Kelly McFarling Relishes the Lushness of a Lost Time on Deep The Habit

As we reach the year anniversary of the pandemic and all of the disarray it has brought into our lives, people have begun to reflect on how it’s changed them. One such person is Bay Area singer-songwriter Kelly McFarling, who released her latest LP Deep The Habit on March 12. She recorded the album pre-COVID but chose to delay the release until now. Rather than worrying about how some of the original meaning might be lost, however, she hopes that it has become all the more poignant; calling Deep The Habit “a very beautiful time capsule of this group of people who I really miss a lot,” McFarling admits that although so much has changed, “it feels nice to celebrate it right now.”

The delightfully mellow collection of ten songs is welcome in this new paradigm, comforting in its warmth and its new spin on old classics. McFarling intended for the record to sound like a feminine take on J.J. Cale or Dire Straits. She felt “like there was a little gap in that canon,” saying, “I wasn’t hearing a lot of female voices within that realm, and I kind of wanted to have more of a female-fronted version of that.” But McFarling infuses this traditionally masculine, bluesy-Americana sound with softness and vulnerability, giving us something refreshing and honestly soothing. Moments of pop sheen, like the hook on “Birds,” give the record a touch of witchy Stevie Nicks cool, and McFarling’s refinement of her folk sound on previous records (like 2017’s Water Dog, 2013’s Ridgeline, and 2010 debut Distractible Child) calls to mind Hiss Golden Messenger or Molly Sarlé. 

There’s a lushness to Deep The Habit, one born of McFarling’s effort to highlight the talent of the musicians she has playing in her band (Tim Marcus on pedal steel, Oscar Westesson on bass, Nick Cobbett on drums, Andrew Brennan on guitar, and Brittany Powers on backing vocals). “I think it’s kind of an evolution we’ve been doing, of folk music into a more lush, rock album,” she explains. “More instrumentation, more complex arrangements for a band. My previous album was a lot more stripped down, in a folk realm. [On Deep The Habit] I was going for something that would really showcase the band that I’m playing with right now.” 

She names family as the major theme of the album, but notes that the word has many connotations – “questions about family, about whether or not to have a family… the family I’m building in my life.” On a more macrocosmic level, the theme of “family” as it relates to humanity in general (and the demise of our planet as we know it) haunts the listener as McFarling croons “Am I the last of my kind?” over and over on the hook of “Last of My Kind.” “I think another major theme is connection to the natural world, and having that tie into family as being a citizen of the planet and the changes that are happening there – just feeling a lot of sadness about that,” she says.

These musings on family and humanity are more poignant in March 2021 than they ever could have been in early March 2020; many of us are at a point where we’ve never gone so long without seeing our families and loved ones, while having also been robbed of the daily interactions that instill our lives with a sense of familiarity and comfort. McFarling acknowledges this, saying, “It is interesting to me how many of those themes were coming up, and maybe even being foreshadowed before this all happened. I’m sure people will perceive it differently based on the pandemic, but it was all [written] before.”

This consideration makes the idea of a time capsule all the more dynamic, something living inside us and changing with us, as opposed to something buried deep in the ground. The resentments and frustrations we might have felt of those close to us maybe don’t glare the same way they used to, in the absence of these same people. And alternatively, the joy and pleasure we felt in their company becomes all the more precious and golden in hindsight.

The concept of family has become more dynamic for McFarling in this time as well, as it relates to her relationship with her partner, co-producer, and guitarist Andrew Brennan. Quarantined together, they’ve begun to collaborate musically more than ever, though she emphasizes that he already was a major part of Deep The Habit. “Andrew is one of the major evolutions of this record we’re about to put out as well, because he has a huge part in the arrangement and some of the writing, getting it ready for this big band,” she explains. “I feel like the record we’ve been making during quarantine has been the next step in that collaboration.”

While some bemoan long empty hours and too much togetherness, McFarling basks in the positive aspects of it. “I tend to get inspired when things are a little foundationless and tricky, so this time has been ripe for that,” she says. “My husband and I are stuck in a house and we are using that time to write songs together, which has been really beautiful.” 

