When an all-woman rock band sets up camp in the traditional rock 'n' roll boys' club, it's almost impossible to ignore the restrictive political status thrust automatically upon the band. Unless that band is Bella, a latter-day riot-grrrl trio from Mesa that doesn't allow stereotypical dogma to strangle their creative impulse.
"I have a huge problem writing something with any hint of politics or opinion. I'm such a neutral character," says front woman Natalie Espinosa. "Bands like Sleater-Kinney have a great way of slipping in messages, and that's great, but when I try to do it . . . it just doesn't come out right."
And that's a good thing. Political art is easy. Most people know -- or should know -- that war can hurt, that child abuse is wrong and discriminating against someone because of their gender is ugly. Creating something emotional and personal is much more difficult -- "subtlety is the providence of genius," poet and doctor Scott Edward Topper once wrote.
This, of course, doesn't mean Bella's symbolic platform eclipses their ability to play -- if anything, there's a tangible sense of pride and appreciation on the faces of female fans when Bella punches through one of its vigorous old-school-punk-inspired sets. A July 31 show at Modified Arts, for instance, saw Bella share a diverse bill with intense, quirky Northwestern sex rockers the Gossip and fellow locals Second Hand Emotion -- for a not-so-diverse crowd. Second Hand Emotion, obvious beginners, opened with a sloppy set and an attitude of contrived disaffection. Support for even that band was unanimous, though, and its pseudo-Valley Girl pose was bolstered by applause.
So even if Bella had self-destructed onstage that night, the same supportive audience would have lifted them up again without disdain. But Bella did not collapse. The band thrived on the crowd's sympathetic revelry and rocked through a brief but powerful set, earning every bit of the audience's adoration. "Girl power" wasn't necessarily the message emanating from the stage, but Bella's rock 'n' roll energy ignited a crowd of pogo-ing women whose admiration for the band wasn't nearly as subtle.
Bassist Kristi Wimmer suggests that their perceived flag-bearing nature is unavoidable. "Natalie's lyrics and our songs aren't about feminism or girl power, but what we're doing is," Wimmer says. "We can all be professionals, teachers and mothers and still rock out with the best of them."
That's not hyperbole -- the members are a professional, a teacher and a mom, respectively. Espinosa, guitarist and singer for the band, recently earned her master's in marketing from Northern Arizona University and will begin teaching high school business classes. Wimmer possesses a master's degree of her own; hers is in criminal justice. She works at Arizona State and also teaches a GED class to ex-cons. Drummer Jency Rogers is a mother of two and works in a local skate shop (she's trying to get a skate company to sponsor her as a musician so she can get the free shoes. Hey, you'd try it too.). The women are articulate, successful and can definitely rock out, too.
That they're an excellent three-piece overshadows the initial questions their gender may raise for simple-minded naysayers. Brianne Grimmer, guitarist, singer and lone female member for local power-pop quintet Fifteen Minutes Fast, says she's had several bemused conversations with Natalie about, as Brianne puts it, the "novelty" of an enthralling all-female band -- this city, after all, isn't Olympia, Washington, where Le Tigres and the Bangs and the next-generation would-be Sleater-Kinneys fall out of trees like acorns. "I think that if people decide to go see Bella because they are like, Oh, it's an all-girl band. We're gonna go check them out,' they're going to go see them and say, They're really good,'" Grimmer says.
Okay, so we finally move past the gender issues, and we discover something that in a way makes Bella stand out even more in the Phoenix scene. There isn't a sarcastic, deprived, drunk-at-1:30-a.m.-on-a-Tuesday chord in their repertoire. They're a throwback to a simpler era of rock when smarmy smart-ass antics weren't the norm. Espinosa leaves no doubt when she hits the stage that irony has no mantle in her m.o. She really is that sincere and intense.
"I think I've always been a rocker at heart," says Espinosa. "So growing up I liked stuff like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. I never branched out to New Wave stuff like Depeche Mode. I went from AC/DC to Guns n' Roses and Mötley Crüe." Sleater-Kinney, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a divided nod to hip-hop -- Wimmer isn't as keen on the b-boy set as her bandmates -- fill out the band's current influences.
