She Was Just 17
Smells like teen spirit part 2: 'Just as good as the boys can'
If Austin's teen music scene exudes a whiff of hype (see "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Oct. 24, 2008), consider this: Seventeen-year-old Ariel Abshire released her debut album, Exclamation Love, in late October on Darla Records. Abshire didn't solicit the small but prestigious California-based label, which broke My Morning Jacket, recorded the American Analog Set, and keeps alive Klaus Nomi. It found her on MySpace.
"[Darla] said they don't usually do that – they get a million requests a day," acknowledges Abshire. "It took a long time to get around my being a minor, [since] it's difficult to sign a contract because it's not really set in stone."
More concrete is the fact that Abshire is only one of dozens of young women 21 and under making their mark in Austin.
It didn't hurt that Abshire's stepfather, Lance Myers, was in popular 1990s ska band Gals Panic and steered his friend Andy Sharp toward producing her. Another major stepping stone was starting at Natural Ear Music School before her teens and that founder Michele Murphy put her under the tutelage of Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame fiddler Alvin Crow. Soon she was singing with Crow's Hardcore Country at the Broken Spoke.
"Being with him a few times a month since I was 11 has had a huge impact on me," enthuses Abshire. "I sang my first show at the Spoke when I was 12. Hardcore Country Night influenced me on my album. It's why the instrumentation is simple."
Exclamation Love is a rare recording and not because of Abshire's age. Her youth lends it a love-struck poignancy, but it's the authenticity of her music that makes it so striking, bare emotion expressed poetically against lean arrangements. Her lyrical bite might betray baby teeth in places, but the impression it leaves is permanent. Exclamation Love is nothing if not fully realized.
"Ninth to 10th grade was when I wrote these songs," she reveals. "The most recent ones, I was 16 when I wrote them – 'Exclamation Love' and 'Subscriptions and Lies.' But most of them I started when I was 14 and 15 and ended up finishing them later. It's good to look back on your true feelings, not clouded by the feelings of the moment, then you can write about it."
Something's Got to Happen
Sasha Zoe Ortiz doesn't simply talk; she bubbles effusively. She's no teenager, yet at 21, she's a pure product of Austin's music scene. The daughter of singer-songwriter Natalie Zoe, Ortiz credits Austin School of Music's Dave Sebree and teacher Cid Sanchez for guiding her into the Blues Mafia.
As lead vocalist for the local fivepiece, Ortiz applies her muscular, sultry alto to the band's spirited original blues-rock and also takes pride in performing with T-Bird & the Breaks. In December, Blues Mafia, whose youngest member is 16, competed in an international youth competition called the Blastbeat World Finals in Dublin, Ireland, and won second place. The band's first CD, On the Shoulders of Giants, is due in March.
"There's a lot of negativity in Austin toward young bands, especially if you don't have anything out," admits Ortiz. "Over the course of a year, we built up a fan base, but you can't do it if the venues won't let you try. Most of the venues here are 21 and up, and that's hard to break into when you're young.
"Something's got to happen. Someone's got to step up. Somebody's got to change things. Now is the perfect time for musicians to take everything back."
The Femme Cs
The Cipher Crew wants you to know it isn't your ordinary rap pack. It's a mixed-gender project promoting socially responsible hip-hop and supporting the East Austin community. The local Cipher Crew is based on an NYC effort, captured in 2006's The Hip Hop Project, a documentary produced by Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah.
That's fine by T-Fly, Charity, AROC, Sonja, and Johnetta, the five young women who meet twice a week with the boys of the crew to rehearse and rap. Much like the underlying message at Girls Rock Camp Austin, empowerment is a big issue with these young women. Their environments often mean additional challenges, such as the high incidence of teen pregnancy and school dropout rates. For them, rapping and performing allows them to acknowledge these issues creatively.
"Being a woman doesn't mean we can't rap, because we can," offers pretty, exuberant 17-year-old Cora Lee, better known as AROC. "We're rappers too, and we've got hot rhymes. The first time I got onstage, I loved it – it was poetry.
"I started writing more and more, and with the response I got, I thought, 'Okay, maybe I'm good at this rapping thing!'
"So we can do it just as good as the boys can."
Being a young member of the fairer sex presents complex issues to girls in music, but Ariel Abshire's voice and image demand an adult context for the music.
"Aaron [Miller] of the El Guapos and I write some songs together, and we perform them at my shows," she explains. "Also in my band now is my producer, Andy Sharp; the drummer from his old band Kissinger; and Alex. We call ourselves Ariel Abshire & the Full Grown Men Band."
To Cipher Crew's T-Fly, the old double-standard is still in place. "We have to work twice as hard at everything we do, memorizing, performing, writing, all that. We always have to be on top of our game."
Sasha Zoe Ortiz says it's all in the way you handle the situation.
"Honestly, at first I wanted to be treated as an equal," she muses. "I wanted the band to let me carry equipment, because that's the way my mom raised me as a woman – to be strong and confident and put yourself out there. And I do.
"But you know what, mom? I'm gonna let them carry the PA system!"