She heads back into the studio to record another album in May, noting how weird it is to be recording and releasing an album at the same time, no album cycle, no tour. More than anything else, she wants the listener to take from this album its overarching joy, despite its deep themes and sometimes melancholy sound. “I think a lot of that has to do with the band and how joyful it was to play music together. You can hear that in the way that these songs came out,” she says. “The joy that comes through in the record makes me appreciate that we got to do that. I know that we’ll get to do it again, but not getting to do it, and then hearing the songs, and hearing the sounds together is bittersweet – but also hopeful for me.”

In the end, that’s all any of us can do when life throws us the unexpected – try not worry about what’s out of our control and find joy in what is. Kelly McFarling sums it up nicely on album track “Just As Small”: “You can see just how small you really are/While we aim for what is coming/And we ache for what is gone.”

Follow Kelly McFarling on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING THE BAY: Half Stack Has One Foot Out the Door in New EP Single “Goner”

“Goner,” the new single from Oakland band Half Stack, comes two years after their last release, 2018’s full-length Quitting Time. With an easy narrative and simplistic lyrics, it’s the first track from their upcoming EP, Aw Hell.

Half Stack have always played on the contrast of their youth with the twang of their old-school sound, the latter of which has caused them to stand out in the traditionally punk and rock-saturated Bay Area music scene. “Goner” leans into the band’s country inflections even more heavily than on Quitting Time (despite some distinctly more understated album art). Coupled with the EP title, it’s my guess that Aw Hell will be an exercise in storytelling as much as anything — a love letter to the idea of being a cowboy, as opposed to the reality.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s always exciting to find bands that are willing to challenge the norm musically while still having one foot firmly planted in the Bay Area — in fact, Quitting Time was mixed and recorded by LA-based musician Jay Som, who was raised in Brentwood.

The strength of “Goner” lies in its chorus, a rambling promise that sounds like a lie even as it falls from singer and guitarist Peter Kegler’s lips. The band sounds most confident here and the first verse, which holds my favorite line of the entire song: sometimes I wake up talking to the wall/thanks for leaving/the light on in the hall. Small moments like this are some of my favorites in any genre, lines that could apply to any flavor of relationship or friendship but still evoke a palpable sense of intimacy, and, in this case, claustrophobia. The whole thing is very Creedence Clearwater Revival-esque — another Bay Area band with Southern leanings — but with some Eagles sprinkled on top, especially in the twangy instrumental outro that made me feel like I had been dropped straight into a plastic inner tube on the Russian River by some unseen giant’s hand.

Later verses are not as effective, leaning too heavily on the goodwill of country’s straightforwardness, leaving us with a string of overly simplistic rhymes that don’t invoke much, especially compared to that strong first verse. Half Stack clearly understands the power of colloquialism and word choice — calling their EP Aw Hell indicates as much — so it remains to be seen where they’ll place the bulk of their attentions when the full EP drops on September 27th.

Follow Half Stack on Facebook for more updates.

PLAYING THE BAY: Sour Widows Want You In On Their Townie Vibes

photo by Lynn Torres

Sour Widows are here to educate the big-city people on the art of slowing down. “[Our music] has this lackadaisical, small-town vibe to it” says Maia Sinaiko, singer and guitarist for the three-piece Bay Area band. This can certainly be said of “Tommy,” the preview single for their new EP, which invites the listener to meander between the warbling vocals of Maia and fellow bandmate Susanna Thomson. Their two voices almost break as the song reaches its punky crescendo and plunges into the sort of brokenhearted entreaty that precedes a post-breakup hair-dying montage: Are you gonna be the one I think of?

I had the pleasure of speaking to the whole band last week to get some insights on the new song, their Bay Area roots, and what’s next for Sour Widows.

I had to ask about the band name, of course. “It’s a weed strain,” Susanna tells me with a laugh. “We just thought it sounded really punk.” But as is the power of most throwaway jokes, it stuck, and now they love it. “We’ve like, matured into it,” she says, though I still sense a smile in her voice.

