Electronic Press Kit
New York’s Western Female is the musical project of songwriter and front-woman Melanie Beth Curran. Through channels of Americana, Honky-Tonk, Croon, Early Jazz, Old Time, French Chanson, Rock n’ Roll, and Spoken Word, Western Female brings audiences closer to the places, people, and histories lingering below the surface of the western experience. While entertaining their audiences, Western Female invites examinations of the role of the female performer over the course of history. What can she sing about, how can her body move, how must she dress, what stories can she tell on stage, and how does the culture embrace her, commodify her, venerate her, or long for her demise?
LONG BIOGRAPHY and PERFORMANCE DESCRIPTION:
Western Female is the vessel through which songwriter Melanie Beth Curran performs variations on the theme of Western Femininity. Through channels of American Old Time, Honky Tonk, Country Croon, French Chanson, Early Jazz, Torch, and Rock n’ Roll, Melanie gives her audience an experience of the places, people, and histories lingering below the surface of the western experience. Her work asks listeners to be entertained, but also invites examinations of the role of the female performer over the course of history. What can she sing about, how can her body move, how must she dress, what stories can she tell on stage, and how does the culture embrace her, commodify her, venerate her, or long for her demise?
Melanie hopes to impart to her audience the understanding that all people are artists, and that art can be made out of everyday, quotidian experiences, free from the demands of industry. Her songs, poems, and cover materials focus on people she knows personally, and the forgotten places they inhabit - as simple as a Washington State park-and-ride, as vast as the Lower East Side. Melanie’s performance style is culled from many places: The ten years she’s spent playing in the traditional music communities of North America and Europe; from her work as an historic tour guide; through travel experiences hitchhiking, busing, driving, and walking; and through her studies of ethnography, creative non-fiction, and American history in academic institutions. She currently lives in New York, and is moving to Bretagne, France in 2020 as a Fulbright Fellow, where she will write about the traditional Breton music community.
Her first full-length album, Hot Sauce in Kitsap County (2016) is “a warped travelogue and time capsule of Curran’s experiences” (Michael Moore, The Kitsap Sun). Hyper-local in focus, the songs serve to preserve what is not preservable: the shifting infrastructure of highways, sports stadiums, dive bars, and mulch recycling centers that make up beloved hometown landscape. Her forthcoming album (2019/2020) as Western Female, will explore the locations and musical states of a woman seeking performative salvation while encountering American history. Songs explore realms as disparate and disappearing as the Chelsea Hotel, the Corner of Virgil and Melrose in Los Angeles, or the proverbial attic apartment in Paris, France.
Like buildings, landscape, and language, Western Female’s performance lineup changes depending on the location of the performances. In an effort to create a local sound, Melanie taps into her robust network of musical friendships to create unique backing bands specific to place. As entertaining as they are educational, performances by Western Female reward audiences who crave contact with the past, and a deeper sense of meaning in the present. Stylistic comparisons have been drawn to Edith Piaf, Loretta Lynn, Bette Midler, Bobbie Gentry, Ola Belle Reed, Eartha Kitt, Patti Smith, and Lady Gaga. Melanie Curran delivers performances meant to entrance, enliven, humor, and please, while bringing listeners closer to each other, and in-tune with the broader musical memory of the west.
By Sean Jewell, American Standard Time
May 22, 2019
“Art fights against a branded nostalgia. So we hurry up and make our own.”
-Melanie Beth Curran, Western Female
Melanie Beth Curran had an epiphany as a young girl. She became a writer while scrolling the word “because” in cursive. That simple conjunction, uniting two words, might as well have been the the key to the entire zodiac. She unlocked constellations of life experience. Opportunities mapped out on an elliptical plane she can travel, or wait around on, hopping from one to the other.
As a youth, she picked up a banjo because it was an instrument the boys weren’t playing. After receiving one as a Christmas gift, a woman walking around her block saw her holding it and offered to be her teacher. She took to the theory of music, grokking the way to join the jam in any key. It connected her with the few other kids in the community that made old time music.
