It never fails to amaze me how a city and its scene can inform, nurture, or undermine talent. As it turns out, both of my West Coast hometowns have provided inspiration and support to some very skilled and dedicated musicians that I have the honor to know. Two of them are women whose work I instantly admired upon exposure: Leslie Stevens and Trixxie Carr. Their musical styles and stage personas are quite different, but they are both gifted performers who have built solid careers in their respective cities — one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco.
I first encountered the immensely appealing singer-songwriter Leslie Stevens almost 10 years ago at the cozy little showroom adjacent to the bar in the no-frills Hotel Utah, south of Market. With her angelic voice and a guitar to strum, she was fronting her country-rock group the Badgers in a rare Bay Area show to promote their first album. I knew about Leslie and company, because my pal Wes was acquainted with the Badgers’ nimble violinist Charlene Huang, who encouraged him to see the band play. He was impressed and, in turn, suggested I would like them, so I went and was instantly a fan of Ms. Stevens and the entire ensemble — a model of what some call alt-country: savvy, post-punk American roots music.
The Badgers split up a few years after releasing and touring behind their delicious and rousing second album, 2009’s “Roomful of Smoke,” and Leslie chose to concentrate on a solo career (with a break to give birth to a daughter, who turned 3 years old last year). Leslie’s stunning debut solo record “The Donkey & the Rose,” released a couple of months ago, might feature her most personal and moving recordings yet, though I don’t want to discount what might be heard on a second solo album that she says is in the can and will be released sometime in the near future. I should also acknowledge the just-issued EP from “Dear Lemon Trees,” an exquisite harmony trio featuring Leslie and two fellow L.A.-based singer-songwriters of great skill, Kathleen Grace and Jamie Drake. Leslie’s contributions there are a delight. But there was no doubting the lump in my throat when I first heard the gloriously tender and lovely “Can I Sleep in Your Room” and “As Beautiful As You” on “The Donkey & the Rose,” which, not incidentally, was co-produced by Kenneth Pattengale of the lauded Americana duo Milk Carton Kids.
Leslie admits to being influenced in part by the late Gram Parsons’ Western Gothic leanings and the dulcet vocal tones and weary/wise romanticism of his onetime partner Emmylou Harris, now a modern country superstar. If Leslie is indeed the spiritual offspring of Parsons and Harris, you could say that Dolly Parton was her artistic nanny, considering the lilt in Leslie’s voice and the frank, witty, and heartfelt storytelling side to her songwriting. And she’s not just the sweetheart of L.A.’s musical rodeo (to paraphrase the headline of a review in Buzzfeed). She has sung background vocals for the likes of John Fogerty and Father John Misty, and even sat in with Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Lucinda Williams, and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers at a holiday benefit concert. She gets to sing on movie soundtracks. Plus, her recordings have been used on various TV show and feature films. But that’s how it goes when you live in a music-business nexus.
A Missouri native, Leslie moved to L.A. to study English lit in college, stayed for graduate studies in music at USC, and went about making melodies of her own and singing them at open-mics until it became a fulltime vocation with the Badgers in 2006. Today, she embraces the responsibilities and joys of motherhood while juggling the solo career, “Dear Lemon Trees,” the session gigs, and a recent resurrection of the Badgers that is invigorating her. She has what she calls a complicated relationship with her adopted city, as expressed in the lyrics of her bittersweet ode “Los Angeles,” where “enchantment can be found, but not quite bliss.”
“Some things about the city can get to you,” she told me a few weeks ago at a café in the gentrifying Highland Park neighborhood, “But I love the culture, and being surrounded by other artists. Although I’m a country girl at heart, I can get that feeling of being stalked by a mountain lion while on a hike in Topanga Canyon. And no one will judge me here. It’s a liberating aspect of life in L.A.”
For more about Leslie Stevens, including links to purchase her recordings, visit lesliestevensusa.com.
And then there’s Trixxie Carr, who put in her time as a club kid in L.A. but couldn’t escape the siren lure of the town where she was born, San Francisco. My initial dose of Trixxie — singer, songwriter, performance artist, actress, etc. — came on the occasion of seeing her do a track date at the DNA to promote a dance-music mini-album. Her stage presence was elegant and trashy at the same time, and her voice had the power of a Broadway belter with the lascivious swagger of a rock star. Shortly thereafter, I caught a show by Smash-Up Derby, the house band at Bootie — the world-renowned mash-up party with a home base at the DNA — and realized that it was Trixxie up on stage and sharing vocal chores alongside Bootie co-founder Adrian Roberts. With their banter, sparkly look, and Vegas lounge élan, they were like the Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme of glam-rock.
Over time, I learned more about this chameleon, like the fact that she fancied herself a female drag queen. Trixxie is a woman who has adopted the exaggerated make-up, wigs, and costumes of drag to lip-sync songs in revues where the bulk of her fellow performers were men in dresses and heels. As it happens, drag was integral to her return to San Francisco after her foray to L.A. to test the show-biz waters.
“I wanted to be in the middle of that Hollywood rock-and-roll thing, but I returned to San Francisco to finish a degree in theater at S.F. State,” she said. “Once I moved back, I was in a cabaret-styled duo with a pianist, but I really found a community and home base when I started doing drag at Trannyshack.” That highly-stylized, satirical drag show — a weekly happening at the Stud that moved to the DNA, then the Oasis, where it’s been rebranded as Mother — gave her a platform to express her most theatrical excesses. And she didn’t just lip-sync to pre-recorded songs, but could sing live if the situation merited. Her mini-album “A Souvenir for the Existentialists” is proof of those pipes.
She thinks warmly of her tenure in Smash-Up Derby, and rejoins the line-up on special occasions. Still, she is most proud of the musical theater pieces and one-offs that she created with that doughty, typically San Franciscan D.I.Y. approach. There are the two plays she’s written that make use of her theater, music, drag, and performance art expertise: “Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dionysus,” a mix of Greek comedy and rock music about starving S.F. artists; and the more ambitious and acclaimed “Salome, Dance for Me,” a glam-rock adaptation of the Richard Strauss opera inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play, created by Trixxie with the support of the S.F. Arts Commission. And those bigger shows have been interspersed with the musical nights she’s produced and headlined at the Oasis: “Maneater” (a tribute to pop stars Hall and Oates), “Maniac!” (a tribute to the music from the movie Flashdance), and “MissIntegration” (a tribute to the Cure’s album “Disintegration”).
Next up for Trixxie might be a mash-up musical or more one-night tributes. Meanwhile, she was on the bill at the Edwardian Ball in the Regency Ballroom in late January, and is slated to continue her drag exploits. Despite the economic stress on artists trying to survive in San Francisco these days, she says that she has no plans to abandon her headquarters. “It feels like there’s a battle in the city, and I don’t know what the future holds. The fact that I’m still here is great, and I’m going to keep being where I’m needed, using art to battle assumptions, and make political and philosophical statements in the traditional, revolutionary San Francisco way.”
For more about Trixxie Carr, including links to purchase her recordings, visit trixxiecarr.com.