Sallie Ford sounds like the love child of jump blues and rockabilly, drawing equally from the legacies of Billie Holiday and Wanda Jackson. But she interprets those influences through her own quirky lens, resulting in a hot mess that's heartfelt and in-your-face with honesty just brash enough to be disarming.
"I'll always say the wrong thing," she objects in her sultry croon on the pop-music bashing "I Swear," off her 2011 debut, Dirty Radio. "I can't help but be a mess / I'll never be like the rest / I couldn't even if I tried."
In Ford's voice, you hear echoes of the keening jazz-roots of Jolie Holland, Eilen Jewell and the Be Good Tanyas, as well as the raw, rebellious rumble of The Raveonettes and The Kills. The latter impulse comes out stronger on Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside's latest, Untamed Beast, which showcases the spunky swagger of P.J. Harvey and off-beat charm of Regina Spektor. One reference too many? Not for genre-bending Ford.
"I appreciate all those artists you named," Ford said from her Portland, Ore. home. "There are more bands these days that like to mix things up. Keep it interesting. There's really only so much you can really do anymore. You're going to be copying something anyway. You may as well mix it up and have a few different things in there. At least have the originality in it that way."
Ford grew up in Asheville, N.C., in a musical family. She took up classical violin until her teens.
"By the time I was a teenager [playing violin] was way too uppity and all about perfection. I needed to get out of it—running in the opposite direction," she said. "I went to music camp for violin, where I met all these different people, dyed my hair bright red, started watching R-rated movies and listening to punk music."
Ford played in a couple of bands around Asheville, but didn't start making her own music until she moved to Portland in 2007. Starting fresh someplace where nobody knew her proved a cure for her shyness. She quickly gained the confidence her music now exudes.
Though she initially struggled with Portland's cliquishness, Ford eventually found her own group of friends, whom she heralds in "This Crew": "I came on a whim / that's just what I do / and for the first time in my life / I think I really fit in with this crew."
Ford, who herself rocks a pair of horn-rims, admits Portland has gotten a little thick with the glasses and bearded set, but she loves it.
"It's a little hipster-y sometimes but everybody is so nice. Some of that stuff on that Portlandia show is overdramatized, but it's a lot like that," she said.
Many of Ford's songs are about finding a place to belong and be yourself. She connects those concerns to contemporaries like Cat Power, Sharon Van Etten and even Girls' Lena Dunham; it's about taking the power to define oneself rather than allowing others or society to do it for you.
"I love [Girls]; I just watched it last night," she said. "For sure, I think there's a similar idea of just showing what actual people in their 20s are doing these days and how women really are with all their different body types."
A great example of this sentiment can be found on Ford's new album, Untamed Beast, in the song "Bad Boys," a strutting combo of bulletproof attitude and sass. Stepping over a reverb-laden R&B guitar line, Ford declares: "I can fuck / I can drink / and I don't care what you think / You could say I'm just a girl / but I've had a lady or two / bet she'd preferred me to you / I like bad boys, but I'm like a bad boy, too."
"I wanted to write a song about how I like bad boys but I guess it's kind of like a girl-power gender-bender," said Ford. "Some of the things in the songs I am. I think modern girls aren't necessarily limp anymore. We drink and want all the same things boys want. I don't really go out of my way to be that crazy, but I had a time period when I was writing that record where I just felt open to doing whatever. I wanted to party and do crazy stuff."
In other ways, Ford is more an old-fashioned girl, amplifying the music's mix of old and new. On the tender, loping "Roll Around," she complains she doesn't need a ring or a promise: "Just gimme something real / just gimme something honest."
And that nostalgia for a simpler time comes out on other tracks like "Write Me a Letter," off the Not an Animal EP, where she sings: "Just like they took away the Polaroid picture / They're gonna take away everything that means something / Today I think I saw ten thousand cellphones / But not one decent conversation."
"It's weird that people can't have real honest conversations with each other anymore," Ford said. "You'll be hanging out with people and they'll be looking at their telephone and socializing with people on the Internet."
Ford feels the same about dating. "In Portland, it's mostly hanging out," she said. "There's not a whole lot of straightforward, 'It's OK to say we're on a date right now. It doesn't mean we're going to get married.' I feel like young people are so chilled out they're scared to claim 'dating.' They are just too scared to admit that's what they're doing."
Like her music, Ford feels laid back and candid. She speaks her mind with plucky, affectless charm. She's the comely neighbor, brazen gal-pal and sympathetic shoulder all rolled into one Untamed Beast.[ Video is no longer available. ]