Five Questions with Angela Perley

Ohio-based outfit Angela Perley & The Howlin’ Moons say they sound like Lucinda Williams, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Wanda Jackson — all of which is true, and all at the same time. The band is Perley on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, Dobro and saw; Chris Connor on lead guitar, Billy Zehnal on bass and Steve Rupp on drums. They’ve been together since ‘09, honing their “high energy Americana-tumble-and-roll” through countless shows and three albums. Most recently they released Nowhere is Now Here.

The group plays the Altamont Brewing Company on Friday, April 5. In advance of that show, Perley talks about songwriting, thrift shopping and her love affair with the musical saw.

Mountain Xpress: The songs on Nowhere is Now Here represent two tempos: heart break and trucker speed. Do you feel more at home with a slow song or a rocker? And is your process the same or different for writing them?
Angela Perley: I love both the rockers and the whisperers. The rockers are definitely inspired by playing with the band and allow me to let go and almost float in the tune while the slower songs usually have a little more weight and delicacy attached. The process is similar in that I always write the songs on guitar alone with a few simple chords and melody and then imagine the band’s parts in my head. Then we bring it together in practice and start fleshing it out more during live shows to let the tunes evolve more on their own.

Your songs have a real road-worn, traveled feel to them. Are you able to write when you’re on tour? What sorts of sights/places/experiences give you ideas for songs?
I love traveling and have always been inspired by different destinations, people and journeys that come along in life. I try to stay as in the moment as possible when traveling so I usually don’t revisit my experiences ‘til afterwards, when I have some time to reflect and be alone. Although, in Tucson and Bisbee, Ariz., I had some alone time during the day to really take in the surroundings and history of those towns and I did write a couple of tunes that ended up being on our EPs (“In Bisbee” and “Weeping Coyote”). “In Bisbee” actually came to me in a dream and I kept repeating it over and over again when I woke up so I could immediately write it down and not forget the melody. 

Women-led rock bands are relatively few. What is a highlight of being a woman in the music business, and what’s something that really sucks?
I have always felt pretty much like one of the boys, but I would say I have a lot more fun with the fashion part of it then most guys in bands I’ve played with. Haha. And if I don’t get any sleep, I can just put some makeup under my dark circles and I’m good as new. I think the guys are sometimes jealous of that magical side of makeup.  What really thrills me is when little girls get turned on to our music and start to ask me questions on how to play guitar and write songs — that always makes me feel happy and hopeful that I may have turned on one more young girl to be a musician. Luckily, I haven’t run into anything too negative yet, other than people being overly accommodating and trying to carry my gear because they fear it’s too heavy for me, like I’m some kind of dainty woman from the 1800s. That’s not so bad though — I know everyone in our band would like a night off from unloading and loading stuff so frequently.

You’re credited with playing Dobro, acoustic and electric guitars and saw on your new EP. Which instrument did you learn first, and which is your favorite?
I learned electric guitar first in high school, but very basic stuff. I was in a girl band called The Frankies and all of our songs were about boys and mascara and flowers and I couldn’t really play at all and kind of yelped and screeched the whole time, but that was my first. Then, I started venturing into more acoustic guitar and my Dobro was my first guitar that a lot of these tunes for the Howlin’ Moons got born on. I saw it in the window of Blue Eagle music shop in Athens, Ohio and knew I had to have it. It was set up as a slide guitar and they helped me re-set it so I could use it as a twangy tin sounding acoustic guitar. I’ve written many songs on that guitar so it has a very special place in my heart, but lately I have been loving playing the electric Telecaster. The Tele has such a smooth and warm bell-like sound and just melts right in with the band and a lot of the tunes we are doing now. I picked up the saw a few years and it is the only instrument I can actually riff on and feel I have most control of. The saw and I have had a love affair for a long time (dates back to every time I would hear it in old folk and blues recordings) so it is the most dear to my heart because I feel like I can really communicate my feelings best with it and use it for that medium to play back melodies I hear in my head. It’s become a very therapeutic instrument for me.

In your band photos you always wear great outfits — especially your little-bit-country-little-bit-rock-n-roll dresses. Do you hit up vintage shops? Any good stories about how you procured a favorite dress?
The guys have been really sweet in letting us stop and explore vintage shops whenever we pull into a new town. I think they have even grown to like it and to pick up some Western shirts and nicknacks for themselves. I am obsessed with vintage and thrift shops because you never know what one-of-a-kind item is just waiting in there for you. There is a store called Flower Child in Columbus, Ohio and I went there before our Yellow Moon EP release party to see if there was anything good. I happened to spot a pink record player with double speakers and a built in cassette player. That record player had my name all over it and, to my amazement, in trying to pull it out to plug it into a wall to see if it worked, a dress fell down that was hanging right above it. The dress was a long, white ‘60s-style summer dress with a great shape and little patterns of a man and woman dancing with a little yellow moon all over it. That moment was music and fashion fate, I tell you. Also, one of my favorite lamps that has a little deer as the base I found in an antique store that was right next to a camping cabin we were staying at in Knoxville, Tenn. The cabin had really bad lighting, so we ended up using [the deer lamp] and laughing at its cuteness all night after our gig. I feel like there is a great story behind almost all of my finds in vintage shops and that always just hooks me into coming back and finding new hidden gems.

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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