If a person's eyes are the windows to the soul, then their voice is the intercom connecting you to the prisoner behind the glass. Sitting on the weathered wooden deck at Gaby & Mo's, the Manor Road stop on Austin's coffeehouse circuit, Seela's big, brown eyes pierce the dusk just as her voice changes like the fading light. One moment she rasps like a Jersey deli queen, the next she's cooing coquettishly. Her stare is direct, like Krishna contemplating Radha, but the local singer-songwriter's voice dances like the Hindu deities' Divine Melody. Seela is something else. But Something Happened, namely this modern grrrl's second album. Released on her friend/producer/ex-Glass Eye bassist Brian Beattie's fledgling local indie, New Improved Music, Something Happened was described as "stark, oftimes sexy, [and] confrontationally passive-aggressive" in the local press when the disc came out last November. Whereas her self-released '96 debut Probably Lucy steeped itself in a similarly spare sultriness, the singer's initial foray into recording was strictly -- and soundly -- Chicago House: singer-songwriter central. With Something Happened, Seela goes Lauryn, Abra, and Liz Phair all at once, reeling more than rocking, and always with the lamp light turned way down low. Yow! What happened?
"Something," she says, the glint in her eye as steely as her incisor-sharp smile. "Some Thing."
Yes, well, whatever it is, it's dark and atmospheric. When veteran local guitarist/studio wunderkind Craig Ross introduces opener "Angel II" with a serrated riff, and the empty-room echo of bass and snare drum goad Seela into her accusatory first verse ("You were mad for a while, was that me? I could feel you tire, from so far away. You were dark for a while, was that me? Or just one more thing you won't let me see, just one more thing not meant for me?"), there's no mistaking the album's noir.
The wistful, resigned "Give Up," Sheryl Crowish "Hurricane," Suzanne Vegaesque "Peace of Mind," the (dis)comforting toy-piano- and-trumpet lullaby "Something Else," and finally the album-closing, radio-ready, one-two punch of "If I'm Wrong" and the terrifically catchy "Belly" somehow conspire on a crime that's impossible to prove, let alone name. What her songwriting lacks in answers, it makes up for in mood. Just what happened?
"I don't like music that tells me what to think or how to feel," snaps Seela. "I don't like any of my art that way. I don't like to go to the movies and know within 15 minutes who the bad guy is. I like it when the bad guy looks like everybody else. I don't like songs that are sung in a sad voice so I know it's a sad song."
She pauses for dramatic effect, flashing her dark mascara grin.
"I like to make things out on my own. I hope that's what people who listen to this album will do."
Worse things could happen, like perhaps being musically proficient from a young age (piano lessons), and then having that muse awaken just about the same time as a well-known post-college phenomenon: move to Austin. Out the door of Indiana University in Pennsylvania, Seela (née Misra) was gifted a tape of Michael Penn's pop prize March, which she played over and over until her Walkman's batteries died on the plane ride down here. Canadian by birth ("I can't stand the summers here!"), Seela's fate was sealed for the next decade by the time she hit Austin asphalt in 1990-91.
"A lot of people, you just say that record and they're like, 'Oh, yeah! That was the one!' she enthuses. "Definitely. That was the first time I realized songwriting is a thing on its own."
Ten years later, the feisty twentysomething ("that's not polite -- you can't ask me [my age]!") still isn't sure what made her remain in Austin, but one auspicious Whole Foods encounter with Beattie and two LPs later, Seela has no intention of leaving. She admits having a basketful of eggs perched on Something Happened.
"Yeah, right now they are," she says seriously. "And I think really, that's the only way to do it. If I didn't do it this way, I would never forgive myself. I'm committed to working hard on this and to making this my priority."
Having recently completed a short jaunt up the West Coast -- her first tour ("It went terrific!") -- the singer dreads the $500 tuneup due her van, but is eager to hit the road nonetheless, aided by Something Happened MVP guitarist Darwin Smith, drummer Jon Greene, and bassist Mike Porter, who replaced the locally departed Edwin Livingston. Said van sits in the darkened driveway of her East Austin abode, husband Brannen Temple inside at the computer, rather than his drum kit. Yes, that Brannen Temple, Austin-born badass.
"His mother is from Austin, too," Seela says proudly. "His dad is from the Bronx, but a lot of his father's family lives here also. They met at Houston-Tillotson College -- His family is great. They've just totally taken me in. My mother lives here now, too."
Married two years this March, the couple has been together more than five, though Seela laughs ruefully at the memory of the Live Music Capital's wedding gift to her and Temple: his arrest during South by Southwest 98 for moving a Sixth Street police barricade in order to get his equipment-laden vehicle out of the area. Looking forward to SXSW 2000, are you?
"I don't know," she sighs. "South by Southwest just has so much going on, and unless somebody is pointed in your direction, they're not gonna see it. A couple of years ago, I was playing, and Matthew Sweet was playing for free down the street. Who the hell is gonna come and see me when they can go and see Matthew Sweet? So, I don't know."
A year or two before that, the festival found her singing jazz standards with the local-grooving Jazz Pharaohs (her first local and still occasional pastime) and led to her performing with a 16-piece big band at the National Arts Center in Gramercy Park, New York ("a real fancy-pants gig"). With all the correct music-industry machinery currently at her back -- a band, a label, and a good local PR firm (Otherworldly Contact) -- something just might happen.
"You know, I don't think about that stuff," waves off Seela. "I wanna run a good rehearshal. I want to play a good gig. That's a lot of energy right there. That's my job at this point. The machinery is doing its job. That's one of the good things about being on a label that takes itself seriously, is that now I can do my job.
"To be honest, it's a little intimidating, because a lot of people are putting a lot of time, money, and energy into making things happen with me, and therefore I have to hold up my end of the bargain. I can't suck."
Seela's SXSW showcase happens at Jazz Bon Temps (Mercury Upstairs) Thursday, March 16, 11pm.