“We played in Charleston, W.Va., about a year and a half ago,” Melissa Swingle begins in her charming drawl. The multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter for Trailer Bride has a distinctive voice; one that could only have developed from growing up in Mississippi, spending junior high and high school in West Africa with her Baptist missionary parents and the past dozen or so years in Chapel Hill, N.C. It’s the kind of voice that would convince you to run inside a burning building to save a hamster. All she’d have to do is ask.
But back to Charleston … “We pulled up to the Empty Glass and there was just a huge crowd there. And everybody was real excited. The man at the door said, ‘Oh, you’re really in luck. Jesco’s here tonight.’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, OK.’ Our bass player Daryl (White), had seen the documentary (which chronicles the West Virginian clog dancer’s rise to fame after moving to Hollywood and “doing something on the Roseanne show”) so he knew who Jesco was, but he didn’t put two and two together until we actually met him. He’s this guy in his 40s or, well, I don’t know how old he is, but he’s just as crazy-lookin’ as I and he came up to me and he shook my hand and he said, ‘Hey I’m Jesco. I don’t get out much on account of bein’ famous. And my family’s here from Boone.’ And sure enough, he had, like, 20 people there, his family members. And they were all wearing tap-dance shoes. And so was he. They were all just ready to dance and throw down. So we started setting up and I’ve got a lot of different musical instruments so sometimes it takes me a while to get everything tuned up. And they were kind of getting impatient with us. Jesco’s sister came up to me and said, ‘Y’all bout ready to play cause Jesco wants to dance now.’ And I said, ‘OK, we’ll start just as soon as Scott — that’s our lead guitar player — gets his beer from the bar.’ So she walked up to the bar and almost picked him up and pushed him up on stage and said, ‘Play woman. Play now.’ So we started playin’ and Jesco got up on stage with us and played harmonica and danced. And his whole family got up and danced. It was incredible.”
That night planted the seeds behind “Jesco,” the first haunting narrative on Trailer Bride’s latest record, High Seas. The rest of the tracks are equally haunting; the song titles spell it out — “Under Your Spell,” “The Ghost of Mae West,” “Drift in D.” They’re dusty, lethargic, sippin’ iced tea while rocking on the porch cause it’s too hot to do much else kind of songs. And they evoke various themes of Southern gothicism: possessed carousels and organ-grinder monkeys, the skeleton playing the player piano, that one haunted house in the otherwise well-kept neighborhood.
“You remember Aunt Bee on the Andy Griffith show?” Swingle asks. “Well, she became sort of an angry hermit, bless her heart, in her later years. She had like 25 cats. I had friends … I never did this, OK … but they would knock on her door and she would come to the door with a shotgun, saying, ‘Go away! Go away!’ Her house was like that, overgrown and tons of cats. I guess all those years of fame kind of did her in. Poor Aunt Bee.”
The secret behind the fascinating-fearful nature of the music is the instrumentation. A bowed bass, banjo and musical saw are just a few of the instruments that facilitate the creepy-crawly sound.
“Well, it’s a real saw that was made by a regular saw company, but it’s got a musical saw stamp on it,” Swingle explains, “because I ordered it from a music store, but I found out that any saw that’s made out of pure steel will sing. So I paid $45 for this saw that’s really a saw that’ll cut wood. And I found out you can go to a hardware store and for nine bucks get one that’ll sing just as well.”
Swingle started “playin’ saw” about four years ago after watching the movie Funny Bones.
“They’ve got one small part where they’re interviewing comedians and sideshow freaks for an act, and there’s this 85-year-old woman playin’ saw in that movie. And I saw that and was like, ‘OK, wow, that looks like fun. I’ve got to learn how to do that.’ It took me a little while just to get any sound out of it, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
Fearful fascination is a constant theme in Swingle’s life. She has a recurring tornado nightmare where she stares up at the beauty of this natural disaster until it sucks her up inside the vortex. And there’s a devilish-sinful guilt aspect to her music. Perhaps a Baptist missionary childhood has something to do with this.
“I’ve heard, I don’t know how many thousands of sermons about hell and the devil and sin and the wages of sin. I guess when you hear enough of that as a child, it just kind of stays with you. … I guess my biggest fear, and this may be too honest and people may think it’s lame, but my biggest fear is going to hell. I don’t want to go to hell when I die. I’m tryin’ to be good. I’m tryin’, but nobody’s perfect. It’s a tightrope we walk.”
As you might guess, the songs on High Seas aren’t 100 percent doom. Swingle’s sense of humor sneaks in here and there. “Poor little lightnin’ bug/I know just how it feels/He’s flashin’ hard at my porch light/She’s real pretty/She won’t list-en/she’s a white-hot, 60-watt vix-en,” she sings in “Itchin’ For You,” a song she wrote when she was feeling “a little hot to trot.”
The show next Friday won’t be 100 percent music either. Both Swingle and Tracee Miller of Blanche, the closing band, will show their art inside the gallery venue. The art opening reception, which also features video art from Ben Hernandez, takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. The music starts at 10 p.m. Swingle’s paintings, like her music, represent nighttime. Swirling watercolors and oils depict sorrow, fever and exhaustion with exaggerated light sources and shadows. Miller’s are lighter in hue and more daytime, but just as sullen; chunks of acrylic wrinkle her subjects far past their actual age.
“It’s basically just what I’m feeling,” Swingle says of her art. “Every painting is different. It depends on what music I’m listening to while I paint. I cannot paint without music. I used to just paint and I wasn’t a musician as well. I spent a lot of money at the record store … Each painting is a different album.
“I started painting first. That was my first love as far as being creative. But music was always such a horrible crutch; I couldn’t paint without music, without getting into some kind of weird headspace. I really think music is a stronger force for me. So I don’t paint as much as I used to. Any free time I get, I’m usually playing music.”
Her music is extremely visual, however. High Seas, as you might imagine, summons waves crashing and terror-struck wide eyes.
“We really didn’t plan it, but a lot of the songs had references to the ocean. In this album, I guess what ended up happening is that we were trying to evoke this feeling of being in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, and you’re on the high seas and there’s not necessarily any help in sight. That feeling — the feeling of vast open sea that’s churning and violent and dangerous. And being there with your closest friends, which I consider the guys in my band to be (besides White, there’s Scott Goolsby on guitar and Brad Goolsby on drums). When we’re out on the road, it’s almost like that, like we’re out on the open sea. I do have a fear of the ocean as well, especially the North Carolina coast because the waves are big and the undertow is really strong. And I almost drowned one time. So I am afraid of the ocean, but I’m fascinated by it too — because it’s always changing.”Melissa Giannini is Metro Times music writer. E-mail her at [email protected]