By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
The summer concert season is in full swing, from the upcoming Portland Queer Music Festival to the numerous street fairs throughout the city. What does it take for musicians go from private inspiration to public performance? Here, PQ presents the stories of three local ladies who rock and shares their takes on how songwriting and performance help them transform the suffering in their lives into art that strengthens them.
“I don’t understand the creative process, just like I don’t understand the process of dreaming,” says Racquel Russo, frontwoman and creative force behind Naming Names. “It’s so unconscious, so basic that it’s almost without effort sometimes. Not to say there aren’t the arduous moments, but in time something just happens and I find myself singing something, and I can’t deny what just slipped past my lips.”
Growing up on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Russo started hula dancing at the age of 2.
“In hula,” she says, “rhythm is everything. My understanding of rhythm stems from the years of classes in which the hula teacher would play a percussive instrument and sing.”
This rhythmic impulse began to manifest in words, and she dedicated herself to poetry.
“Back in 1997, though, my dad came home with a copy of Fiona Apple’s ‘Tidal,’” she explains. “That was the first time I really heard the piano. A couple years later, I got my first Tori Amos CD, and that was it — I knew that the piano was my instrument.”
“My creative process immediately shifted — instead of just poems, the words and the melody began to come to me at the same time. For the first five years that I wrote songs, the words and the melody would come first, and I’d struggle through teaching myself the piano parts.”
Once she moved to Olympia, Wash., in 2002, Russo adopted her stage moniker Naming Names and started playing shows, first as a soloist and then as a band with her current lineup, which includes Tim Yates and Gordon Nickel.
“I love playing alone,” she says, “and it’s really vital to play alone, especially in the early stages of writing a song. In order to grow, though, and to climb over the creative walls, I couldn’t be alone. I needed other musicians and their superior technical skill to force me to push myself to learn more, multitask better, listen more fully.”
“Someone once told me that Portland was the most forgiving city, and that feels true,” she muses. “I think safety really lends itself to people stepping out of their comfort zone.”
Upon relocating to Portland in 2006, Naming Names’ first shows in Portland were at a notoriously seedy punk dive bar called the Jolly Inn — far out of the comfort zone of an avant-garde piano project. However, the packed crowds connected with Russo’s sound, even as it began to shift.
“Live shows are such a gift because as a performer, you have more energy accessible to you than merely your own,” she explains. “Once you get the microphones in front of you, the sound of your own voice in the amps and the energy of the people in the room, there’s absolutely no going back. It was as though my songs went into a telephone booth, ripped off their civilian clothes, and emerged as indie rock. I didn’t fight it, because it was organically happening and it was exactly what I needed to do — get swept up in the wave. It was a movement away from my original artistic vision, but it taught me critical lessons about being a performer, both in regards to self-acceptance and self-criticism.”
After a few years of rocking out, Russo felt the call to return to her avant-garde creative center, releasing an ultra-limited 64-edition EP titled “Rev” based on the hexagrams of the “I Ching” to mark the transition. She returned to writing, and found herself called to create films to accompany her performances. The resulting gallery shows embodied the intimacy and emotional rawness that first compelled her to sit in front of the piano.
“I think a lot of creativity comes from pain,” she says of her process. “It’s not a requirement, certainly, but it’s an effective propellant. I just took a year and a half off from composing — the longest creative break I’ve taken since I started — and I realized that the reason I was on a hiatus is because I’m not tortured right now. When I’m in a place of struggling, the creativity happens spontaneously. I sit down at the piano, and the next thing I know the song has arrived.”
“Songwriting is ultimately a tool I use to figure out what’s going on,” she notes. “I’m quite good at telling myself convincing stories about what is happening in my life, but honestly I don’t have a clear view of the situation or the role I’m playing within it until I open it up and let a song come out of it. At that point, reality confronts me, and I confront it — and we are forced to contend with each other.”
“Death really plays an interesting role in my creative process,” explains Autry!, a young musician whose work combines folk, punk, power pop, and good old-fashioned rock and roll. “As much as death is seen as a negative thing in our society, it’s really played a positive role in my life, and propelled me towards a lot of my dreams. What hurts you makes you stronger, you know?”
Growing up in downtown Portland, Autry! found that her earliest musical inspirations were a family affair. “I started writing songs when I was about 7 — my brother is a rapper, and I wrote raps to perform with him, but was too shy to show him. When I was 12, I found my sister’s old left-handed guitar in the attic. I restrung it upside down and started figuring out how to play it, then writing songs to deal with my teenage angst.”
Autry! enrolled in Portland’s celebrated Rock & Roll Camp for Girls in her early teens — but her wild ways didn’t ingratiate her with the camp staff. “I think about half of the rules at Rock & Roll Camp for Girls came from me, actually — no smoking, no making out,” she chuckles. “What ended up getting me kicked out of the camp was that I wore this shirt that had skeletons in different sexual positions on it, and someone at the camp said it was inappropriate and I was asked not to wear it — so, I wore it to the final showcase performance at the Aladdin Theatre. I guess I was just too rock and roll for Rock & Roll Camp for Girls!”
Soon after her expulsion, a life-changing defined Autry!’s next creative direction. “My friend Haley died when I was 17,” she recalls. “At that point, my life’s dream was to be a homeless traveler, and we were going to do it together. When she died, everything changed. I took off to Europe by myself, and when I got back I just decided that I needed to make music my career. … I’m a very emotional person, so I had to write songs and put it into the art or else I couldn’t live with myself. I feel like I’m a glass, and I just fill up, and I can overflow and I don’t like to overflow! I just have to empty it out with the music.”