That community resulted in the recording Hot Sauce In Kitsap County, a collection of songs she wrote that make up the cultural snapshot, and modern archival masterpiece about her home. Originally she thought she might be an actress, luckily for us a penchant for overacting made her more of a bandleader than a thespian. Curran has a talent for observing cultural touchstones, connecting the natural world with the human experience poetically, and condensing all that into vignettes of song. On Hot Sauce she rambles through barrelhouse, banjo tunes, old time music, honky tonk and country while reminiscing oddities like park & rides, a topsoil vendor, entire rural counties. Hearing the album well after it came out, I howled with enthusiasm, and wondered how I’d missed it before. It’s got lo-fi grit, and artistic attention to detail that solidified into a patina on it’s perfect form. This was art by someone smart enough to get out of their own way and let it happen. Luckily, I caught up with Curran to chat about Western Female. From her:
“Hot Sauce in Kitsap County is full of eulogies. I eulogize spaces, the 305 Park and Ride, the Kingdome, a top soil establishment. But also, I am eulogizing a moment I experienced culturally. At its inception, the album was surrounded by the people whose bodies populate the songs, the dancer in cowboy boots at the Hilltop tavern, the Alaskan fisherman, the cocaine infused rock star on Capitol Hill. In all of these people I saw the glory, because they were beautiful, but I knew I would have to leave them. Because if I stayed, I would watch this beautiful world, the world portrayed through that album, deteriorate, gentrify, or maybe change for the better. All I knew was that I could not create while losing what had revealed itself as so precious to me during that album’s creation.
“And so I did what any woman might do, drive across America in the pick-up truck, and move to New York City. I went to attend an MFA program and to finish the work of a deceased relative who dreamed of becoming an artist. When I arrived, many people said to me, that I was some kind of prophetess, or the true American.”
Curran completed that MFA. She’s now a Fulbright Scholar about to embark on a nine month trip to France, to write about the music of Breton. Fresh off a train from New York City, over coffee in a cafe, her eyes beamed as she told me about the city. I wondered how experiences there had led her back to performing as Western Female.
“…what happened was a full on New York dream. The Western Female that is about to emerge to you, to audiences in the Northwest and other locations this summer, takes its thrust from New York City. While I lived there, I accidentally became an International Woman of Mystery. I fell in love and was whisked away to foreign lands. I made strange new friends with great wealth and great new friends with strange poverty. I found a collection of folk musicians in the neighborhood where I wound up living, Ridgewood Queens, who stepped onto the stages and sung with something different.
“I credit a musician named Feral Foster (Jalopy Records) for showing me how to perform earnestly, that is without an air of cynicism that can be found on the songs of the Hot Sauce in Kitsap County album, and in my performances from that time. I saw in Feral and the other musicians he collected around him something born particularly of New York. He himself is, something brave, loud, and brash, but also hopeless, rooted in the textures of crooners and Greenwich village folk yowlers and drunks. I saw that one could actually be an entertainer.
“Additionally, I started performing in New York as a solo act, and quickly understood I had to be good at something very specific . And I’m not that good at old time music, or honky tonk music, at least in the way one has to be to be good enough to do it in New York, where those genres are an afterthought, really. So I wrote this 10 page ode to Monica Lewinksy. I wrote a 10 page ode to my lover. I wrote something similar to his mom. I could not stop writing Whitmanesque poems, and then I realized, oh. These are monologues, or these are entertaining, I can put them on stage and share them in a way that is as interesting if not more interesting than what the virtuosos are doing with clarinets and pianos. The poems, the spoken word pieces, which I experimented with in the last song on Hot Sauce in Kitsap County, A History of Seattle, I see that is a territory that I am meant to occupy as a musical artist.
“To be a poetess, to be a blues singer, to be a rock n’ roll singer, a folk singer, a lounge singer, I want it all. But most of all, I want to be a catholic priest. I figure Western Female is my opportunity to do so, except all of the religious symbols you’d receive in a homily will be replaced with the ephemera of the places I ended up falling in love with over the last two years. The East Village, the area around the Chelsea hotel which is boarded up for construction, the Jersey Shore, the Metropolitan Opera house, the apartment in Puccini’s La Boheme, Paris, France, itself, Siracusa Sicily, My memories of Hollywood, of San Francisco, these places hum to me and ask me to bring out their subtleties, and I, your ever loving tour guide, will bring you on a journey into their undergrounds”
Vestiges. That’s what Curran calls the songs on Hot Sauce In Kitsap County. Western Female is informed art. Geurilla theater. Roots band as genre experiment. Living visual art. An archival folk album with old time music and country influences. A cursory drive around Kitsap County might not inspire an albums worth of songs for most, but Curran had the sense to create a snapshot of a moment in time while she lived in it.
