Published on April 3rd, 2012 | by Nathan Jones6
Rise of the Brainy Asian Chicks
Alternative and indie rock seems to offer a much larger multicultural and mixed gendered palette compared to their contemporary genres. It’s not tremendously unusual for newer bands to have a mixed bag of girls and dudes, and/or a variance of whites, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and representatives from several other ethnic categories (okay, so most alt rock and indie bands are made up of young, white, snobby rich guys fresh out of college). Still, there seems to be more diversity in the genre than say heavy metal or mainstream rock. Examples include bands like Young the Giant (featuring an Indian, an Iranian, and a French-Canadian), TV on the Radio (four black guys and a white dude), the Temper Trap (their lead singer Dougy Mandagi is Indonesian), or how about the Cambodian band Dengue Fever! One of the more interesting trends in rock group diversity in my mind is for a mostly guy band to feature a really talented woman as a musician rather than simply including a super sex-bomb as a singer. This trend has led to a pleasing variety across the spectrum of indie and alt rock and provides an opportunity for brainy Asian chicks to break the stereotypes and gain a share of the spotlight in pop music culture.
To celebrate this development, I thought I would compile a 2011 “best of list” highlighting my picks for the top seven female artists who are the only girl members of otherwise guy bands (I was originally going to make it a top five, but a couple of artists I just couldn’t leave out). In order to qualify for the list, the individual must:
- Be the only girl in the band
- Be a solid artist and make a strong musical contribution to the band
- Have either released an album as a member of the band in 2011, or toured heavily in 2011 to support an album released in 2010
- Play an instrument other than the guitar, although she may also be a vocalist for the band. (I include this caveat because it’s not uncommon for a lead singer to strum a single chord on a guitar now and then)
In addition to making this list, Conlee might also be the oldest non-singer female in an alt rock band. I have loved her accordion work over the years with the Decembrists, however, she toned it down a little for The King is Dead last year, and focused on the keyboard and piano. I understand that the band had to cut touring short last year when she discovered she has breast cancer. Apparently it’s in remission though, and she will begin touring again with the band. Good news because the Decemberists just wouldn’t be the same without her.
Yuck represents my first entry featuring a “brainy Asian chick.” Although some members of this particular blogging community hate this band, I love them. They have an interesting sound that rekindles my fascination with the Jesus and Mary Chain from back in the early 90s. Besides, music notwithstanding, a pudgy drummer from Jersey with an afro and a cool Japanese chick playing bass is enough to incite my love. Okay, so she’s not P-nut from 311, but Doi solidly back’s up all the great riffing by guitarist Max Bloom. I hope their drummer Johnny Rogoff doesn’t get a haircut for their sophomore effort.
This one might seem a bit of a stretch (tambourine and hand clapping???), but I love this band (their debut album was one of my favorites in 2010), and I know that I wouldn’t like them nearly as much were it not for Scaggs’ contributions. Her back-up vocals are the perfect complement to Fitzpatrick’s lead, and she contributes a cool Motown look and sound to the band persuasively legitimizing its retro style. I’ve missed seeing them last year twice, so I’m eagerly awaiting a new album – I hear they put on a great show. Hopefully Scaggs doesn’t jump ship for a solo career. She certainly has the voice to establish herself, but her departure would decimate the Tantrums. Check out this live/studio performance highlighting her contributions.
4. Peggy Wang – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Keyboard and backing vocals)
When I first saw the “Say No to Love” music video from this band, I thought the presence of Wang was some cutsie anime-style gimmick (in the video she appears to be about 16, and the prominent presence of a youngish-looking Asian chick with a bunch of twenty-something gringos is a tad odd to say the least). I wasn’t entirely sure what her role was in the band (the aforementioned video portrays her engaging in random activities rather than playing an instrument) until I saw them live at the Bowery Ballroom in New York last September. She is actually a pretty accomplished keyboard player and shares lyricist duty with lead singer Berman. Wang also performs backing vocals for the band which come across sugary sweet on their studio recordings, but completely incomprehensible live. Anyway check out this live performance of the single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” from their newest album Belong last year on the Letterman show. The performance is great, but even better is Wang’s behavior when Dave comes out to congratulate the band members afterward. Simply adorable.