This theme of “maturing into things” comes up often, from performance style to lyric creation to cultural history. Having started out as just “two guitars and two voices,” according to Maia, the band has already lived a few different musical lives. Now, they have the welcome challenge of thinking about lyrics and guitars as the initial building blocks rather than the finished project. Even the oldest songs on the EP, created long before the addition of drummer Max Edelman, have gone through enough of an evolution that Maia can confidently say “they are Sour Widows songs now.” Two of the songs Maia wrote were conceived more than a year ago, and when I ask what it’s like to perform them now, they say the songs feel “less specific to a time and place in my life and more like an emotional journey.”

The band chose “Tommy” to preview the EP for similar reasons. While they were looking to release a top-down roadtrippin’ song with “gooey summer vibes,” they also felt that “Tommy” perfectly encapsulated what they were trying to accomplish overall; music that was intimate without feeling restrictive; cathartic, but still contained. “Bedroom rock,” they call it. “It’s a nod to the kind of intimacy that we like to write about,” says Susanna. “Bedroom could mean sleepy, it could mean dreamy… it could mean weepy, too, like you go to your bedroom to cry [laughs] or just to feel alone…I think it kinda captures a lot of the emotional parts of the music well.”

The three friends have known each other for years, something they think makes them stand out when performing. “There’s a long-term, loving, townie vibe that you experience on stage when we play together…and it feels really good when people notice that,” says Susanna, inspiring a surprised laugh from Maia at the use of “townie.” All three of them cite their experiences growing up away from the central Bay Area cities as having been integral to the development of the musical styles. Whether they grew up fully outside the Bay, like Susanna, or in a Bay suburb, like Max, their experiences creating music without a lot of outside influence allowed them to marinate within the relative quiet of their respective adolescent lives, planting the seeds of that bedroom rock intimacy that shows up during the first half of “Tommy.” Max especially expresses an appreciation for this isolation as enabling him to figure out what he wanted to hear and play in his own time. And while Maia says that after a year of performing, they are starting to feel less like like outsiders to the Bay Area music scene, it’s clear to me that the band has no plans to altogether abandon the softness that brought them together in the first place. On stage, they occasionally find themselves slipping into that quieter place, even if it’s not apparent on the outside. “It’s kind of like we’re in our bedrooms, like, jamming together,” Max says.

Their ease with one another is apparent in the photos they host on their Facebook page, a series of sunny snaps of the band embracing, all three sporting bright eyeshadow. Maia, discussing the band’s relationship with the word “queer,” cites how the band presents themselves aesthetically as an important facet of their connection with that identity, from choosing photographers to tour mates. “I think it really is important to me that people know we are a band that includes that identity and represents that identity, and it’s made a big impact on what bands we feel conformable playing with how we organize our tours,” they elaborate. “I think it’s allowed us to connect with a really amazing network of people in the Bay and also across the country… it’s helped us feel safe and secure in a different way.”

The band is clearly energized when talking about the future, excited to build upon their touring relationship, looking to put some of that collective performance energy into more collaborative lyrics and arrangements. Max hints at lots of new material that was influenced by the tour, where they got a chance to “[see] where the scene’s at, what we wanna do, what we don’t wanna do.” The other two echo this sentiment emphatically. It can be hard to create with friends, much less tour with them, but the fact that Sour Widows only gain more creative drive as a result of their friendship is a heartening testament to their love and respect for one another – not only as musical collaborators, but as human beings.

Sour Widow’s next single, “Pilot Light,” premieres September 13th, with a release show the day after. Later this month, catch them with Hot Flash Heat Wave and Jasper Bones at The New Parish in Oakland on August 30th.

PLAYING THE BAY: Twin Peaks Promoters Expand Community With Two-Day Twin Shrieks Fest

Twin Peaks Sessions organizers Jonathan Abrams, Rianne Garrido and Michael Donnelly. Photo by Trevor Skinner.

While ascending the steps to the upper level at Twin Shrieks fest, I almost knocked over someone’s plate of watermelon. “Sorry!” I mouthed into the dark, settling down to watch the next set from on high.

