by Jewly Hight
Through the miracle of freeconferencecall.com, The Cream managed to get the frontwomen from all three outfits on the phone at once. Jessi Zazu, longtime leader of the Darlins — who’ve grown before our eyes into a leathery, knowing garage-pop quartet — dialed in from a tour stop in Phoenix. Then relative newcomer Adia Victoria — who recently gave blog readers outside of Nashville the first taste of her haunted, Southern goth rock narrative — and local fave Tristen Gaspadarek, architect of beguilingly knotty pop tunes, each joined the call from somewhere in town.
We more or less framed the conversation and scooted out of the way, so that these three could get on with their conversation about good first impressions, gendered perceptions and gear. And though we had a hunch they’d get along well, it’s worth noting what a thoroughly egalitarian, mutually appreciative exchange it was.
It’s not like any of you are gender separatists. You don’t play strictly with female musicians. But does it change anything for you when you share the stage with other formidable, female-fronted acts?
Adia Victoria: It’s an honor to be on the bill with such talented musicians and such professionals. Tristen and the Darlins are definitely two artists that I consider role models right now for myself as an artist. … I do think that there is an energy playing with other women, sharing that stage with other women. And I think, quite frankly, anything that deviates from the male norm is welcome, as far as I’m concerned.
Tristen Gaspadarek: I would just say that we all kind of met, really, a couple months ago. I really hung out with Jessi and Nikki [Darlin] and everybody. And me and Adia sang with the Darlins for a Nashville Cream video. I think it’s just the natural progression that happens with musicians. It’s like you meet each other, you appreciate each other, and then you’re like, “Let’s play a show together. Let’s join forces for an evening.” We’ve all played Nashville a lot, so it’s nice to do something special.
Jessi Zazu: I think first and foremost, we just respect each other as musicians. It wasn’t necessarily ever, I don’t think, something where we thought, “Oh we’re all really strong female-fronted acts.” We just started hanging out and really liked each other, like we would with any musician, male or female. It just happened to be that we all got along, and then when we put the show together, it was like, “Oh, this is awesome.” … There aren’t as many female musicians, especially female musicians who are doing things along similar lines. … I wouldn’t say it’s something where we are constantly working to pair with other female-fronted acts or whatever. But when we find people that we respect as musicians, and they also happen to be female, it’s like an added energy and excitement, because, like Adia said, it’s a new perspective and it’s really fresh. And we relate, because we’re all kind of in the same situation.
TG: Here’s the thing that I always bring up: It’s not so much that there’s a difference being a female-fronted or female-balanced group. I guess it’s just that when you do something like get a bunch of females together, and then there’s an interview, you get asked the question of, “What’s it like?” That’s really the indication that we’re doing this together as a group of female musicians, and it is of interest because it is different, I guess. We’re sort of organically coming to this place where we like these people, and we think it will be a good show musically, and it fits. And then from an outside perspective, you get the questions asked about being a female, and it’s gets noticed. But I guess that sort of observation is an indication that we still live in a world where we’re the minority.
You’re absolutely right that these are conversations about women in rock that have been going on for decades — really, decades. There actually used to be a magazine called Women in Rock. Then there was Lilith Fair. I’m conscious of the dangers of overemphasizing the angle to the point where it actually ghettoizes “women rockers.”
TG: One of the things that you find when you’re doing music is that people always want to figure out a genre for you. And so often, the very easy thing to do is put you in the “female” genre. Which is totally crazy, because that is not a real genre.
What were your first impressions of seeing each other perform? What sparked that mutual respect?
AV: I remember first seeing the Darlins play back in, like, 2009. The one thing that struck me about them was, “Shit, these girls can play their instruments! They’re killing it.” The dedication to putting on a show and completely allowing yourselves to become a vehicle for the music as an artist — I thought that that was just completely amazing. And it was the same with Tristen. I think that I was just awestruck at her musicianship, her presence onstage. It wasn’t like, “This is a great woman musician." It was like, “This is a really good artist.” It kinda made me wanna step my game up, after seeing Tristen and the Darlins play. It’s like, “OK, I wanna get on that level.” It inspired me to take my art more seriously, I think. Yeah, it is such a male-dominated industry, and of course, it is nice to see yourself up there in these women. It’s like, “OK, this is possible. This is doable.”
