The stage inside the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery is narrow, barely wide enough to contain the bundle of energy that is Kera Armendariz. Nattily attired in a white shirt and black suit, an undone polka-dot bow tie slung casually around her neck, she shimmies and shakes as a five-piece version of her band, Kera & the Lesbians — occasionally augmented by backup singers and a harpist — cranks through a set of the music she describes as "bipolar folk," an insouciant mix of gypsy, swing, surf and rockabilly sounds.
"It is so cramped up here that I can't be free!" she exclaims between songs, pulling off the bow tie, as though that might give her more room to move.
For a few years now, Kera & the Lesbians — made up of Armendariz and a rotating cast of supporting musicians — have built a reputation as one of the best live acts in Los Angeles, thanks mainly to the irrepressible energy of their frontwoman. "Performing is probably the only place where I feel comfortable," she says.
She attributes much of her sound to long drives with her father, listening to oldies radio; she mentions Santo & Johnny's lilting steel-guitar instrumental "Sleep Walk" as a major influence, as well as Elvis Presley's Sun Sessions. "I'm a sucker for that slap delay," she says of the King's early vocals.
Her fondest childhood memories are of Hawaii; she was less enamored of her family's next stop, San Diego's North County, but the tedium of suburbia inspired her to devote more time to music. After logging time in several other bands, she began playing her own shows, first as Kera Dominique (her middle name), then as Kera & the Lesbians.
At first, given that her bandmates were mostly men, the name Kera & the Lesbians was something of an inside joke: "I had to find a way to not get upset by another straight male telling me that [he was] a lesbian," she says. But now she enjoys the way it plays with people's expectations — as well as the fact that it's a declaration of her own identity as a queer woman, an identity it took her many years to embrace.
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"I grew up being misgendered a lot, so for a long time I wasn't sure where I fit in the scale of sexuality," she explains. "I knew I loved women, but I wasn't necessarily sure if I was supposed to be born a male and slowly transitioning, or what. And it’s taken me years to just finally embrace the fact that I’m a woman of color, and also just a woman. My pronouns are 'she' and 'her.' But it's taken me a long time to get to that."
After releasing a self-titled Kera & the Lesbians album in early 2016, Armendariz now is focused on putting out singles, preferring to treat each song as a discrete project. She's found the new process invigorating, especially since the hustle of being a full-time musician was starting to burn her out. She continues to perform regularly around town, feeling a greater sense of responsibility to stay connected to her fans and community since the last presidential election.
"Just me being a performer is a political statement in a way. I'm a queer artist. I'm a gay person of color," she says. "I love bringing people together — creating a space for everyone to exist and be comfortable in. As long as they're with me, they're safe."