A couple of Sunday afternoons ago, about an hour before the New Times Music Showcase began, I was drinking a beer at the Tavern on Mill with Natalie Espinosa, guitarist and singer for local girl trio and Best Indie Rock nominee Bella, talking about her band's impending last-ever show, trying to convince her that nothing short of an onstage fistfight would be a suitable final chapter for Bella.
Wearing a sleeveless black tee stating "Sleater-Kinney Is for Lovers" in the spring sunshine, Espinosa, a high school business and yearbook teacher in Goodyear, laughed at my persistent requests for some onstage drama. Bella was one of the stalwart rock institutions since its inception in early 2002. Far more than simply a girl band, it was one of the most compelling and inventive indie pop-rock bands in the Valley until bassist Kristi Wimmer left in August of last year. Bella's showcase performance was their first show together as a threesome (with drummer Jency Johnson) since then, and the last, ever.
Bella's secret weapon was its chemistry, the melding of three charismatic and talented young ladies who've been friends for a decade -- none of the members were expendable or replaceable. And while the band's demise is a loss for music fans in the Valley, it was occasioned by a killer set at Ra, and opens the door for Espinosa's new (and completely different) musical endeavor that she calls Huskies.
Unfortunately, Bella's breakup means that the girls' final (well, and their first) LP, Hope and Wait, recorded in early 2004, will probably never see the light of day. Local indie Malvado Records was set to release it, but as Espinosa asks, "Why put out a release by a band that's not together anymore?"
After the girls recorded Hope and Wait, they hit the road to drum up hype for Bella before the record was released. But road life and the stresses of playing regularly while trying to balance a relationship, a dog, and two teaching jobs didn't agree with Wimmer, 32, who quit the band right after the tour.
Johnson and Espinosa tried to keep Bella kicking, playing as a two-piece, but after a short jaunt up the West Coast as a duo, Johnson, also 29, was advised by legal counsel to give up her rock-star dreams because of a messy divorce with child custody issues she was undergoing.
"Ultimately, we decided this was the best thing to do to maintain our friendships. It was more important to us to be friends than be in a band together and resent each other for things outside of the band," Espinosa explains.
When asked to play the New Times Music Showcase, the girls thankfully acquiesced; Johnson missed playing live, and Wimmer thought it would be fun to give the band a proper sendoff as well. The show outside in the rear of Ra was a powerhouse performance, with the sun glinting off the windows of the Tempe Mission Palms as Bella ripped through an energetic set of its passionate post-rock tunes. Culling their playlist from material spanning their first EP, Interiors, through Hope and Wait, Bella kept the crowded patio ecstatic, and message boards lit up with congratulations for the girls the next day.
Hope and Wait may eventually see its way onto Bella's Web site, www.bellarock.com, but meanwhile, fans can hold their breath for an EP from Espinosa's new project, Huskies. With assistance from boys in Shizzy bands Rum Tenor and Vin-Fiz (Bobby Lundberg, Mike Devine, and Jeff Meininger), Espinosa's headed to Tucson in late May to go into the studio with legendary alt-country and roots producer Craig Shumacher, who's recorded artists like Calexico, Friends of Dean Martinez, Giant Sand, and Neko Case. But don't expect Bella Redux.
Huskies just completed the demo last Saturday for the upcoming six-song session, which Espinosa graciously hit me off with afterward, and I can attest that while Huskies isn't an indie/emo-ish outfit in the vein of Bella, it expands Espinosa's songwriting parameters into more rootsy, earthy territory, with songs that lean toward alt-country and y'all-ternative, while retaining a rocker edge. Neither of her Bella bandmates is currently pursuing new musical endeavors, but with Huskies, Espinosa suitably furthers the band's legacy.
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In Huskies, Espinosa is suddenly surrounded by Y chromosomes, a new situation. "Playing with these guys is so fun, it's a totally different ball game than with girls, I almost feel more relaxed at some level," she tells me. "I'm really comfortable with these guys. I've always had more guy friends than girl friends, and I've always related my music more to male artists."
Though various Huskies incarnations have played three times, don't expect to see them making the rounds very soon. "When [Bella was] playing, we'd play three times in a month to five people -- you start wondering if it's really worth it to spread yourself so thin. With Huskies I've learned that the less you play, the more inviting it makes it," Espinosa says.
"I just want to make a quality recording and see where it goes, take it from there. I've learned not to make too many plans; you never know what's going to change with people. When Jency and Kristi left Bella, I was really disappointed. I'd created all these plans in my head for us and it fell apart."
So, while Bella will be (and already was) sorely missed, I'm sating myself by waiting for Huskies to bare themselves to the Valley and give us an entirely new musical entity to obsess over. Trust me, it'll be worth the wait.