TG: I saw the Darlins—Jessi, I feel weird saying that with you on the phone. Like, “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here.” But I saw you guys play like a long time ago. I’ve sorta seen y’all transition a lot. I loved your band from the very beginning, when you were dancing and doing more of country-Western songs. I saw you guys play at The End, like, a million years ago. I saw y’all transition into the rock ‘n’ roll stuff, which I loved. I’ve just always loved the songs, and the switching up instruments, and the energy. Adia, you have such a magnetic personality that I think that I just felt really instantly attracted to you, in the sense that I wanted to play a show and see what was going on. Adia and I played a show together a few months ago.
JZ: Tristen, I don’t think I ever actually had seen you play, but I knew who you were for a really long time. Because we did that Nashville Scene shoot together. I just had heard your name a ton. But when you put out CAVES, listening to that album for the first time, I was like, “Hell yeah! This is so awesome.” I had been following you on Instagram and stuff, and I had seen the album unfold, and I was really excited about it. … I remember when I first met Adia I think I literally just walked up to her and was like, “Who are you? We need to be friends.” I remember I asked Adia to play, like, I did a little Christmas party for a friend of the family. She came and we did a bunch of cover songs together. And I remember she pulled me aside into the bedroom and was like, “I’ve got some songs I’ve written. Can I play them for you?” She played them, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. You need to do something with these songs!” And sort of have watched her turn them into what she’s doing now. It’s been really awesome to just see her grow.
AV: Jessi, I think you’re the first person I told when I was gonna drop out of school to do music. … My friendship with you has given me the confidence to take it seriously as an artist and give it a go and leave school behind for the moment.
JZ: She was like, "I was thinking about just doing the music thing." And I was like, “Hell yeah!”
Jessi, didn’t you help Adia pick out her Casino guitar?
JZ: I don’t know if I did or not.
AV: I asked you, “What guitar did you start playing when you went to electric?” And you were like, “A Casino.” I was like, “That’s what I’ll get.”
TG: That’s my first, and still my electric guitar.
JZ: I love Casinos.
TG: Yeah. I’ve got a ’66 Epiphone Casino.
JZ: That’s awesome.
Have you exchanged any other real-world wisdom besides gear talk? Maybe about what it’s like to evolve in the spotlight, like the Darlins have?
JZ: One thing about Those Darlins is that when we started our band, we had no clue what we were doing at all. We were just going for it. I was 17. I was so naive. I thought I could literally conquer the world with little to no problems. I definitely learned so much by trial and error, just constantly doing things and being like, “Oh my gosh. I totally screwed this up.” It’s really cool knowing Adia and having her every once in a while say, “What do you think about this?” It being brand-new for her, and me just being like, “This is what I know. This is my experience on this.” It feels good to know that she’s not gonna have to, like, do everything. It’s always gonna be trial and error, but it’s nice to every once in a while be like, “Yeah, we did this, and we totally screwed up. Watch out for the red flag here.”
TG: It’s been the same for me. Buddy [Hughen, her guitarist husband] and I talk about that all the time, how it’s trial and error. You make mistakes and you take things for granted. You get a crazy amount of opportunities all at once, and you think, “Well, gee, this is the way it’s always gonna be.” … But I think having your mentors, or friends that you can tell your terrible tour stories to, that’s the thing musicians love to do. We love to get around in a circle and just tell our terrible tour stories. Music in general, you can’t really learn it in school. You can learn skills in school, but really you do need mentors and people around you for inspiration. I think that’s why Nashville is such a cool place to live.
JZ: … And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing music or whatever. There’s just life experience that I’m constantly looking to others, just trying to get some outside perspective, you know? I know Adia and I have shared many a conversation where she’s like, “Hey, I’ve got this thing. What do you think about this?” And I’m like, “OK, I’m about to do this crazy thing. What do you think about this?” It’s just nice to have a sound opinion.
AV: Jessi, you were like my first friend I made when I moved to Nashville. Other than my little sister, I didn’t have anybody. You were the first person I met outside my family here who I felt a connection to. It had nothing really to do with music. I recognized in you that you’re a kindred spirit of mine. We can relate on things about life. … I would not be where I am now if I didn’t have this community of mentors and friends in Nashville to get me to this point. It’s been vital for me as an artist to know you guys.