Cultural Theorist Mark Fisher describes capitalist society as a place where people suffer a nostalgia for a future they know they cannot have. Gentrification, and economic drive runs everything, and artifacts, no matter how culturally relevant (or irrelevant) — are disappearing before our eyes more rapidly than we can conceive a future with them. This destroys our relationship with any place. In describing it’s effects on social (and political) life Fisher noted that that it’s now easier to imagine an end to the world than it is an end to capitalism, which only further drives the problem. Fisher also said that capitalism cannot be confined to art, which may explain why, more and more, making art looks like failing at capitalism.
These are the kinds of things that come up when you start talking to Melanie Beth Curran. Reinforcing the idea of music as an indispensable salve of conscience. Of course, Melanie is one step ahead. Western Female is her vehicle for some self realization, too. A woman free to be whatever form western female-ness takes when she wakes up. The most subversive act (simple as country music) is just being yourself. Bounding from genre, to style, to method, to medium in a stream of consciousness in real time. Cementing my theory of her work as new hollywood cinema, italian realism, and french new wave on a country record. She’s Varga, Fellini, Lou Reed, Cindy Sherman, and Hank Williams all at once. In the future, genre, cynicism, strictures of the patriarchy, can not hold down the Western Female.
It occurs to me (thanks to Melanie) that Hot Sauce In Kitsap County is more than the sum of it’s parts. Which is why vestige is a good word for it. It’s a trace, an echo, a chance. These songs are not only the recorded history of a thing (as I previously limited my thinking to), but a thing itself. A new future, an artifact that, since it was born outside of a system it cannot constrain, or be constrained by, grants us a future. We begin to grasp at the value of folk music, and folk recordings. The un-quantifiable value of making music with the people next to you right now.
Curran’s continued turn on her elliptical path toward the “non-quantifiable” experience we seek is the attitude that leads to music discovery, the wonderment that one has walking into an unplanned live show, the awe of a festival atmosphere; the next road trip, the next story, the next song.
We highly encourage you to make it out to one of Western Female’s rare upcoming Northwest dates.
MUSIC: Islander Puts Tidbits of Local Life into Songs
By Michael C. Moore, The Kitsap Sun
October 17, 2016
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND – Melanie Curran was living on Orcas Island a couple of years ago, working at restaurants and playing music when she had the chance, when she noticed that the place's slow pace was speeding up her creative process.
"I remember thinking, 'This is where songs get created,'" said Curran, native to another island — Bainbridge — and galivant of its peripheral regions, from Seattle to Jefferson County. "That's where I started getting more interested in country music. It seemed like everybody there had the blues, and they all had a story behind them. I've always been obsessed by stories, and I liked the directness you find in a country song."
Curran has lived on Bainbridge for most of her life, and indeed currently is bivouacked at the family home, a proud fifth-generation islander.
But she's done time out in the world, as well — in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood and on the Olympic Peninsula, as well as her stint in the San Juan Islands. And she's found plenty of stories, many of which have found their way onto her recently released CD “Hot Sauce in Kitsap County,’ a casual teaming of country, old-time and bluegrass styles written and recorded with a gonzo, first-take aesthetic.
"I would see these places, the kind that hadn't really changed a lot in my lifetime," said Curran, whose background includes an after-school landscaping job while she was at Bainbridge High School, a gig as a guide on the Underground Seattle tour, and a spot in the ensemble of Bainbridge Performing Arts' fall 2015 production of the hippie musical "Hair." ("I love that show. I hadn't ever done any musical theater before, but I figured that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.") "I was spending lots of time in places like the Hilltop Tavern (in Port Townsend) and I started to write these songs. I just made up my mind I was going to turn these stories into songs."
The resulting CD is like a warped travelogue/time capsule of Curran's experiences, starting just across the Agate Pass Bridge from her Bainbridge Home ("RIP 305 Park and Ride") and ending in Seattle with a haunting brace of songs — one about life on Capitol Hill ("Capitol Hill Is Hell") and the other a spoken-word, personalized "History of Seattle," contrasting neighborhoods of two decades ago to a present of "skyscrapers and highrises you don't even remember."
She called the 305 park and ride, which sits across Highway 305 from the thriving Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort, "a living, breathing Craig's List. My uncles would drive away from that place with a different car than the one that got them there.
The songs, she said, were both written and recorded with a decided lack of polish.