The plate was fitting; day one of the the two-day fest was like a punk rock cookout, with merch, artwork, and food stacked in foil wraps lining the walls, the stands cupping the performance stage like splayed hands. It was very much a family affair, occasionally in the literal sense (organizer Rianne Garrido’s parents flew up from Southern California to provide snacks and support) but also in the sense that Twin Shrieks seemed its own sort of family, the kind that gets made in the quiet by those making art, who know those making art, who know those making art of a whole other sort…

Garrido told me it had all come together quite naturally; the warehouse space for day one is normally used for theater rehearsals, so it was prepared (at least somewhat) for the likes of an audience. Day two was hosted at a tried-and-true venue, the rooftop space where the fest’s organizers host the weekly acoustic Twin Peaks Sessions. Day two was all acoustic as well, and from what I saw on Garrido’s Instagram the next day, it was all very intimate, with sets ranging from spirited one-man-shows to tinkling full-band covers.

Day one, however, was all movement and noise, a bounce house of sweat and energy emanating from the bowls of a labyrinthine West Oakland warehouse. I emerged into the performance space mid-song, giggling with my friend after walking down a eerie and bizarrely long white hallway where I half-expected to meet El from Stranger Things. Onstage was Taking Meds, a New York band on tour to promote their latest full-length, I Hate Me. Their set is what compelled me to describe the night as a “bounce house” – it was hard not to immediately get caught up in the energy of the crowd as members of the crew and the other bands bounced up and down with feverish intensity, waving phones and Garrido’s somehow magically unscathed digital camera.

My friend was particularly astonished by bassist Jon Markson, who would twist his body and face into shapes heretofore unseen by man while offhandedly doing the splits despite standard-issue punk-band skinny jeans. My friend works in theater; I would be the first to tell her that if you are looking for some physics-defying theatricality, a punk show is the place to be.

Next up was Bay Area band Damper, ending their set with a crowd-chorus of “Never Truly Satisfied,” the closer of their latest EP, All We Have to Do. 

Rounding out the evening was Playing The Bay alum and Twin Shrieks headliner Kevin Nichols, who performed a handful of unreleased material, including “Disappointer” and “Barf.” “Disappointer” is a particular standout, and I look forward to comparing my live experiences of the song with the studio version. Nichols was, incidentally, also the first ever performer at Twin Peaks Sessions, so this evening was very full-circle for both him and the Festival’s organizers, who I spotted screaming his lyrics into the other side of the mike like they were collectively trying to summon a specter from the concrete ground between their feet. While I certainly expected this, it was almost (and I mean this in the best way possible) like watching a bunch of kids at a sleepover sing their favorite songs into a improvised mic — only this time, your favorite songs have been created by your friends.

No surprise to me why Nichols is still so happy he moved to the Bay.

I talked to Twin Shriek’s organizers – Mike Donnelly, Jon Abrams, and Rianne Garrido – for some more insights on the process, lessons learned, and what’s next for Twin Peaks Sessions.

Kevin Nichols plays Twin Shrieks Fest. Photo by Rianne Garrido.

AF: What was the inspiration for the fest?

MD: While we’ve been hosting our acoustic Twin Peaks house shows, we slowly began branching out to other venues that allow for full bands (amps, drums, and an actual PA!). In the back of my mind I always wanted to put on something bigger than your standard 2-3 band bill, involving diverse acts, local art vendors, and the most important of all — community. We love to bring people together.

We drew inspiration from major punk festival Riot Fest in Chicago, but more realistically, fests such as Fest in Gainesville, Florida, and the handful of day-long DIY fests Rianne and I attended during our visit to Austin’s “unofficial” SXSW shows. These DIY fests (put on by The Alternative, DIY Tour Postings, and more) ranged from taking over a dive bar to someone’s backyard. I’ve lately taken on the mindset of “anything can be turned into a music venue,” and my mind was racing as to what we could do with [the project we] dubbed as Twin Shrieks.

The approach going into this was to find a safe, all-ages and somewhat “underground” venue for day one where we would allow for full bands, knowing day two we would simply wind down acoustically at our usual Twin Peaks spot. When we stumbled upon a rad, safe, for-rent warehouse space in West Oakland, we went all in with planning.

