Rocking out in a folky world

Beth Wood is a renegade in the land of mellow singer-songwriters.

Ironically, she’s also an active member of that world, part of Black Mountain’s WorkinFolk Agency roster, which includes such area acoustic mainstays as Chris Rosser, Jimmy Landry and David LaMotte. And she’s holding her upcoming CD release party at Black Mountain’s Grey Eagle, a veritable s-s mecca.

But this is a woman who — gasp! — plays electric guitar on her new CD, joined by a band (Kristian Bush, Don McCollister, Brandon Bush, Dave Labuyere and Kevin Leahy) which features two more electric guitars at times — not to mention a rollicking Hammond organ.

What’s more, Wood writes edgy lyrics like “Dark on the surface, dark underneath/river get mad and show her teeth/river reach out and grab his feet/leaning heavy on yesterday/thick with Mississippi mud/this town ain’t got no open vein/for new blood” (from the title track of New Blood (Autonomous Records 1998); the song is a tribute to talented young musician Jeff Buckley, who drowned in the Mississippi River last year). Then there’s Wood’s voice: A far cry from the angelic, ethereal confections that spring from the mouths of many of her female folk contemporaries, she lets loose with sonorous, bittersweet vocal magic that brings to mind Janis Joplin served up with a thin coat of honey.

But then again, Wood’s nothing if not a mass of contradictions: She’s a classically trained musician (she took her first piano lesson at the age of 5, at her own request), but didn’t actually start playing publicly or writing songs until she stopped studying music at one point, tired of the rigid structures imposed by classical academics (she decided to opt for English Lit instead, a short-lived venture). Her home is on the stark plains of Texas — Lubbock, to be exact — but it’s the Western North Carolina Mountains where she says she feels truly at peace (she moved to a house in the woods near Brevard a little over a year ago). And she’s a singularly beautiful woman, but she refused to allow her picture to appear on her new CD cover.

“I’m really torn about it,” Wood says of exactly where she “belongs” in the music world, “because in a way I feel like I’m part of the [singer-songwriter] scene because all my songs start out really simply, with just a guitar and a voice. That’s how I write. But also there’s a part of me that feels I’ve never really fit in with that whole scene. My music tends to be darker. And the recent songs I’ve written have been more and more rocking out.”

Wood cut her musical teeth in Austin’s legendary Sixth Street clubs (she graduated from that city’s University of Texas with a music degree). Years of classical piano, violin, harp and voice training gave way, in 1991, to a guitar, which she taught herself to play in record time, and to a stint with what she calls a “kind of folky, poppy band” called Raspberry Jam. She also began to timidly venture into the area of songwriting. “It took me awhile to get confident enough about my writing to actually play my own songs,” she remembers. “When I played with [Raspberry Jam] I played all of their songs. And then one day I said, ‘Um, I have a song.'” What was the first song she ever wrote? Wood laughs at the memory. “It was called ‘The Elephant Song,'” she says. “It was really more of a children’s song. I got the inspiration for it from a circus poster that I saw.” What exactly did “The Elephant Song” sound like? “Well, it’s hard to explain, but it kind of sounded like elephants walking down the street,” she ventures.

New Blood is a far cry from childlike songs about circus animals. On her first CD, 1996’s Wood Work, Wood still sounded a little timid: It was a finely crafted piece of work, but the songs were quiet, pretty — more of what she thought people might expect from, as she calls it, a “chick singer” (a moniker she’s none too fond of). (“I can’t even count the number of times someone’s said to me, ‘You’re really good, for a girl,‘” she relates).

“With Wood Work, my goal was to simply get my songs out there,” she points out. “And that’s what I did. But with the new one, my goal is to say, “Hey, I’m here!” — you know, make a stronger statement.” And from the hauntingly potent, darkly elegiac strains of the title track to more playful, rocking fare like “Deliciously,” it’s apparent that Wood is becoming a woman confident in her abilities. In fact, her career is taking off so rapidly, she no longer needs a day job.

But the idea of commercial success, like her feelings about being part of the folk scene, is a double-edged sword to Wood. “It’s a fine line,” she says, “because I want people to like the record and buy the record, but I don’t need to be on the cover of Rolling Stone or sell a million records. But a certain amount of success will allow me to continue doing what I’m doing now.” She likens the situation to what happened to her musical idol, Ricki Lee Jones. (It was at a Jones concert in Austin that Wood says she experienced her “defining moment” careerwise: “I was trying to decide whether to try to do music full time,” she remembers, “and I went to her concert and I somehow felt like she was telling me something — telling me to go for it.”) “The way that it happened for her, she had this one huge hit [“Chuck E.’s in Love”], and because of that she’s been able to go on and do the music she really wanted to do,” Wood reasons. She’s already garnering national raves, and one of her songs — “Geometry” from Wood Work — could recently be heard playing in the background of a love scene in the popular Fox television series, Party of Five. Wood is quick to point out, however, that she “really doesn’t expect or want to be riding around in a limousine or anything.”

Though the inevitable courting by a major record label is probably just around the corner, Wood says she’d be “really careful” about signing with one. Her current label, the small, Atlanta-based Autonomous Records, is independently owned by popular regional rockers Jupiter Coyote, a band that Wood calls “family.” She met the group through a mutual friend when they played in Austin in the mid-1990s and it was Coyote guitarist John Felty who urged Autonomous to sign her in 1996 (she continues to record and tour with the band).

True to it’s name, Autonomous gives Wood an autonomy she considers all-important — the freedom to simply be herself and avoid the slick packaging that goes hand-in-hand with large labels, especially, she points out, where female musicians (particularly, attractive female musicians) are concerned. “[Autonomous] doesn’t tell me what to wear and they’re not going to make me lose 10 pounds,” she relates, adding that many major labels have “weight clauses” in their artists’ contracts.

“I can’t think of a popular, successful female singer right now who’s unattractive,” Wood continues, naming Jewel as a prime example (Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLaughlin, Fiona Apple and Mariah Carey also spring to mind). “I mean they really play up the looks thing. It’s like a bunch of supermodels who can sing.”

The whole “looks thing” is one reason Wood chose not to have her photo on the new CD. “I don’t want to be a paper doll,” she states flatly. “I’ve gotten a lot of flack for not putting my photo on there, but it’s really important for people to know what I look like, they can come to my shows.” The image that did go on the cover of New Blood, incidentally, seems somehow appropriate: a graceful yet powerful white bird with outstretched wings taking flight through stage curtains.

If commercial success isn’t Wood’s top priority, what is? “To continue making the music I believe in,” is her quick response. “And to write the kind of songs where people go, ‘Yeah, I’ve felt exactly like that.’ … I want to say things that many people feel but maybe haven’t figure how to say yet.”

And she’s not content to say those things in just one language. Wood offers an astute self-assessment that cuts to the heart of her double nature: “I’m basically a rock ‘n’ roll person who reserves the right to be a folkie.”

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