If you sense a slight incongruity in the title of Blame Sally’s Speeding Ticket and a Valentine, rest assured that it’s as purposeful as the life it describes is random. The album lifts its name from a line in the bridge of the hard- charging leadoff single, “Living Without You,” which describes a day, or maybe entire existence,that’s “sweet and sour at the same time/mink and a porcupine/speeding ticket and a valentine.” Clearly, this is a band that knows its oxymoron’s.
The four women who make up the Bay area- based group have some experience with improbable complexities and contradictions. Almost everything about their history is contrary to conventional wisdom. For one thing, they put their individual careers aside to start Blame Sally when they were in their late 30s and 40s—the age at which bands are traditionally supposed to break up and begin solo careers. For another, this is obviously an all-woman band—“girl groups” usually being the novel province of youthful upstarts, not mature singer/songwriters. Splitting the front person status among each of the four members goes against the agreed-upon maxim (agreed upon by everyone but the Beatles, anyway) that every group needs a single strong focal point. And didn’t they get the memo that women, in particular women in show biz, are supposed to be packing it in at this point, not making fresh introductions?
Actually, they did get that memo and promptly tossed it into the proverbial circular file. “We’ve realized that some of the things that might have been considered liabilities were actually assets,” says vocalist/pianist Monica Pasqual, “and that in truth, the very thing you might be thinking you should hide or isn’t going to help you is something that people are excited about.”
“One of the things I really enjoy about being in this band is how inspired our audiences are by us,” agrees vocalist/guitarist Renee Harcourt. “There’s a real openness and lovingness between the band members, and a lot of joy, and I think people get that when they watch us play. In addition to that, I think people find what we’re doing very inspirational, because it’s a time in your life when you’re thinking, ‘Am I doing what I really love to do?’ You start questioning your career choices around that time, along with a lot of things in your life. And we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to defy the odds and do what we love. People enjoy seeing that.”
“There are a lot of people who become really connected to us, and fascinated by ‘Ooh, what’s their story?’ We’ve had fanatical fans in their 40s and older, and also plenty of young girls who’ve been super into it. Just thinking that’s cool—‘Wow, that could be my mom!’” she laughs.
“That’s not everything,” Pasqual points out. “If we were coming out and our music sucked, or it was not vital-sounding, I don’t think that people would be like ‘Oh, cool, they’re in their 40s,’ or whatever,” she laughs. “But they’re digging what we’re doing, and they’re seeing that it’s fresh and that it has life and originality—and then you throw in a ‘How weird…!’ on top of that. It’s like when Lucinda Williams really hit when she was in her 40s. She’d been doing it for a long time, but for a lot of people, that was the first time they really heard her, and it was like: God, she rocks, she’s cool, she’s got edge, and she doesn’t fit the stupid mold.”
The members of Blame Sally don’t have to work too hard to find the depth in their songs: Having lived a little leaves no choice but to go deeper. In 2006 Harcourt was diagnosed with and successfully fought breast cancer and Pasqual’s longtime boyfriend was diagnosed with MS. Needless to say, these don’t really compare with flat tires on the tour van or other worst-case adversities common to bands starting up right out of college.
But—not to get oxymoronic again—some of the personal setbacks helped prompt some of the career breakthroughs.
Harcourt’s illness “totally affected the band—but in a good way,” she says. “I got my diagnosis and then two weeks later Tom was diagnosed with MS, so that was a very rough summer for us. But we held together very tightly through all that. It’s still going on for Tom and Monica, unfortunately. But what happened for me personally… It sounds so trite, but you know what happens: You’re like, ‘Oh my God, I might die,’ and then you start looking at your life like, ‘Am I really doing what I really want to be doing?’ And the fact was, I’d been doing graphic design for decades and I was burnt out on it while the music was what was feeding me.
“But I was the one who was holding the band back in terms of really making a go of it,” Harcourt continues, “because I had this business, I have a teenage daughter and my time just wasn’t as flexible as theirs was. I went to the band and said, ‘You guys, what if we just really try to do this for real instead of just for fun?’ And it was at that time that everything changed. The three of them were like, ‘Hell yeah!’ Suddenly all these things happened. We got a manager, we got a booking agent, and then we got a great record deal that made it possible for us to focus on music full time. It was quite interesting how once we all had the same goal, things really started to kick in.”
Speeding Ticket and a Valentine is Blame Sally’s latest release on Ninth Street Opus, a Berkeley-based label that’s also home to Americana favorites like Carrie Rodriguez and Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion. After a successful collaboration with Grammy Award-nominated producer Lee Townsend on 2009’s Night of 1000 Stars, Blame Sally opted to self produce this time, striving to capture the edginess of their live performances on the CD. Early buzz on the album has enabled them to land two-nights in late April 2011 at the legendary Great American Music Hall in San Francisco to kick-off the release.
The success of that shift is quickly apparent in “Living Without You,” a hard-rocking song about a woman uncertain whether to be devastated or exhilarated by a relationship’s demise. (In line with Blame Sally’s embrace of the contradictory, the answer is, of course, both.) That restless band attitude also compels the driving rock & roll of Pasqual’s “Countdown,” a cry for love amid a thorough cataloging of modern societal narcotics, both literal and figurative.
Less frantic moments of anxious gorgeousness still abound. The opening track, “Bird in Hand,” couldn’t be more in the tradition of acoustically rendered boy-loses-girl folk tragedies, with Pasqual acknowledging her debt to Bob Dylan’s songwriting style. Pasqual’s mother is from Spain, and she herself lived in Mexico for a while after leaving her Utah home, which goes some way toward explaining why “Pajaro Sin Alas” is not the first song Blame Sally has recorded that is at least partly en español.
