Sarah Hope, singer and guitarist for Edith Makes a Paperchain, stands at the front of the stage at the Triple Nickel Tavern. Hope's silver ballet flats grip the floor, as if to ground the power of her guitar. She bends around the microphone, responding with her whole body to the sometimes dark melodies.
The band plays a mix of covers, like Radiohead's "No Surprises," and originals including electric sea chanteys and homespun folk songs on a unique combination of instruments.
Hilary Studebaker alternates between fiddle, viola and additional vocals. Matt Chmielarcvyk, Hope's fianc (the couple is due to get married Oct. 11), plays mandolin, with Melissa Joy on upright bass and Aimee Spillane on drums.
Forty people watch; a couple of women dance near the front of the stage. Overall, not a bad crowd for a set that began at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday.
Typically, local bands featuring women have no problems pulling in audiences. Edith Makes a Paperchain, Loverleigh, Abracastabya and Eyes Caught Fire are some of the most prominent bands in this city, playing regular shows at venues including the Black Sheep and the Rocket Room.
While the local scene doesn't exert the same pressure as the larger media, the women in these bands say they're aware of expectations that they'll perform with a heightened sexual presence.
Over ginger tea at Shuga's, Joy, 22, says when she's played with other local bands, she's been asked to "work on her flirting" to get gigs. Once, she was asked to wear a slip on stage, and she was teased when she added jeans.
"It's a battle in the media," says Joy, "with women being sex objects, and I've made a point in my playing to not go in that direction. If someone's going to like me, it's going to be for my music."
Hope chimes in, "Edith is your refuge. There's no flirting here."
Studebaker, on the other hand, notes that male musicians also emphasize their appearance: "It's that pat image of the band with a disdainful look and everyone standing around as if you just happened to catch them at the right moment."
Loverleigh cellist Lisa Schoenstein (who prefers being called "Lisa Show") says it's impossible to separate presentation from performance, even locally.
"Performing is not like writing a book, where it doesn't matter if you're sexy or not. It is a performance, and you're on display," says Show, in between sips of coffee.
Loverleigh, whose MySpace page bears the epitaph, "Sexy Hate-Core keeps on getting sexier," is meeting at a Starbucks near Woodmen Road and Academy Boulevard, close to its practice site. Show wears black jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Guitarist Mike Stephens and drummer Chris Combs both wear jeans and T-shirts. Beyond attire, the trio show fraternity by finishing one another's sentences.
Show says other bands she's played in have considered her "an ornament." Loverleigh is different. Combs and Stephens want her to be the dominating creative force. Show's cello is central to Loverleigh's sound: heavy and melodic. Even in "Crawl Away Already," a faster song, the cello's heartbeat-like rhythm holds the music together.
Despite her influence in Loverleigh, Show says thinking about gender is unavoidable.
"In popular culture, sex sells," she says. "Let's face it you have tits, you have power. But do you want to be Britney Spears or Aretha Franklin?"
Stephens mentions seeing Madonna in an interview.
"She was saying, 'I'm just trying to free America from their sexual repression.' She was acting like she was doing this noble thing, but all she was doing was rolling around on stage."
Willow Welter from Abracastabya says the local scene is different than the culture at large, but people still think of female musicians as different from male musicians.
"You don't want to make it an issue, that 'Ooh, there's girls in that band.' But it is an issue, because people do talk like that," says Welter. She adds, "If you have an all-girl-band, you're known as a chick band, but if you have an all-guy-band, you're just a band."
Along with Welter playing the keyboard, David Grimm plays drums, Geoff Brent plays guitar, and Lauren Langley plays cello. Abracastabya sounds like the Cure's Robert Smith got together with the Flaming Lips. The music's catchy, but with plenty of distorted minor-key edge; bubblegum pop it is not.
Welter attributes Abracastabya's sound to the creative freedom she shares with her bandmates.
"It has to do with being good friends," she says, "versus not feeling comfortable to do whatever you think sounds good."
Eyes Caught Fire keyboardist Lydia Brown and vocalist Kellie Palmblad concur with Welter. Palmblad and Brown say the family-like friendships they share in Eyes Caught Fire add meaning to their music and separate them from the pressure to adhere to any gender-specific roles.
"There is a conversation musically," says bassist Joel Brown, who's Lydia's husband. "When you play music, you're feeling from people where they're at and you know where you're at. ... It's a form of communication."
The result is spacey and dreamy. Along with the aforementioned members, drummer Noah Winningham and guitarist Dustin Bingham have the uncanny ability to make their instruments sound like a collection of exotic bells and windchimes. No single instrument or voice is the focus. Their music gives the feeling that you woke up at the fairgrounds the morning after a carnival, just before sunrise, and the Ferris wheel is still running.
They do hear comments from fans about being women. Palmblad says she's often received the backhanded compliment, "I usually don't like girl bands, but you guys are awesome." But it's easy to ignore. The band has been together for 12 years, since Palmblad and Lydia Brown were teenagers.
"There's a thousand different roles that exist in the world," says Palmblad. "And you get to choose how much you want to participate in any one of those. So, are there roles out there for women and female musicians? Sure.
"I am a woman, and my femininity or lack thereof, or sexuality, all those things play a part in who I am. But that looks different for everybody."