The biggest inspiration for the fest was the musicians and artists we’ve met along the way in doing Twin Peaks Sessions. The amount of talent in the Bay Area is massive and we wanted to host an event that celebrates the creativity of our local community.

AF: What were your biggest challenges organizing the event and what do you wish you had known ahead of time?

MD: The biggest challenge was time management, and planning out an itinerary for a space we never used, a space that upon arrival would be totally empty and we’d have to set up from scratch (in a one hour window). I wish I mapped out everything ahead of time (vendor tables, more advanced stage plot) and also gave numerous people job responsibilities during setup. Setup, with the help of some KICK ASS volunteers, ended up going well, and music started right on time. The first two hours were the biggest stressors but we communicated and moved to get it all sorted out!

RG: None of us have had any prior experience in organizing an event of this scale so we went into planning with full caution and attention to detail. We quickly learned the importance of setting up an efficient ticket sales/RSVP system to a well-timed load in, consistent communication with all participants, recording expenses, food prep, and everything in between. We met every week to make sure we covered all bases and tracked everything in an all-encompassing spreadsheet. We’re huge fans of a good ‘ol spreadsheet!

JA: It wasn’t necessarily our intention to make any money from it, but we did want to have a sense of expenses versus profits to help plan for future events. We did a pretty good job keeping tabs on what we spent and what we made, but we’d make some changes in the future to streamline that process. The sustainability of events like this unfortunately can live and die by the money.

AF: What were your favorite parts about organizing?

MD: I love forming a bill — for Twin Shrieks, getting to form a nine-band bill day one, and seven bands day two… oh the joy!

RG: Seeing and experiencing the behind-the-scenes of what it takes to put on a festival really made me appreciate the hard work that went into previous festivals I’ve attended. We loved seeing the support on social media from all of the musicians and artists in the time leading up to the festival. Hosting this festival truly became a community effort and we’re really grateful to everyone who took part in it (bands, artists, volunteers and attendees) — you helped make it happen!

Damper plays Twin Shrieks. Photo by Rianne Garrido.

AF:What was your favorite part of the actual fest?

MD: My favorite part was once all was set up and things began to run themselves (shoutout to Gabe on sound, who totally ran the show between acts and during) it allowed us to really rock the heck out during sets! Getting to stop by each merch table, check in with vendors, and most importantly check in with the attendees who were having so much fun while discovering new music. I loved to see people getting merch from bands they did not know of a half hour prior.

RG: Shows have always had a special place in my heart for giving me a space to feel safe and welcome. Putting on this festival was a great reminder as to why I have such a big love for this community. The feeling of being surrounded by like-minded individuals who share a genuine appreciation for music and the arts gives me immense joy. The sense of camaraderie in the room was so tangible — I can’t even begin to describe it! I owe so much of my personal growth to the music scene, and to help host an event that aspires to provide the same inclusive space it did for me growing up was such a humbling and rewarding experience. The most memorable moment for me was having my parents there helping serve the food. They were gushing afterwards saying they felt so loved by everyone who came. My mom summed it up best when she used three words to describe everyone who took part in it — wholesome, humble and appreciative. I couldn’t agree more.

JA: Seeing everyone have such a great time! And seeing all these different people we had met in various different contexts all together in the same room, some who knew each other already, some meeting each other for the first time. Community! And also being able to play on the bill alongside a ton of amazing bands that we love and have a ton of respect for.

AF: What is a question you wish you were asked more often?

We wish our community would always feel comfortable reaching out to us for help in any regard. Whether it be music related/getting a venue situation sorted out, or even in other significant areas such as mental health, we’re happy to lend a hand and also be there to listen. The strength and longevity of this community depends on taking care of the people in it, and our aim is to support anyone the best we can.

AF: What’s next for Twin Peaks Sessions?

We will continue dropping recorded sessions on our YouTube page each Thursday, and host a couple house shows a month. We will continue branching out to other venues as well, getting exposure as bookers who help touring bands and locals pick up gigs and form bills. Oh, and Twin Shrieks 2020 planning has already begun!

