Unleash the beast

This girl is on fire: Sallie Ford’s brash rock strikes a chord with fashion magazines, NPR and acts like Jack White and The Avett Brothers, with whom she’s shared stages. Says Ford, “I’m just trying to speak my mind about being a woman and being free, having those thoughts and not being ashamed of them.”

Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside’s front woman (and namesake) was recently featured in a Teen Vogue Q&A. Which is great, except it takes approximately 10 seconds of listening to Ford’s just-released album, Untamed Beast, to realize she is (at least in song) exactly the kind of girl known to mothers of Teen Vogue readers as “a bad influence.”

The track "Party Kids" is perhaps an anthem. Its bar-brawl video (which debuted on fashion and beauty website Refinery29) makes it hard to separate the literal lyric from the small-screen imagery. Wearing a demure, multi-strand bead choker, Ford breaks bottles over the heads of bikers. Her band members guzzle straight vodka. Blood spews. But that song's got nothing on the surf-rocker, "Bad Boys," in which Ford howls, "I can f—k, I can drink and I don't care what you think. You can say I'm just a girl, but I've had a lady or two, I bet she'd prefer me to you."

On the phone with Xpress, Ford (who lives in Portland, Ore., but grew up in Asheville — her dad is puppeteer Hobey Ford) is nothing like the bawdy character of her album. Maybe it’s because she has a cold. Or because the notion of playing a show on home court (she and her band open for Thao & The Get Down Stay Down next week) “is a little more stressful than just a normal show.” She admits, “It makes me nervous, but it’s exciting, too.”

But Ford is hardly the prodigal daughter. Her carousing must be relegated to video only, because at just 26, she and her band (Tyler Tornfelt on bass, Ford Tennis on drums and Jeffrey Munger on guitar) have already appeared on Letterman and opened for The Avett Brothers and Jack White. NYLON Magazine premiered “They Told Me,” Untamed’s opener.

Ford’s musical genesis dates back to Asheville. She played violin as a kid, but it was a friend in college — “She was writing songs and introduced me to a lot of music like Cat Power and CocoRosie” — who inspired the idea of starting a band. At her first open mic, in Asheville, Ford says she was incredibly freaked out and thought, “I’m never going to do that again.”

But in Portland, surrounded by strangers, she found the courage to sing some cover songs and start writing originals. From there, Ford found her way to become the performer who NPR's Ann Powers called an "empowered hot mama" with a "sexy edge." If the musician isn’t altogether comfortable donning that mantle, she’s not about to shrug it off, either.

“In a way, I’ve always felt like my music is an alter ego,” says Ford. “I was drawn to how feminine a lot of jazz and blues singers are. They’re always singing about really sexy stuff. It’s definitely what I’m going for, as much as it’s hard to be that person all the time.”

But there’s far more to Untamed Beast than just its sensuality. “I hope that people also see the power that I’m going for,” says Ford. “I’m not trying to be a sex icon in any way, I’m just trying to speak my mind about being a woman and being free, having those thoughts and not being ashamed of them.”

Fronting a rock band comes with its unique set of challenges. Ford says it’s frustrating trying to figure out what kinds of bands to tour with. (Seriously, who else can compare?) And there was the issue about the the artwork for Untamed. “We wanted full nudity,” Ford says of the cover. It’s an image of a seated woman, naked but for a steer’s skull held in front of her face. The band’s label pushed for an alternate cover — lettering and skull on a white background. No breasts (not even with heart-covered nipples, as Ford had suggested), “In case it ends up on the shelf at some major company,” says the musician. Not that she cares much about being stocked by a certain major coffee shop chain.

What matters most is the songs, which Ford tests by gauging her band’s reaction. She says she sometimes second-guesses herself, but after working with Tornfelt, Tennis and Munger for so long, there’s a level of trust. “There’s been stuff that they haven’t always reacted positively to. I’ve had to grow a tough skin,” says Ford. But, “In general, they’re awesome about realizing the project is my baby, so they’ll stand behind me in most things. It really helps that they have my back.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside (opening for Thao & The Get Down Stay Down)
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Tuesday, March 19 (9 p.m., $12 advance/$15 day of show. http://thegreyeagle.com)

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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