Bella's earnestness is refreshing, and it's a different type of earnestness than, say, that of local heroes Jimmy Eat World. Both bands use pop's crunchy, uncomplicated phrasing, but Bella's music avoids the trite cheering you find on JEW's hit "The Middle," in which a friend is encouraged with the line "Everything's gonna be all right, all right." Where JEW is a pop pep talk, Bella embraces true-to-life sadness without trivializing it.
Songs such as "I Just Wanna Feel Like I'm Moving On" and "Ever Only" from the band's eponymous EP are honest portrayals of emotional attachment and the obsessive anguish that follows a breakup. ". . . Moving On" avoids being didactic by not capitalizing on listeners' easily manipulated affection for pathetic love songs, and it feels true because it tiptoes around a theme that can easily turn cliché -- but nevertheless is a part of the life of anyone who has entered into a relationship.
"Ever Only" begins with the traditional rock 'n' roll lament "You're like a time bomb/To my heart" and explores infatuation with the same even hand that ". . . Moving On" does with maturity.
And "Ever Only" isn't afraid of taking a jab at the lost lover, either. Espinosa's lyric "You're just a little boy/Doing little boy things" not only highlights the song's theme -- distancing oneself from an ex -- but also speaks from a perspective seldom as cripplingly displayed in rock by women, namely the visceral, non-jingoistic side of a breakup (emo ain't just for dudes). And it's a powerful position.
"I know that the sincerity in my songs has to do with real people and real situations. I'm not sure how we fit into the scheme of things -- I know I'm not trying to be sarcastic or even ironic when I write a song. I just pull from what I know and ignore the rest," says Espinosa.
Espinosa and Bella's rock 'n' roll bravado screams for an unavoidable comparison to rock's first truly virile front woman, Joan Jett. Espinosa isn't as ferocious as Jett, but during that brief but powerful set at Modified, her boyish hair, pushed forward by repetitive head banging, licked the sides of her face like flames, recalling some of Jett's sweatiest performances.
Bella's members are unanimous about their respect for Joan Jett, though. Wimmer recalls going to a recent Jett show at Fort McDowell Casino in Fountain Hills. "She looks better now than she did in the '80s and still totally rocks out," Wimmer gushes. "She did some great covers like the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a Sly and the Family Stone song."
If there is a general lack of aspiring Joan Jetts on the performance side of the Valley's rock scene, Bella maintains that there certainly isn't a lack of women on the promotional side. "If it wasn't for Modified booking girl bands, there wouldn't be any place for them to play," Wimmer jokes with her characteristic cackle.
But that isn't necessarily true. If anything, the current music scene in the Valley is predominantly influenced by women. Tempe veteran Sara Cina books and manages Long Wong's, Maria Vassett operates in the same capacity at the Clubhouse, and Kimber Lanning has owned and operated Stinkweeds, among the best independent record stores in the Valley, since 1987. With business partner Leslie Barton, Lanning also runs Modified, which routinely books female acts of the Gossip's stature.
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But it doesn't matter what gender the booker is if the chick acts aren't there to support. Yet even though there might not be a plethora of women to book in the Valley, Sara Cina doesn't feel obligated to lift up Bella or wave any feminist flags. "They're not a novelty, and don't play off the fact that they're all women like some bands do. I wouldn't book them if they weren't a good band," Cina comments.
One thing's for certain: Bella can hold its own with any number of boy bands in the Valley. During a recent show at Long Wong's, Bella opened for local noise-rockers Hotfoughtcold. Bella's opening set easily could have been swallowed up by HFC's overwhelming volume, but their crisp pop songs were in perfect juxtaposition to HFC's reckless abandon, emphasizing that a band's gender has nothing to do with its ability to rock.
The scene at the Wong's show differed from the show at Modified only in that the bands weren't predominantly women -- the audience's reaction was identical. Even the dive's gruff regulars -- dudes drinking pitchers of Bud by themselves -- were nodding their heads in affirmation.
Whether Bella attracts audiences because of their distinctiveness or because of their talent, the result will be the same -- a blistering performance that transcends preconceptions.