They're sort of the Captain & Tennille of folk-punk, with a strong cabaret undercurrent like that of the Dresden Dolls going all Gogol Bordello. As the name suggests, Frenchy and the Punk come from very different backgrounds, but they're united in the passionate intensity of their performances.
The Punk, aka Scott Helland, is a graduate of early '80s hardcore. He saw the Ramones when he was 13 and it changed his life. He and his old high school buddy Lou Barlow founded the band Deep Wound with J. Mascis.
Barlow and Mascis would go on to form Dinosaur Jr. together, while Helland started the punk band Outpatients and later took up acoustic guitar, doing instrumental soundscapes and even an album of ambient, new age-oriented music.
Helland's partner Frenchy was born Samantha Stephenson in France and lived in England until she was 10. She studied dance, but couldn't see how to make a career of it. Instead, she went to grad school for her MBA, but eventually realized she couldn't go on that way.
"I was really good at math and sciences," recalls Stephenson. "And for some reason I had in my mind that, if I'm good at math and science, I can't be an artist. Then I found out that Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker before he left his world behind and became a painter. It completely shattered my belief, and that's where my life completely changed. I just took the leap. I was at the point where I would rather die than not honor my creative spirit."
The two kindred spirits got together in '98, but didn't start their music partnership until seven years later at one of Helland's gigs.
"I think I had a few glasses of wine," says Stephenson. "I just jumped on stage and started playing tambourine. It snowballed from there."
"Sam has this great rhythmic sense to add these accents to things I do," adds Helland. "The different accents she puts over my guitar make it sound like a full band."
Helland, meanwhile, employs a looping pedal to enrich the songs in a surreptitious way.
"A lot of people doing looping layer one thing on top of another and another, and it's this big symphonic thing that you're so aware of the looping," notes Stephenson. "With Scott it's so subtle that I believe there are people who aren't cognizant that he's doing it."
The duo has released five albums to date, the first three as the Gypsy Nomads. Along the way, Stephenson has found her voice blending theatrical swagger with a coquettish coo. It all came together on 2010's Happy Madness, which bristles with foot-stomping energy and cabaret-folk cool. Their Kickstarter-funded new album, Hey Hey Cabaret, manages to be even livelier.
"We really wanted a CD of songs that would mimic the high-energy feel of our live shows," says Helland. "It's a very upbeat record with a sort of flappers '20s style. Some of the guitar stuff is a cross between Johnny Ramone and Django Reinhardt."
"We're all about having people connect with our spirit and forget about life," adds Stephenson. "There's always something going wrong with everybody's life. And to just provide for that short time a kind of respite from all that — and just be in the moment and feed the spirit — is special."