Virginia Dare – Hardly hard work
In the atypical little world of the Makeout Room in San Francisco’s Mission District, Virginia Dare is in heavy rotation. Their music is always playing between bands’ sets, and their shows there attract a lively crowd. But don’t chalk up such popularity to a hard-work ethic driven by career goals.
“We always joke about how unambitious we are,” says Mary O’Neil, who plays autoharp in the trio and is married to guitarist Brad Johnson. “I think ambition is what ruins music. We don’t have to do a thing we don’t want to do.”
O’Neil, mother of a three-year-old son and art history graduate student, met Johnson when they both began playing in the Wannabe Texans, which she described as a “drunken fistfight country punk band.” Virginia Dare formed in 1993 from the ashes of that band, playing music more along the lines of personal country-pop.
Early incarnations of Virginia Dare included former Camper Van Beethoven violinist Jonathan Segel and former Tarnation singer Paula Frazer. When Frazer quit the band during their first recording session, recording engineer Greg Freeman jumped in on bass and never left.
The band released two vinyl EPs, Six Songs and Gone Again, on Nuf Sed Records. An import CD combining the two EPs was issued by Brinkman, a Dutch label. Their first domestic CD, Baby Got Away, a diamond in the rough that continues the plain and catchy sound of their earlier recordings, is being released in November by San Francisco label Absolutely Kosher.
The band’s sound, an amalgam of O’Neil’s plainspoken vocals and strumming autoharp, Freeman’s dancing bass, and Johnson’s bent-sounding guitar, combines a weary, old-timey sensibility with indie-rock quirks. “A friend said we’re a cross between the Carter Family and the Young Marble Giants,” O’Neil comments.
Johnson produces his high-pitched sound through guitar alterations that feature a screwdriver. “One show the screwdriver hit me in the face and I was bleeding. That was my most punk-rock moment,” says Johnson, who is also a cartoonist and works at a comics publisher. “I’m the goofiest member of the band. I’m trying to keep it from being too folk-sounding.”
O’Neil writes the bands’ songs on autoharp. “Before I was making up songs in my head and singing them to people. It wasn’t efficient. This is easy,” she says. “You just press and play.” The lyrics to Virginia Dare’s songs, as perceptive as those of Freakwater or Amy Rigby, cast a wise and knowing eye on doing laundry, self-destructive friends, motherhood, and longing for Johnny Depp.
Being married bandmates works for Johnson and O’Neil. “It’s easy to make the same rehearsals and shows,” Johnson says. “I don’t feel guilty if I have to go to band practice. And I don’t worry about the band stopping, because we’re still married.”