To watch Grace Gatsby in a black bustier, bright red lipstick, jet-black hair and with an electric guitar slung around her neck, one would never guess she grew up in South Dakota playing folk music with her dad and a family friend.
“I’m proud of that!” she says, laughing. “It was beautiful three-part harmony.”
The experience taught her to play guitar and to become comfortable on stage. She also learned classical piano and was a high soprano in her teens. Smoking has brought her voice down to a delightfully husky intensity, which she employs both on breathy rock ballads and Bjork-like wails.
Gatsby’s retro style is somewhere between a cross of a sexed-up Patsy Cline on distortion and a 1950s film noir secretary. She says “fuck” a lot during The Grace Gatsbies’ debut show at the Green Room in January, as in, “Aren’t these guys fuckin’ great?” and “Here’s [guest musician] Tristan Seltzer and his fuckin’ trombone!” Yet the 27-year-old oozes this girly sweetness that puts those around her at ease.
Gatsby moved to Reno a couple years ago after a five-year stint in Los Angeles. She’s been writing her own songs since her teen years but only now feels comfortable enough to share the rather dark, confessional songs with a band. This, in part, has to do with the right mix of band members coming along, which they finally did in January to form the Grace Gatsbies.
Julian Peach on lead guitar is from a heavy metal background in bands like December and Above All Things (which plays a Green Room show Friday night). Drummer Caleb Dolister and bassist Sam Minaie are both of the experimental funk/trip-hop band The Electrosonics. These varying musical layers come with them, but The Grace Gatsbies is its own musical incarnation. With Gatsby, the group makes lusty, yearning, lonesome songs that fervently rise and fall. They bring in a little jazz, a little funk, a little country of the Cowboy Junkies variety, but at the end of the day, it’s all rock.
“These guys took my songs and were able not only to listen, but to go beyond and make them better,” she says of the band members.
“I’d been hearing Grace play and sing for awhile,” says Dolister. “I figured when the opportunity came along, it would be a lot of fun to play with her.”
Gatsby has plans for The Grace Gatsbies. She wants to add more strings like cello and upright bass and maybe some big classical piano chords punctuating the middle of a heaving rock song. But most of all, she wants to cut an album, which the band expects to start recording this month. “I want that album done to say, ‘Look what I did,’ to show my grandkids, to catalog the last five years of my life.”
Gatsby says her childhood folk background of singing Simon & Garfunkel covers is still with her as far as her vocal melody goes. But where did the need to rock come from?
“Oh, that’s been welling up inside me for years!” she says. “I want to feel grimy. The feeling of being up there on stage with an electric guitar is just so … yes!”