Girl bands grow up – and wig out

Elisa Bray reports on the new all-female bands who have sidelined pop basics in favour of harmonies and a love of noise
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The Independent Culture

A mong the scores of new indie rock bands and singer-songwriters, there are several all-girl bands emerging. What is most striking about them, and what they seem to have in common, is that not only are they not ploughing the straightforward girl-pop route, but nor is the guitar usually the central focus. In fact, many are making use of their most feminine asset – their voice – combining two or three voices to create gorgeous, harmony-fuelled songs.

Among these newcomers are Mountain Man, First Aid Kit, Smoke Fairies, The Langley Sisters and Vivian Girls, where often eerie, haunting vocal harmonies take the limelight. In some of Mountain Man's songs, a cappella is favoured. And even in the case of the indie-pop band Vivian Girls, their three-part sugary vocals set them apart. Or take Warpaint, a Los Angeles quartet, which has all four musicians contributing ethereal vocals to the hazy guitars and psychedelia.

On the other side of the coin, who says girls can't wig out? Warpaint, one of Rough Trade's newest signings, have honed their psychedelic rock side to perfection before releasing their debut album, Exquisite Corpse, and have stunned audiences with performances including six-minute jams. Girls Aloud, it ain't.

Vivian Girls

Formed in 2007, but with a sound that's straight out of the Eighties, the Brooklyn trio's eponymous debut album followed in 2008. When the album later appeared on Mauled by Tigers records in a vinyl-only edition of 500, it sold out in days, before the band had completed their three-week tour of America. Named after the seven sisters who feature in Henry Darger's posthumously published fantasy epic, 'The Story of the Vivian Girls', the band (above) create fuzzy indie pop with sunny, sugar-sweet and wistful vocal harmonies set against waves of shoegazey reverberating guitars.

File next to The Vaselines, Shop Assistants, The Jesus & Mary Chain


"I've never seen women play psychedelic rock like Warpaint before. They're not The Slits. It's like nothing you've seen before," recommends a spokesman at Rough Trade. Psychedelic rock, effects pedals – these are girls with six-minute jams, wigging out. They sit down during songs and swap drums. The drummer is incredible – "she hits the drums like a primitive woman." They can seriously play. The LA-based outfit were signed at the New York industry event CMJ and were one of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW festival.

File next to The Breeders, Sonic Youth, Fleet Foxes, Vanilla Fudge


As far removed from guitar-based indie bands or pop acts as can be, Gaggle (above) are a 24-piece, all-female alternative choir. They encapsulate their mission thus: "Gaggle is a response to boring man bands, bad burlesque and an alternative place for women in music that doesn't involve drinking yourself to death out of boredom or anxiety." Led by the classically trained Deborah Coughlin, who is responsible for their adventurous choral arrangements, which you will either love or loathe, Gaggle range in age from 19 to 38 and they all hold down day jobs (scriptwriter, teacher, counter-terrorism government worker, fashion designer, nurse and barmaid to name a few). For how long depends on their success. Their debut single, "I Hear Flies", was released on Transgressive Records, home to Foals, Graham Coxon and Young Knives. They won the emerging-talent award at Camden Crawl and their festival dates this summer include Latitude, Bestival, Secret Garden Party, Summer Sundae and Big Chill.

File next to The choir Harmony on Heels or the punk singer Joan Jett

Mountain Man

Contrary to their name, which conjures up bushy, bearded hunters of American history, Mountain Man are a trio of women in their early 20s who met at college in Vermont, and create gorgeous haunting harmonies. Signed to Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde's Bella Union label in the UK, they release their debut album of harmony-laden songs blending folk, country and traditional Americana, 'Made the Harbor', on 14 June. They started singing together "because it felt amazing and we wanted to share it with the people we love", and played their first show on the landing of a school building's staircase, packed it with people and sang by the light of a single lamp. "We asked everyone to make ocean sounds instead of clapping because we didn't want security to happen upon us, and they all obliged. But after our last song, everyone let loose clapping and we knew we had to go on tour." As for the inspiration behind their otherworldly songs: "We are inspired by so many various things: memories of the past, the act of living and of being women, music we grew up with, and music we listen to now. The people we grew up with and the people we know now. The changing of seasons and the passing of years. Warmth and sunshine, rain and sadness. The people we have kissed and the people we are kissing now."