“We were working it out in the studio, and Monica sang it through a couple times and it was beautiful,” says Delgado. “Then, for some reason, I think Monica said, ‘Why don’t we see what happens if Pam sings the song?’ It just so happened that at the time I was going through some really hard stuff with my family and that particular performance, on that day, was what the song needed to convey, so we kept it. I think it’s amazing and a real honor that she would entrust me to sing such a personal song.”
“It was a little bittersweet,” confirms Pasqual. “That song and ‘Take Me There’, I would say, are the two most raw, very honest songs I wrote for the album. Pam’s such a great singer and I actually think that vocally she was able to hit some of those notes that were harder for me to hit. But my songs tend to be so personal most of the time, and that one in particular, that it was a little bit of an odd feeling to give it away to be sung by somebody else. But Pam kills it.”
This last statement highlights something that fans of Blame Sally can’t get enough of. “Even though most of the time we bring finished songs to the band, when it comes to arranging, it’s always like a great surprise, and it’s a very democratic process. Everybody’s open, and it becomes everybody’s song. I think that’s one of the things people love about the band—they see the excitement we all have in presenting each other and presenting each other’s songs.”
One song, “Back in the Saddle,” is a true group collaboration, with Renee’s teen-aged daughter even credited as an additional writer. In this number, the possibly real, possibly mythical Sally of the group’s name makes her first appearance in their lyrics, as they describe a character who gave up artistic pursuits for the more workaday world. “Every day Sally’s supposed to look younger/Can’t let them see desperation and hunger…” The band members didn’t take the path of the character in the song, but they certainly relate to the pressures she feels.
Dealing with issues common to women? Definitely. Just for women? Hardly. It’s true that, in the Bay area, the group has a large lesbian following, and there are gay as well as straight women within the band. “It’s an amazing blessing for us to have a really strong women’s following at our home base. But that may have prejudiced some people who have never heard what we’re doing. When we go on tour, there are often more men than women at our shows. I think for everybody in the band, to be defined as ‘women’s music’ feels wrong, it feels inaccurate and limiting.”
Certainly the musical connotations of the “women’s music” tag tend to be more strictly acoustic and folky than this oft-electrified band has turned out to be. “I’m a big fan of the pop song and its structure,” says Harcourt. “I think my songwriting tends to be a little more poppy than Monica’s. I think Monica is much more lyric-driven, and I’m probably more melodic and chord-change-driven.”
“Renee’s kind of a hit songwriter,” agrees lead guitarist Jeri Jones. “But that’s not exclusive to her. Pam has written ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Trouble,’ two of our most popular songs. And Monica is the queen of lyrics. I have enormous respect for the depth that she writes with.” There are other clear differences among the foursome. “There is so much diversity in the band because of our backgrounds,” Jones continues. “Pam and I both have a lot of R&B and country influence, and Pam brings a soulfulness and charisma, especially in live performance, that people just can’t resist. I have no jazz influence at all, where Renee is super-jazz-oriented in her background. Her dad was a musician, and she has a really interesting understanding of ensemble arrangement. Monica studied solo classical piano and brings a lot of classical influence. She also listens to a lot of the super-independent stuff that the rest of us don’t. I think one of the great things about the new album is that it’s got elements of all those things.”
Whatever place they came at this from, they are unified in actually having chops. This perhaps shouldn’t count as a novelty but, for whatever reason, still does. “I don’t think there are that many well-known women singer-songwriters who are that good on their instruments,” says Pasqual. “Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, or Tori Amos, yeah, but they’re often backed up by men. So people do get surprised when they see four women playing really well. It crosses a lot of gender and age stereotypes, too; people who are just into music all really relate to that.” When it comes to the list of stereotypes Blame Sally will be happy to disabuse you of, we’re gonna need a bigger scroll.
Blame Sally got started in 2000 when Pasqual was putting together musicians to play at a kickoff concert for one of her solo projects. She and Harcourt had known each other since mutually participating in a songwriting competition years before. For this supposedly singular promotional show, Pasqual also enlisted two of the most sought-after side musicians on the scene, her old friends and band-mates Jeri Jones and Pamela Delgado. It was the one-off gig that’s lasted 11 years—and counting.
“We were fed up and disillusioned with the music scene,” says Harcourt, “so when we started playing together, we were like, ‘Let’s just do this for fun, with no expectations of achieving any type of quote-unquote “success”.’ Of course that meant it became the most successful project that any of us have had.”
“When we formed the band, we were sick of trying to please an elusive industry. I know I never wanted to write or produce songs that I didn’t really feel authentic about. And I didn’t really like trying to present myself in a way I didn’t feel authentic about, or lying about my age. It wasn’t something I was ever interested in, and I think for women, that’s a big struggle. But I think it was liberating when we also realized this: When you’re 29, you can say you’re 23 or 24, which is already pushing it as far as the industry’s idea of how old a woman should be. But by the time you’re in your late 30s, it doesn’t really matter if you look 30 instead of 39. Who cares? You’re already over the hill at 30!
“So we just were kind of like, ‘Screw it, we’re not gonna make it anyway’—in that sense—‘so let’s just have fun.’ So we did. And we noticed that suddenly we started getting bigger and bigger audiences, our joy was infectious. And our standard of “Let’s just make this good, let’s just have fun, and we’re not gonna be anything that we’re not,” people responded a lot to that. Women are frustrated with this idea that you’ve peaked in your 20s. It feels so false and yet it’s really pervasive in our society, with the images that are perpetuated everywhere. Everybody knows that’s false, but there aren’t very many people out there just denying it; instead, they’re trying to accommodate it somehow.”
Call Blame Sally queens among non-accomodationists, then… even if you’re unlikely to soon hear an album any more warm, inviting, heartfelt, or, yes, downright musically accommodating than Speeding Ticket and a Valentine—the kind of Blame everyone will want to spread around.