By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
Pop in the Playhouse: Gwendolyn gives the whole weird world
Perhaps her hippie parentage explains it all. The genre in which singer-guitarist Gwendolyn has evolved can be called psychedelic folk, preceded by ’60s progenitors such as the Holy Modal Rounders and Pearls Before Swine, though she sounds similar to no one on Earth. Her earliest self-penned tunes reminded producer Ben Vaughn so much of Celtic folk music that he flew her to Scotland and recorded her with local musicians. (The result, Lower Mill Road, is scheduled for a 2004 release.) Yet her music stems from a limitless imagination that distills everything she’s experienced to create highly peculiar soundscapes whose closest comparison may be a musical Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Gwendolyn does indeed have a childlike quality: She often dresses in baby-doll shoes, short skirts and pigtails, and has recently released a kids’ album — but more about that later.
Gwendolyn had a last name but has dispensed with it professionally, further adding to her mystique. Born in Philly and raised in Sierra Madre, she attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where she met two-thirds of her current band. She’s worked as an actor since age 13, beginning to play guitar and write songs at 19, and to play live at 22, a mere six years ago. Incessant gigging honed her chops, and an open mind allowed her to season. “When I sit down and write, it doesn’t come out that odd,” she muses. “There are a few chords where people say, ‘How’d you come up with that one?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know. I just let my fingers do the walking, open my mouth and out it comes.’”
What often emerges is steeped in kinky time signatures and bizarre harmonic modulations. “Haphazard” on her new album, Dew (www.gwendolyn.net), begins as a slow blues, shifts to an amphetamine shuffle and winds up in a rhythmic/melodic free-for-all. Her band consists of Robert Petersen on upright bass, Quazar (of Quazar & the Bamboozled and formerly Lutefisk) on percussion (pots, pans, bicycle wheel, candlestick holders, Tibetan bells, etc.), and Douglas Lee on glass harmonica, banjo, saw and water jug. The glass harmonica is actually 26 wine glasses bolted into a wooden box and tuned with various amounts of water; Lee rubs the rim of each glass with wetted fingers. Dew is bolstered with guests including guitarist Smokey Hormel and Ralph Carney on horns and lap guitar.
Gwendolyn’s songs deal with love and politics and sexuality and the human condition, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. It’s in her obtuse lyrics where an analogy to Captain Beefheart is most pronounced. “Beetle of strife/You’re the scholar of life/The insect perspective is modest/And quite valuable,” she sings in “Insect Perspective.” She’s capable of being a lyrical conversationalist as well, then will lapse into a Philly street-chick rap. “Ben Vaughn thinks I have 18 different personalities and probably more that have yet to be discovered,” she says, laughing.
Gwendolyn’s “Freedom of the Heart (Ooodily Ooodily)” was featured in the film Chuck and Buck, and while the playful sing-along was used to accent a particularly strange adult theme in that movie, its popularity led Gwendolyn into performing and writing for children. So in addition to Dew, this year’s seen the release of Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang, one of the rare kiddie albums that’s endearing to tots but has enough weirdo musicality to make it appealing to adults. She and her gang do the occasional nursery-school gig.
The rare space she inhabits would imply that Gwendolyn has experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. She admits to it but says she hasn’t “overdone” them: “My view of psychedelics is that they’re there to open up the door, but they’re not the room itself. The greatest exploration comes after the psychedelics are done and you decide what to do with the knowledge you have.
“I think anyone can tap into their imagination,” adds our faerie princess. “Life is like a trip. You’re just gonna have to hold on and have some faith, and that’s it.”
Metric stand alone on the Los Angeles club scene, and they don’t care. Metric don’t want to be a “local band,” because it’ll make them hipsters, and that gets boring. Primarily it’s fun they’re after — not puke-yer-guts fun, but a smart, incendiary goof-off.
“I think fun can be political,” says singer–synth player Emily Haines. “If you have it, you’ve won.” But good times have never been so hard for a band to come by: The record deal that transplanted Metric to L.A. went belly-up, and the band’s been slagged for their easygoing ennui fused with jet-set moxie — a combo that might just make them überstars but has prompted mixed reviews locally.
In 2001, Haines and multi-instrumentalist James Shaw launched Metric in Toronto, playing as an art-pop outfit and grabbing comparisons to Blonde Redhead and Elastica. Characteristically for the pair, they got fidgety, moved to NYC, then to London and back to New York, where they signed with L.A.’s Restless Records and promptly moved out west to work. When Restless unraveled, Shaw, Haines and drummer Joules Scott-Key decided not to follow suit, opting instead to conquer the scene, play live constantly, make a name for themselves and, of course, get some kicks. In their first year out as independents, they’ve managed to strike a deal with Enjoy Records for a debut album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?