By Sue Zalokar, Staff Writer
Sallie Ford plays rock ‘n’ roll. Just ask her — she’ll tell you that she and the band surprise folks sometimes. Or better yet, listen up. She comes by it honestly. She grew up in Ashville, N.C., in a “family of hippies” – talented, creative hippies. Her mother is a music teacher and her father a puppeteer.
Ford says she had to move across the country to find herself. Being surrounded by so many performers, she found it difficult to find her own voice. But find it, she did, dabbling in photography, filmmaking and other artistic pursuits. It wasn’t until Ford moved to Portland in 2006 that she began to write her own songs. Since that time she and the band have toured relentlessly and recorded an EP and two full-length albums. The first, “Dirty Radio,” came out in 2009 and the second, “Untamed Beast” will be released on Feb. 19.
Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside will play two CD release shows at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland, Ore., Feb. 22 and 23.
Sue Zalokar: You tour a lot.
Sallie Ford: Yeah. Last year was pretty crazy. I still don’t know what this year is going to look like. We just have a rough map. I’m preparing myself to do a lot.
S.Z.: Do you enjoy touring?
S.F.: I do, yeah. It’s definitely different than traveling. I think there is an idea, this romanticism about being in a rock ‘n’ roll band and touring. Of course, then you actually do it, and you realize it’s a lot of work. I’m really glad it is part of my job and I want to work hard at it.
We just returned a few weeks ago. We were on a five-week tour. We have been touring a lot in France. It’s all a blur at this point. All the shows have been great. That is the important part. We aren’t huge partiers, but we let loose every now and then. At this point, I consider Paris my second home.
S.Z.: Your second home? So do you claim Portland as your home now, even though you are from North Carolina?
S.F.: I definitely consider it my home now. It is a great place to come back to. The real struggle for me when I was just living here and not touring was trying to find work where you can make enough money. When I found music, it was a blessing.
S.Z.: How does Portland compare to Paris?
S.F.: A lot of the same music is popular in both places. It was cool. I got to go to the Pitchfork Music Festival while I was in Paris. A lot of the music clubs have some similarities. There are a lot of these clubs that are in sort of the Moulin Rouge district of Paris. Our record label, Fargo Records, also has a record shop. They have a big vinyl selection and a lot of posters on the wall of Portland bands. It’s like a little Portland there. They had the “Keep Portland Weird Festival” there this summer I heard. We weren’t really a part of it, but they exposed Paris to some Portland bands.
S.Z.: You said that you bought a one-way ticket to Portland to recreate yourself. What was it like to have a blank slate when you moved west?
S.F.: Oh, it was great. I was just kind of open-minded to whatever was going to happen. I got really lucky. I built my life off of just finding people on Craigslist. I found people to live with and a dog from Craigslist. I moved in with all of these young girls who were around my age and I met people who were playing music and house shows. Then I started doing open mics and I met people who are a part of the music scene. I sort of just decided I should find a band and it just fell in my lap, really.
S.Z.: How did that happen?
S.F.: I met (drummer) Ford (Tennis) because I met a bunch of other Alaskan kids and I was playing a show at Mississippi Pizza. Ford was there and he just had heard about me from one of his friends. He said, “If you ever want to play with a drummer ... I also play with a bass player.” The bass player was Tyler Tornfelt.
S.Z.: Is he related to Annalisa Tornfelt, the fiddle player?
S.F.: Yes, they’re brother and sister. Tyler was living with her at the time. They had a practice space and we all met up there and played in the basement. Annalisa helped a lot with introducing us to people when we first started playing.
S.Z.: When did you all know that something had clicked for you as a band?
S.F.: We were lucky to meet the Avett Brothers through a friend. They let us open for them at a show at the Crystal Ballroom and that’s really what just really kind of kicked it all into gear.
S.Z.: Guitarist Jeff Munger joined the band a few months later than the rest of you. Tell me about meeting Jeff.
S.F.: I met Jeff because he was doing a lot of street busking — playing his music on the street. I was at Last Thursday on Alberta and I was with a friend who was selling her art and I was playing some music on the street. It was my first time doing that. I was just walking down Alberta and I saw Jeff and he has a distinct look to him. He was playing a folk song. He stuck out in my mind. It seemed like I would run into him everywhere.
