Center stage, her honey-brown hair falling in her face, Lauren Farrah crouches over her acoustic guitar. Her voice rises and falls in short bursts, echoing in the Icehouse in downtown Phoenix.The Roaring Twenties-era venue screams cool, post-apocalyptic chic with its stark, open-air rooms with towering concrete walls. She's performing on a dreary Wednesday as part of a special "Garden Party" hosted by local psych-folk band Wooden Indian.
A Buddha statue stands behind Farrah, and a few girls surround her, swinging hula-hoops as one woman wraps mailing tape around another woman's arm. In a room behind Farrah, B horror movie paintings — Dracula, abducted cows, et al. — line the walls. Hipsters sip BYOB leftovers in the cold, as the last drops from a brief storm rain down. As Farrah sings, "Oh, lord, I want to break away clean," in whispered pleas, she appears slightly out of place in this jumbled and repurposed art scene.
Or, maybe she isn't. Farrah rolls a cigarette and sips a pumpkin-flavored New Belgium brew as she tells me how she went from being a CTI (cryptologic technician interpretive) in the Navy to getting signed to River Jones Music less than three months ago.
Lauren Farrah is scheduled to release Great Expectations on Friday, November 23, at Arizona Hi-Fi.
With her hushed voice and country-tinged folk, Farrah fits nicely on Jones' young roster, alongside Sareena Dominguez, Michelle Blades, and Courtney Marie Andrews. But Farrah's voice sounds more aged, huskier, and more weathered than most of Jones' signees.
"When I was younger, what I listened to was censored a lot by my mom because she was a charismatic Christian," Farrah says reflectively. "[I listened to] mostly big band and swing, old jazz, and stuff like that. Early years, that's probably where I got maybe a little bit of the vocal style from. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, those sorts of ladies. Smoky and smooth and I hope I'm doing it justice."
When asked what brought her to the Valley, she smiles and says simply, "A Greyhound." During her stint in the Navy, she lived in Monterey, California, but most of her life was spent moving back and forth between Phoenix and Nashville. On her 20th birthday, she took a bus to Phoenix and has been here since.
"For a long time in the desert, I felt really alien here, because I came of age [in Nashville] and spent a lot of time there," the early-20-something says. When asked whether she's found a permanent place here, she shakes her head. "I guess I wanna see if I can grow music and what I'm doing and get a solid foundation I can take with me somewhere else. A couple more notches in my belt. I was thinking either to Nashville or to L.A. It seems like a good place, and that's where people either go to hit it big or fail miserably and go back to wherever you came from."
When bringing up the tinges of country in her tunes, Farrah shrugs and says, "Ish. It depends. From what you heard, 'cause it was just me and the guitar, it would be singer-songwriter stuff. I want to do more powerful indie rock stuff. But that takes a band and that takes free time, and I don't have free time right now."
When she's not strumming guitar in coffee shops, she works in one: Jobot, on Roosevelt Row. She's also going to school for massage therapy and has a second job doing shipping, receiving, and manufacturing for a company that sells crime scene supplies.
"I'm kind of the queen of odd jobs," Farrah says, laughing. She's worked a lot of unusual gigs in her day, she says, including doing photography for a skydiving company in Casa Grande.
Farrah keeps busy because, as she puts it, "For being a productive member of society, I'm prone to existential breakdowns. I meet deadlines, I'm punctual, I do everything I'm s'posed to, but in my downtime, I freak out."
She wrote the song "Don't Turn Me Away" as a reflection on those moments of "feeling like a piece of shit." The song doesn't appear on her five-song debut EP, Great Expectations, but the songs that do share its downbeat lyrical sentiment. "Go on and run, run, run, it's what you're good at," she sings on the opening title track, while closer "Take a Look," with pounding drums and cascading synth lines reminiscent of Pornography-era Cure, is even bleaker: "When you were young, you had your dreams . . . when you were young, you were free," Farrah sings, as if referencing days long past.
But Farrah is quick to laugh, pointing out that her song "I Was Wrong" follows the disintegration of a relationship but was written during the blissful beginning of her romance.
"I have this weird habit of writing about the demise of [a] relationship while things are still good and happy. It might be some sort of soothsayer skill or something, I don't really know," Farrah says. "I was in a relationship and I was pretty happy. It was near the beginning of it and I wrote that song. I didn't really know where it came from or think anything of it. Then I felt that way when it ended."
Her outlook on life also is influenced by what she says was "growing up too fast." Raised by her single mother, Farrah was independent from a young age and knew all too well the struggles her family had with making ends meet.
"It brought my awareness to real life a little too soon and then again with the trouble I had when I was 13 to 15," Farrah says. "I was just doing really stupid shit. Wrong crowd, wrong scene, drugs and stuff. But I got it all out of the way early."
Eventually, she took a stab at the Navy, a career that lasted exactly eight months and 12 days. The reason she resigned early, Farrah says, is because she was deeply unhappy, so she did something about it.
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"I was probably the most depressed than I've been in my whole life when I was in," Farrah says meekly. "I think I was pretty naive when I signed up. I just wanted money to go to art school because I was real big into visual arts when I was younger. I figure that would be a good way to see the world, get a bunch of money, they'd pay for school and all that stuff. I guess that would've been the case if I'd kept in, but not the 'see the world' part, though. I would have been stationed in Georgia and that's about as far as I'd go.
"It was a really rough and trying time and I learned a lot about myself," Farrah says. "I guess I wouldn't trade the experience in, but you only live one time and I was not in a very good way when I was there."
After trying on different vocational hats, Farrah's settled into the role of the singer/songwriter. "I want to pursue music solely. I've resigned to the fact that that's probably gonna be a 10-year endeavor to see anything awesome happen," she says. "It's already awesome that I wound up on a label, and that's really great, but like bigger, maybe doing a big tour with somebody. It's probably going to take a long time but I'm going to be there for it."