This band was one of my favorites in 2011. I fleetingly admired the first single from their last album Changes, but what really struck me was a live acoustic performance I saw on YouTube of the single “All I Ever Wanted” (before it became a hit). I loved the presence of the string quartet in the video, but even more I appreciated Bulbrook’s versatility from playing the viola to singing, and then to keyboards in other numbers. I love how bands similar to the Airborne Toxic Event such as Ra Ra Riot, and my new favorite Dry the River, are introducing strings as a featured instrument in rock.
2. Tiffany Lamson – Givers (Vocals, percussion, and ukulele)
The first time I saw this act on a Youtube video performing the single “Up, Up, Up,” from 2011’s SXSW I was really blown away, specifically by Lamson’s performance. In addition to signing lead vocals, she rocked it with a small drum kit she had set up at the front of the stage, played tambourine and hacked out some wicked xylophone (all in one song). Lamson is a seriously talented percussionist, and makes use of her talent by creating some truly interesting sounds in her band’s tunes, and delivers all of this with even more creativity and energy in live shows (check out this clip from the aforementioned video). I once saw an interview in which Lamson (extremely stoned) explained that the only real job she’s had was playing drums in her evangelical church’s Sunday service. I wish that were my life (the being stoned part excluded of course).
Xayalith is my favorite brainy Asian chick of 2011. Some may complain about her grating vocals, but I find them a nice addition to the band’s highly energetic, nostalgic sound. The first time I heard her opening lyric from the single “Young Blood” I was smitten. The song alluringly harkens back to 80s synth pop, similar to M83’s Saturdays = Youth album (“Kim and Jessie” and “Young Blood” could certainly follow each other in a John Hughes flick), but Xayalith’s vocals adds a teen angsty element that Anthony Gonzalez from M83 can’t match. Aside from her haunting voice and cool keyboards, Xayalith is the band’s primary arranger and lyricist, and her New Zealand accent that arises in interviews is the absolute cutest. I’m pretty psyched to go see them/her this coming Wednesday evening at Pier 5 in NYC.
It goes without saying that I have issues (my tasteless stab at sexually objectifying leggy Korean women with the initial photograph in this post indicates as much – but hey, no one reads this blog, at least not my posts). Yet, I do think the addition of talented women in roles other than singing in predominantly guy rock bands is an interesting expression of how the culture of contemporary popular music and the expectations of its consumers may be changing. Certainly my list does not exhaust the numerous talented female musicians currently recording and performing in rock bands (not even close). Perhaps, however, the list does suggest the dismantling of the demographic boundaries regarding race, ethnicity, and gender that have been a part of North American and European society for decades, to the extent that a mostly white, wealthy, and young fan base (which really represents the primary audience for indie and alt rock) fails to question as unusual such a rich array of musicians possessing profound cultural and gender differences. The rise of such artists might also indicate that audiences are becoming more culturally varied as well. In any case, I look forward to even more brainy Asian chicks knocking me out with those bass guitars and tambourines.
Leggy Korean girls = http://pinktentacle.com/2010/11/top-60-popular-japanese-wordsphrases-of-2010/
Jenny Conlee = http://m.cltampa.com/dailyloaf/archives/2011/05/19/note-worthy-the-2011-new-orleans-jazz-and-heritage-festival
Mariko Doi = http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/-nG8hlJeOYY/YUCK+Tame+Impala+In+Concert/di4J5yjEMj_/Mariko+Doi
Noelle Skaggs = http://www.chinashopmag.com/2010/11/fitz-and-the-tantrums-take-the-el-rey-back-in-time/
Peggy Wang = http://tanglewoodnumbers.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/peggy-wang-interview/
Anna Bulbrook = http://mikeljollett.tumblr.com/post/6577386758/9-favourite-photos-the-airborne-toxic-event-anna
Tiffany Lamson = http://fuckyeahchickmusicians.tumblr.com/post/4323107916 (although possessing a stupid title, this blog provides photos for quite a few female rock musicians).
Alissa Xyalith = http://www.flickr.com/photos/24939723@N04/609103292