an artistic family in Asheville, N.C. – her mother is a musician who plays virtually every instrument and teaches music at an alternative school; her father is a noted puppeteer – Ford’s first musical pursuit was violin. When she sang with her family, she focused on harmonies – something that would blend in with what the others were doing.But her sister was into musical theater, and Ford learned from her the ways of the theater – namely, drawing attention to yourself. “So I did a lot of belting, just throwing your voice in a Broadway, jazz kind of way,” she said. That got her interested in standing out as a singer, and late in her teens, Ford began finding vocalists to mimic.”First, it was just copying things: ‘How can I imitate something else?’ It was joking around with a friend: ‘Can I sound like Cat Power or Billie Holiday or Fiona Apple or Regina Spektor? I was listening to a lot of that girl music,” she said. “When you start doing it, it feels like a joke. But then you see you’re not just imitating, you’re experimenting, manipulating your voice, finding different emotions.”As a 17-year-old, Ford spent two months backpacking around Europe. When she returned to the States, she was looking for something a little more calming. So she relocated, by herself, from the East Coast to the West. “OK, I’ve been around the world for two months. So settling down somewhere by myself – that was a lot less frightening,” she said. “And in Portland there were a lot of young single people around.”Ford did the rounds of open-mike nights, but the singer-songwriter mode that is practically required for such performances didn’t do it for her. “It seemed so clich. I really wanted a band,” she said. Through a friend, she met a drummer, whose first name happened to be Ford: Ford Tyler, who accompanied Sallie on open-mike dates. Tyler brought in guitarist Jeff Munger, and when Tyler Tornfelt, who plays upright bass, was added, the Sound Outside was born.The band’s first release, the 2009 EP “Not An Animal,” earned a following that included the Avett Brothers, who had Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside open a string of shows for them. The band’s first full-length album, “Dirty Radio,” was finished in 2010, but wasn’t released till last May. Ford says the band was, at the time, being pursued by various handlers. “We were really about picking who we would work with,” she said. “It wasn’t just, We want to make it big. We wanted to do it right.”Part of doing it right means not falling into a static creative mode. “It’d be boring. If you have one sound and you’re stuck in it, who’d want to listen to that?” Ford said. But she added that there is a connective tissue that she expects to run through everything she does: “Music inspired by the past. But not directly copying it. Adding something that’s young and energetic and honest.”For a tie to the past, Ford has her voice, its echoing of Ella and Billie. “That kind of music, I think, is the most feminine music ever made,” she said. “I wanted to do that with a mix of something modern.”For the modern touch, Ford tried to look to the lyrics of Tom Waits. “Dirty Radio,” for all its retro sounds, never actually tries to dive completely into the past. There is a reference, for instance, to cell phones and the contemporary emo band Sunny Day Real Estate in “Write a Letter” (a song that expresses regret for things that have been lost in the technological shuffle).”Lyrically, we wanted this darker world – influenced by how Tom Waits writes, but nobody, I think, can be in Tom Waits’ world. That’s his world. I need to write about my own world.”Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside has recorded a second album, which will likely be released in the fall. Listeners who have gotten comfortable with the style on “Dirty Radio,” though, should expect something different. Ford’s influences have jumped forward in time from the ’40s to the ’60s and beyond.”I think the ’60s things are coming out more,” she said. “I want to get more into psychedelic stuff. More kind of punk, more rock ‘n’ roll-based stuff that makes people not able to sit down. A lot of the music I like, only men are part of it. I want to be a woman playing that crazy, powerful music.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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