Try not to catch yourself on fire: scary songs and gender equality with Spirits of the Red City

Will Garrison plucks a page from his sheet music and feebly searches for the correct fret on his guitar.

“Do you guys want to hear a scary song?” Garrison asks the audience at Denver’s Leon Gallery. It’s a wet November evening. PBR and red wine sell for five dollars per mason jar amid hand screen printed t-shirts and EPs.  A makeshift stage framed by antlers and flickering tea lights sets the band apart from its audience. Most are seated around the floor of the gallery.

Before the night’s opener began, one artist set her shoe ablaze. This is the crowd that wants the scary song; they let Garrison know with shouts of enthusiasm.

Garrison looks to the seven golden glowing bodies on his left and right. His foot taps the beat as his bandmates wait patient and knowingly; some visibly inhale as if on cue. Their eyes lock onto their leader and each other. A minor chord grows stronger on Garrison’s guitar as his body rigidly rocks on tempo with the beat.

This is Lie to Me, a song from the band’s most recent album Jula, and the word “scary” doesn’t do it justice. Lie to Me walks straight into the dark forest of terrifying and leaves the listener wandering out breathless.

Garrison’s lyrics speak of love and betrayal; of a hurt so deep one would rather face obvious deception than the painful truth of that deception.

Spirits so beautifully solicit raw, emotional, unadulterated fear of a real kind. They’re powerful, passionate and they know their instruments as if each were a piece of themselves.

Metamorphosing moments of graceful, frightening and harmonic melodies break silence apart when this band plays. Songs like Halfway Poem speak of love and isolation; of belonging and partnership. Lead Us is a stripped down, ardent call to motion.

Video courtesy Sarah Megyesy, Side Pocket Images

Spirits of the Red City refer to themselves as a collective. They’re musicians who come from differing backgrounds of music: classically and professionally-trained cellists and bassists; guitarists, woodwind and brass players. All are vocalists. Folk, jazz and classical upbringings string the eight musicians together. The band calls everywhere home and they’re constantly adding and exchanging players. Everyone brings something unique to the table. It’s a strategy the collective embraces.

Spirits of the Red City is family, both by blood and in the bonds created as touring artists. It’s a trait that’s special about them. Their familial bond is projected in their music, their live performances, and in their collective ideology and attitudes.

In November I visited cellist Danah Olivetree’s home in Boulder to speak to the women of Spirits of the Red City before their Leon Gallery show.

In Danah’s backyard, chickens roamed and pecked at disregarded birthday cake left on the ground. Danah and sisters Alyssa and Rachel Overby talked about touring with the band, busking on Pearl Street, and what it’s like to work as women in independent music today.

How do you feel about being women in the modern day music industry?

Alyssa: As a group, we work really hard in the production end of it. We’re really team oriented. This group in particular is more about family. We have such a mix of gender and such a mix of sibling blood in our group that it definitely brings on a different aspect than a normal band would. There’s the main singer and then the backup guys, that’s pretty typical. I love to see girls taking it on ‘cause it is more male dominated. Rachel and I are sisters. This past summer we started a girl band, just because.

Spirits of the Red City at the Leon Gallery in Denver. December 7, 2014. Photo by Lauren Maslen.

Spirits of the Red City at the Leon Gallery in Denver. December 7, 2014. Photos by Lauren Maslen.

What was it called?

Alyssa: No Chance Charlies. It was a country band. We played one festival in Alaska.

Rachel: It was kind of a joke band.

Ayssa: It’s kind of different with this band.

Rachel: I never feel like there’s an imbalance. There’s never anyone taking a dominant role or anyone disrespecting anyone else.

Alyssa: Especially because our singer, Will Garrison, he’s kind of the leader in a way. It’s definitely been a learning curve. We’ve been around since 2009. We’ve been on the road for five years now.spirits copy

Do you ever experience different reactions depending on where you play your music?

Alyssa: There’s a difference in the bar scene versus a house show. Our music doesn’t really encourage a party.

Danah: Our music isn’t fun.

Rachel: The change I’ve seen is more individual for myself. When I first started getting into music, I was all, ‘Women power! There has to be a women in the band for me to appreciate it.’ But it’s completely changed since then. I feel like I’m way less rigid. But it’s more so the changes for me individually.

Alyssa: I feel like we’re in a subculture of music genre, not in the mainstream. The mainstream media definitely creates a whole other feeling toward women than our underground thing. There seems to be just balanced feminine and masculine energy in this subculture between women and men. There almost doesn’t seem to be that dividing line.

danah copy

Rachel: Looking at feminism in the same way as racism, it’s still very prevalent but it’s not something we have to experience on an everyday basis. Feminism is something that’s very up in the air. We can be very aware of. Racism is allowed to fizzle out by not being aware of race. The same can go for gender too by not being aware of gender. That helps me a lot when I’m like, ‘Oh this person is being a chauvinist to me.’ No, they’re just being nice, they’re going to open the door for somebody else, too. Little things like that.

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Alyssa: That’s a good point. How you hold yourself has a lot to do with how you’re treated, in any circumstance. The awareness you have of your position and not really caring if people are judging you because you’re a woman. You have to not think about that anymore and not give that power anymore. It’s hard, but we’re the change. We’re the next generation. I feel like a lot has changed already.

Do you feel like the Colorado music scene is unique in any way?

Danah: The music community here is definitely more supportive and integrated than pretty much anywhere else. I just moved here a month and a half ago because I met this amazing music community and it just made sense to me. This is support in a sense that the scene does allow women to be awesome. It’s not a scene that asks you to prove anything.


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