Onstage, you each have completely distinct personalities as performers and different ways of getting the audience’s attention. How would you say they compare?
TG: I look at playing shows as a communal thing. Even when I’m writing songs, I’m thinking about the fact that I’ll have to perform them for people. But really the live show thing, for me, is all about the group that I get to put together and the band that I’m playing with. It really ends up being about just having a really good time with the band that I get to play with. If you have a great group of people together and it’s fun for you, I think that that energy sort of emanates into the room. And if there’s a lot of people there, all that energy just transfers around.
JZ: I always look at it as it’s an experience, you know? That’s what people like about live music, is that you’re there, you’re watching it; it’s real, it’s happening in that moment. Little things can go wrong, and people don’t care. They like that. It makes it more real. The one thing I always try to focus on is converting the audience into actually experiencing the music with the band, as opposed to just watching a show. I always try to look at it as the band gives, the audience gives, and at the end of the night, I want everybody to feel like we did something together. …We’ve had different lineup changes, but for the most part it’s like me, Nikki and [drummer] Linwood [Regensburg] have been sharing the same stage for a really long time. It’s like going up there with your best friends. You know they got your back. And you got their back. It’s a mental thing. It’s not anything we verbally speak of. But you have this feeling as soon as you get up there where it’s like, “All right, we’re gonna do this.”
AV: I’m still really new to this. I haven’t properly toured yet. Having started off as a solo performer, I guess the stage, for me, is more of a selfish pursuit where I didn’t share with anybody else. Now that I’m working with other musicians, I’m seeing just how important that connection is with your band. As far as engaging with the audience, I kind of approach the stage as a heightened sense of reality, like an altered reality, where there’s a fourth wall between myself and the audience. I kind of liken my show a little bit more to theater, rather than, “Hey I’m gonna talk with you through all this.” I’ve always felt like I spent my life being a voyeur and watching the world anonymously. On the stage it’s the direct inverse of that. I feel as if I am being watched and picked apart and dissected by the audience. There’s a fear in that, but there’s also a thrill for me as a performer. As I go on and tour, I’m obviously gonna become more comfortable onstage, but right now when I get up there, it’s like I’m no longer myself. Most of the time, I don’t even remember what happens onstage.
TG: Totally. I’m with you on that, Adia. Totally.
JZ: That’s funny, because I feel like I have a heightened sense of awareness, like nothing goes under the radar. I’m trying to concentrate on everything at once.
TG: It’s really hard to play an instrument and sing at the same time. For me, I’m always so fixated on making sure I do everything that I wanna do that I’m, like, meditating, in a sense. Whatever happens happens, and afterwards I feel really hungry, and I feel like I’ve poured out everything I had. Honestly, the more I think about performing in general, I feel that pretty much we sacrifice ourselves. I just feel like I completely sacrifice myself to this thing I’m trying to express, whatever that may be. People say things like, “If you’re an artist, you have to be egotistical, because you have to think about your ideas being important enough to express.” But I feel the exact opposite. I feel that to put yourself up there in front of everybody, like you said Adia, you’re up there facing everybody’s criticism, everybody’s judgment — if you want to look at it that way. … It becomes kind of a habitual part of your life to just put yourself out there. I’m totally fine with that. I guess I just go to town. That’s kind of what I do is let it all hang out and do what I want to do. Then afterwards, I have the same thing, Adia, where I’m like, “Oh, did I say that?”
AV: Jessi, I love watching you and Nikki onstage together. I mean, that’s like your sister. You know how to read each other, and it’s a pleasure to watch that honest intimacy between human beings. You don’t see that a lot between two people, being that locked into one another. It makes me damn proud.
JZ: With me and her, we’ve literally done so many shows together. And it’s not something we really talk about — it just comes really naturally. I kind of think of the feeling of playing a show as like when you do something that’s really challenging, like you balance on a balance beam, or even just driving; your body’s really in tune to what you’re doing, you know? And your brain kind of shuts off into autopilot mode. And it’s almost like meditation. But when you have that with somebody else, it’s crazy. You don’t know what it is, really, that’s making you feel it or not feel it. It’s just sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.
TG: It’s magic.
JD: Yeah, it’s magic basically. We’re all actually a bunch of witches.