File next to Fleet Foxes, Joanna Newsom

Trash Kit

These three face-painted Londoners (above) are purveyors of chaotic, raw, lo-fi pop-punk. Fresh sounding and energetic, they've been on tour with Tune-Yards, No Age and Vivian Girls. They were picked by Matt Groening to play at the recent All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Ros Murray from Electrelane is in the band, and they take inspiration from Rachel's great grandmother, who was a Sioux Indian. They formed early last year and their debut album has just come out on Upset the Rhythm.

File next to The Slits, The Raincoats, Tune-Yards

Smoke Fairies

Jack White signed these two 20-something Sussex women (above) to his Third Man label, drawn to their combination of blues guitar riffs and ethereal folky vocal harmonies. Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire met at school in Chichester, West Sussex, where they started forming vocal harmonies, and sitting at the back of the school choir because they were never picked for the solos. Hearing their crystal-clear vocal harmonies, which interweave with their cyclical riffs, you'd never know why. They moved to London to pursue the band three years ago, and their debut album, produced by White and recorded on an island off the south coast, is due later this year. They have just returned from a North American tour supporting Laura Marling, and have fans in Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley. The latter employed their vocals for a sea shanty on his new EP, 'False Lights from the Land', which is out on Monday.

File next to Rachel Unthank, Howling Bells

Dum Dum Girls

The intention to create "blissed-out buzzsaw" is the brainchild of band leader Dee Dee, who started Dum Dum Girls as a solo project in late 2008, and looked to three friends when she decided to take the lo-fi indie-pop songs beyond her bedroom. The group (Jules, Bambi and Frankie Rose) were brought together a week before 2009's CMJ and the gang was instantly born. The drummer Frankie Rose, from Brooklyn, is a former member of the Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts. Their name is a nod to both The Vaselines' album, 'Dum-Dum', and the Iggy Pop song "Dum Dum Boys". They released a home-recorded CD on Dee Dee's own record label Zoo Music. Their debut album, 'I Will Be', full of melodies fuelled by fuzzy guitar and vocal harmonies, came out in March.

File next to Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts

The Langley Sisters

The sisters Rosie, Gita and Edie have been singing since their childhood days, honing their three-part vocals and a strong retro sound. Harking back to the golden age of Hollywood showtunes, they perform renditions of songs by The Andrews Sisters and other hits from the Twenties through to the Forties, but it is their own songs that most impress. The atmospheric "Sing for My Supper" sounds like it came from a Tim Burton film. It was written by Gita, one of the trio, the wife of the singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt and the violinist in his band. The aesthetically pleasing trio have played sets at Glastonbury, the Barbican, and at the Rogues' Gallery at Gateshead and Dublin, where they sang alongside Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega.

File next to Tim Burton soundtracks, The Andrews Sisters

First Aid Kit

The Swedish 16-year-old Klara Söderberg and her older sister Johanna, 19, became a global hit with their stunning version of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song", which scored more than a million views on YouTube, but they've proven to have as much talent with their own original songwriting. Since their debut EP was released on The Knife's own Rabid label in early 2009, the duo (above) have been building a hefty fanbase. Their deal with Wichita puts them among a roster that includes Bright Eyes and Bloc Party. This February saw the release of their debut album, 'The Black and the Blue', its harmonies, acoustic guitar and autoharp recalling Everly Brothers pop and folk.

File next to Indigo Girls, Fleet Foxes

Fan Death

The disco duo Dandi and Marta started out in 2008 and were snapped up by the Pharmacy/Mercury label. They took their name from a South Korean old wives' tale, which claimed that leaving electric fans running overnight in a closed room can lead to death by suffocation, poisoning or hypothermia. They state their intention to "make music that recalls the greatest era of electronic pop: Depeche Mode, OMD, New Order, Human League, Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys. Great songs that happened to be electronic, not soulless, repetitious club music that seems to dominate these days." Their blend of skew-whiff strings, mid-tempo disco beats and effortless vocals saw them become the protégés of DJ Erol Alkan, and they have a fan in Diplo. Their fantastical synth-pop has seen release in the form of an EP, and their debut album is out in August.

File next to Hercules and Love Affair, Studio 54, Pet Shop Boys