"I usually had the title come to me first, and then I'd write the rest of the song," she said matter-of-factly. "If it took me longer than about five minutes to write, I would usually throw it out. I'd think, that's not really a flowing song."
Her aim was to preserve the little snippets of life she observed while working, playing in bands (including Chimacum's High Waisted Ramblers), busking at the Pike Place Market and other locations, or simply in transit between Seattle ("The Kingdome Was An Inside Job") and the Quimper Peninsula ("Jefferson County Two-Step").
"You drive along the Beaver Valley Road (from Port Ludlow to Chimacum), and it looks pretty much the same," she said. "You don't have to wonder what parts of Jefferson County looked like 25 years ago, because it still looks just like that.
"It's going to change at some point," she added wistfully, "which is a shame. I want to tell these stories of what it's like now, and sort of pay them forward to the future."
HONKY TONK TUNES WRITTEN FROM A BAINBRIDGE BEDROOM:
by Jessica Shelton, The Bainbridge Review
November 2, 2016
Like our probable president, that lady with all the missing emails, Melanie Curran travels nowhere without her hot sauce. But not in her bag, swag: She carries it always, on her ankle.
That’s the tattoo version.
The real stuff, Louisiana Crystal, gets squirted on cereal and peanut-butter bagels, “which is maybe unacceptable,” the honky-tonk singer, in a red beret and denim everything, points out.
But she loves the condiment so much that she wrote a song about it, “Hot Sauce in Kitsap County,” which then became the title of her entire album, released on Sept. 30.
“It’s kind of an absurd name,” Curran said.
But absurdity is a creative state.
“I think if you’re too attached to, ‘I’m going to make a really good piece of art,’ if you put too much thought and too much into it, it kind of comes out as anxious music,” the performer explained. “You have to be willing to be weird and let go and see what happens. Sometimes, you just dribble something out or put it on the internet or make a song about it and it’s the thing people respond to the most because it has no pretense.”
Exhibit A was the Fourth of July float “2 Broke 4 Bainbridge,” which Curran threw together with her friend Claire Beaumont.
Thirty minutes before the downtown parade began, they pestered a Kiwanis Club old-timer to let them in.
“We didn’t have a float, we didn’t have a permit, we didn’t even have an idea,” Curran said. But they had bikinis and her alligator truck and its ramshackle contents, which had been squeezed between the Hillary Democrats and the Trump Republicans.
“I don’t know how people took it, but I think they were excited,” Curran said. “There’s just so much absurdity within our political system right now that to stick a truck with a girl in a bikini between those two things, I think was really refreshing.”
Exhibit B, the album, was coined mostly in bed.
Curran scribbled a list of song titles in a fit and then wrote the lyrics after, thinking, “I’m going to write these as fast as possible because I think my friend Dave can record me next week if I go to his house and he’s in between work building the barn at this certain time, but I have to have some songs and they have to be funny.”
The result is poignant, precious old-timey ditties about the Kingdome and Pike Place Market, mementos of home, where Curran’s from and where she’s been rambling.
For Bainbridge folks, she enshrines the 305 Park-and-Ride and Ray Peterson Bulldozing, now TILZ.
“My grandpa, his name is Walt Johnsen, he restores cars, like old ones, you know, Lincoln Continentals and Model A Fords,” Curran explained. “I loved going by [the park-and-ride] and seeing the array of beautiful cars. I loved dreaming, ‘Oh, what if I took off in that RV or that Ford Falcon?’”
Peterson’s Topsoil, as Curran calls it, was where she deposited debris from her high school landscaping business.
“You’d pay 10 or 20 bucks and dump your soil and just watch it go back to the ground and then they’d twist it all around and mix it up and put it back in your truck and you’d have mulch,” the musician recalled. “It just seemed like this whole life cycle was existing there of people getting rid of stuff and it going back to the earth.”
The Kitsap songs were captured on a tape recorder in Curran’s parent’s living room, a mattress buttressed against the windows to hold in the sound.
Curran also laid tracks in Jefferson and King counties. She insists that each county’s vibe leaks into the recording.
Since Kitsap is home, it was fun, kind of warm, cozy. Holed up in a Chimacum attic belonging to her fiddler, Jefferson County, with all its farmland, was wooden and folksy. Suave Seattle required the studio treatment, like, “I’m gonna take some steps to be a songwriter and make some nice, polished recordings,” Curran explained.