Upon her return, Autry! started studying under her mentor and vocal coach Tom Blaylock and got serious about songwriting. “Sometimes I can sit down and write a song in a half hour, but there are some songs that just don’t come for years,” she notes of her process. “I have to put them away, then come back and finish them way later. … I’m big into the formula of a song — like, verse, chorus, bridge — but it’s hard to stick to sometimes. I like to keep in mind that songwriting can be a mathematical equation, but I also don’t like it to get repetitive. I see some musicians doing the same things over and over sometimes, and it bugs me. I like to mix it up.”
Since then, Autry! has overcome her stage fright and become a dynamic and accomplished live performer; released an EP titled “A.U.T.R.Y.!”; launched a web video series that shoots in her closet and features guest stars such as Melody Awesomazing; and formed a new band that includes co-conspirators Kevin Collins and Dapper Dom. — “We’re looking for a keyboardist to play synths, in the case any PQ readers are interested!” she notes.
The new Autry! lineup is currently working on their first full-length album, which she describes as “more mature than the first EP … and a lot more rocked out, even stuff you can dance to. It’ll be a fun album.”
She’s also expanding her instrumental repertoire to include keyboards and synths for a electronic-driven side project, “I’d love to be a queer Robyn, Ke$ha, or Yolandi Visser [of Die Antwoord],” she says.
“Really, I want to be able to just do my music,” she says when asked whether she seeks the spotlight. “Fame is actually something that scares me — I feel like most of the time famous people must be very lonely. People just see a character, rather than the real you. Being able to just do what I do, and make money off it, would be awesome though. When it comes to fame, I’m like, ‘whatever.’”
“I think creativity comes from deep emotions that I have — frustration, sadness, joy,” muses acclaimed mariachi performer and singer-songwriter Edna Vázquez. “It comes from a place further away than I can ever know. A song comes while I’m driving, while I’m showering, and I have to stop what I’m doing and grab a piece of paper. It’s just so strong in me, and makes me stronger.”
Growing up in the Mexican states of Colima and Jalisco, Vázquez found early on in her life that her creative impulse sometimes put her at odds with her community.
“When I was 11 years old,” she recalls, “I would grab some paper and go to the plaza in town to write, which was a very rare thing for a woman to do in my little town. People would wonder ‘what is that weird girl doing there with that paper?’ It was just the place I felt the creativity strongest.”
Once she came out at the age of 17, her mother’s anxieties about Vázquez living as a lesbian in their home country compelled her to send Vázquez to live in the United States; after a brief stint in East Los Angeles, she ended up in Hillsboro.
“I went into a stage when I was a teenager in which I was shut,” she says of the time. “I stopped creating my own writing. It was then that I joined [Los Palmeros] mariachi band, though, and everything started falling into place. All these really macho boys started teaching me rhythm, and it was as if I needed to stop writing for a while so that I could understand how rhythm worked.”
Her mariachi career quickly took off; her band booked for festivals and parties every weekend. She then had her first brush with fame, reality TV style: a chance audition in Vancouver, Wash., led Vázquez to be a contestant on the Estrella TV program “Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento,” sort of a Spanish-language “America’s Got Talent.” Much to Vázquez’s disappointment, though, she observed that the competition was fixed.
“They already had a profile in mind, and I wasn’t it,” she explains. “It was really painful — I expected it to be a contest! I didn’t give up, though. I sent that video to ‘Sábado Gigante,’ another international contest shown on Univision. This was indeed an honest contest — and I won!”
While Vázquez continues to work with Los Palmeros — the group is recording a new album, “Cantares de Occidente” (“Songs from the West Coast”) — her inspiration has recently led her to expand in an ambitious and revealing new direction.
“My new project, ‘Trovas,’ is me,” she says. “It’s purely my own inspiration. It’s somewhat political, talking about the issues we face now in our community. It’s how I ask how humans cope with their day-to-day lives. I mean, I want everyone to survive this mess!”
She is currently recording an album, “Ser Abstracto” (as she translates it, “Abstract Being”) that she says is “about the awakening of the human senses, and how we are so attached to material stuff that we lose track of our own greatness.”
While she primarily writes in Spanish, Vázquez feels that her work transcends all barriers to communicate her creative spark.
“There’s something universal in music that goes beyond languages,” she says. “People relate through the feeling of the song when you’re singing and playing with passion. If I go to Japan and sing in Spanish, they’ll listen to it because I pour my emotions and feeling into the words, into my gestures and the vibrations I give them.”
When asked what she would advise for those who want to follow their creative dreams, Vázquez is characteristically and poignantly emphatic: “Just let it out! Just be who you are and let out the beauty inside you. Yes, there are lots of insecurities inside us too, but we have to overcome those things by just doing our work and bringing ourselves out. We have to knock on the door and ask for it. If you want to be creative, be fearless and bring it out. Your work is a piece of light that you need to bring out, because other people need that light of yours. Share it with all of us, so we can all grow together.”
Naming Names and Autry! will perform at the Portland Queer Music Festival on July 22. For more information on the musicians featured, check out their websites: namingnames.net, autrysmusic.com, and ednavazquez.com
Note: A shorter version of this article appears in our print edition.