I was living and working on Hawthorne and I would walk down to work and he was out there every single day. I would always stop and talk to him and give him money. Everybody always gets stopped on Hawthorne, but I always give money to musicians. We really became friends and then I asked him to join the band. He was another piece that we needed for the band.
S.Z.: It seems that the move was a critical part of you finding a voice as a lyricist and vocalist.
S.F.: For sure. Portland forced me to grow up. I was only 18 or 19 when I moved here. I had done that backpack trip around Europe, but it was my first time having to find a job and all that. There are some songs that I have written about Portland, but more and more the way I write lyrics is changing all of the time. I’ve been learning as I’ve been playing.
S.Z.: Where does your motivation for writing a song come from?
S.F.: A lot of the songs I have for the new record are about girl power. They are about women having a voice in music. They are about me finding my voice as an artist and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that I am experiencing: my view of that, just hanging with the boys because I’m on tour all of the time with the guys. There are some songs that are just about that: “Hey, I’m tough too.”
S.Z.: Let’s talk about your sound. Rock ‘n’ roll is a recurring theme that comes up when you talk about the sound that you have, what exactly is the sound of the Sound Outside?
S.F.: The genres are a really irritating thing. It seems kind of redundant. Rock ‘n’ roll can encompass that sound of really anything from punk to more folk rock. All the styles cross over and bleed into each other so much that if you have too much of a genre it means that you’re not doing your job right. We call our music rock ‘n’ roll because it means anything inspired which can be under the umbrella of rock ‘n’ roll, which is really vague on purpose.
S.Z.: Let’s talk about vocal delivery. You pack a wallop of a punch with the way you sing. How did you build your vocal delivery style?
S.F.: My sister does musical theater, so I was exposed to a lot of that kind of stuff and I even had some vocal training growing up. But I just wanted to create my own voice. I just try to let loose and not judge myself for what I was doing. I just want to have as much fun as possible and treat my voice like an instrument. I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits and he just does things with his voice where he is actually in control of his voice — as much as that’s possible. Now I’m peeling away the mask I was putting on my voice. I am just trying to project a powerful voice. I think this record is more that.
S.Z.: “Dirty Radio” was recorded all on analog. What was the importance of analog recording?
S.F.: It’s arguable that it really is more warm when you hear it versus a digital recording. Those are my feelings, I like the warmth of the sound. Really at this point, it hasn’t been that much more expensive to record on tape. I think just the tradition of that and being in a studio where you aren’t surrounded by computer screens ... As a musician, there is an element of having to get it right, then and there. Digital recording gives you so many opportunities to make mistakes and correct yourself and make this huge project. Really, many projects can be done live and quickly and capture something that can be really special.
S.Z.: How about “Untamed Beast?” Did you record to analog again?
S.Z.: In “They Told Me”, a track from your upcoming Untamed Beast release, you sing, “Jealousy is an untamed beast and that untamed beast lives inside of me.” What makes you jealous? Or does the song refer to the jealousy of others?
S.F.: I guess normal things (laughs). I think that song is mostly about sometimes I feel shame for getting dramatic about situations and people try to talk me out of that. And that song is kind of saying, well, hey I’m allowed to feel however I feel even if it’s not what you think is appropriate. I don’t want to do anything that somebody tells me to do. It was a personal story of how I felt jealous.
S.Z.: You’ve actually had quite a few amazing experiences opening for and performing with some amazing performers. Do you have a favorite?
S.F.: I got to meet Jack White, that was pretty cool. But when I first came to Portland and I was hearing about local people. I would look up to a lot of those players and I was listening to a lot of M.Ward at the time. I got to meet (Portland-based producer and songwriter) Mike Coykendall, who we eventually got to work with. I also got to work with Adam Selzer, who has worked with M.Ward. That was really amazing for me. Now, of course, I see them (the members of M.Ward) all over and they’re friends of mine. I have to remember the way that felt at the time. I’ve had a chance to become friends with Laura Veirs and Tucker Martine. I’m still amazed at how nice all the local big shots are here in Portland.
S.Z.: Your father is a master puppeteer. What has he taught you about performance?
S.F.: Really, that I can’t fight it. I wanted to do something behind the scenes, but then I moved to Portland and this is what I did immediately. My parents are my biggest fans and they never pressure me to go to college or have any sort of normal life like that. They have always just been supportive of whatever I want to do.
S.Z.: You like to provoke your listeners. What do you want your audience to know about you?
S.F.: (Laughs a lot) That, really, I’m a big nerd.