Adult School plays day two of Twin Shrieks at the Twin Peaks Sessions usual rooftop spot. Photo by Rianne Garrido.

INTERVIEW: Happy Fangs

Happy Fangs photo

Anyone that’s been likened to Bikini Kills lights up our radar. The Bay Area-based scuzz rockers Happy Fangs consists of Rebecca Bortman, Michael Cobra (Mr.Cobra), and Jess Gowrie. A name of dichotomy, Happy Fangs recently released their debut LP, Capricorn to critical acclaim. It’s the sort of music that will have your body thrashing before your brain knows what’s going on, lighting the way with the bridges you burn. We spoke with Happy Fang about Tina Turner, lack of sleep, and penning songs inspired by Jeff Goldblum’s lazer bears.

Audiofemme: So how did you guys meet and form a band?

Happy Fangs (All): Rebecca & Mr. Cobra met while playing in San Francisco bands that had one thing in common—Room 13, a practice space in The Tenderloin in San Francisco. We started out as a two piece with a drum machine but soon realized we wanted a live drummer to help kick up the energy. We searched so far, we ended up all the way out in Sacramento where we found Jess Gowrie, the best drummer in the world.

AF: Where does the name Happy Fangs derive from?

HF: When you have a bandmate with the legal last name of Cobra, you’ve gotta have a ferocious band name. When you have a bandmate as giddy as Rebecca, sometimes the band names itself. Jess joined after the band was named but she is truly the perfect third fang.

AF: Where is your favorite hometown venue to perform in?

HF: We just played we just play Great American Music Hall as the hometown show on this tour. Imagine playing in a Great-Gatsby-style 1920s venue with all the grandeur, gold, and velvet that you’d expect! Mr. Cobra was warming up on guitar before our set only to look over to see a picture of Robert Plant warming up on his guitar in the same spot. It’s so awesome to play at a venue that’s had so many amazing musicians grace the stage!

AF: How does the city of San Francisco influence your sound?

HF: We are actually a duel city band. Jess lives in Sacramento. That being said I think the urban environments that all three of us choose to live in contributes greatly to the pace and drive of our music.

AF: You’re currently on tour – What do you miss most from home while traveling?

HF: Sleep! What is that again?

AF: Can we expect to catch you on the East Coast anytime soon?

HF: Plans are in the works!

AF: Who were your musical icons?

Rebecca: Tina Turner has influenced me before I only understood that singing was different than talking. Her moves & her glamour & that incredible stage presence!

Mr. Cobra: Mine are an amalgamation of King Buzzo, Pepper Keenan, and Ian MacKay.

Jess: I’ve been called many names: Phyllis Collins, Joanna Bonham, Donna Henley. Singing drummers aren’t easy to find!

AF: If you could have anyone join you on stage – who would it be?

HF: David Bowie, Beth Gibbons from Portishead, and Jesse Keeler of Death from Above 1979 could join us on stage anytime.

AF: You’ve been called the next coming of Bikini Kill, are you fans, and how does the comparison make you feel?

HF: We’ve started covering Rebel Girl at our live shows and I’m not going to lie to you: all the girls are upfront! Come see us live and see for yourself!

AF: How would you as a group describe your sound?

HF: Hard on the outside, soft in the center, BYOearplugs.

AF: The visuals of your performances have often been noticed – can you tell me a little bit about that?

HF: We take the duality of our name to heart. You will never find color on stage with us. Everything on stage is black-and-white. If you take a picture of us at one of our shows there is no mistaking that it’s Happy Fangs. You will always find us warpainted at the start of our set and most of it sweat off by the end.

AF: What was the inspiration behind the first album?

HF: We are all three continually inspired by each other. We are also all three Capricorn seagoats–stubborn and persistent. We were gung ho on finishing this album and releasing it to the world as soon as possible, and January 27 was that perfect time at right after the Capricorn cycle!

AF: I read that you create a new song based on the audience’s suggestions at each performance. What’s the wildest suggestion you’ve gotten?

HF: Jeff Goldblum’s lazer bears!

Thanks, Happy Fangs! Steam Capricorn below.

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