Simone Stopford has played a lot of parts in the music business—A&R, marketing and PR for various independent record labels in Sydney, Australia—but she didn't work up the nerve to make her own music until 2012. And it took a break-up.
"My boyfriend at the time left a guitar and amp at my house—which I paid for, so I guess he felt obliged to leave it—and I just picked it up and I thought, 'What the hell, I'm just going to start messing around with this,'" she said.
Soon, Stopford was spending six or seven hours a day playing guitar and recording demos in her bedroom. During this first flush of creativity, she decided to see a clairvoyant, who seemed to pick up on her intensity.
"I'm very cynical about that kind of thing, but I guess I sort of felt drawn," Stopford said. "I wanted her to read my palms, [but] she told me that she couldn't because my palms were on fire."
The clairvoyant may not have told Stopford her fortune, but she did give her a great band name. Now based in Tucson, Ariz., the English-born musician has been generating some heat with her current project, Burning Palms. Tucson Weekly named the group "the best new band in Tucson" in 2013. Stopford and company released their self-titled debut LP on Oct. 14 and played this year's CMJ Music Marathon in New York City (cmj.com included Burning Palms in its feature "Top 10 Artists to See: Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014"). The band is on a cross-country tour—its first ever—and will bring its self-described "witch rock" to Crazy Horse on Friday, Nov. 7. Local groups Toy Zoo and Velvet Hook will open.
For Burning Palms' sound—an eerie mix of plaintive harmonies, roaring guitar and hypnotic rhythms—Stopford and her bandmates draw inspiration from a variety of artists. They include Goth favorites like Nick Cave and Bauhaus, but old-school bluesmen and rock-and-rollers provide the strongest influence.
"The instrument that I think that I got into the most was actually the drums," she said. "When you listen to stuff like Bo Diddley and the '60s garage stuff, it's just all about the rhythm of it."
Hoping to develop her music, Stopford moved from Sydney to Los Angeles. When she couldn't get a band together, she took an opportunity to train as a yoga instructor in Tucson. To her surprise, she found in Arizona the creative support that she sought.
"I thought it would be this kind of wide, isolated desert, but it's phenomenal," she said. "There's this fantastic music scene there. Very creative, wonderful energy. Very warm, wonderful people."
In addition to assembling the current lineup of Burning Hands—vocalist Julia DeConcini, lead guitarist Thomas Sloane, bassist Nate Gutierrez and drummer Elliot Silva—Stopford fell in love with the Tucson landscape.
"It's not white; it's more green and lush and full of bush and trees and cacti, which I was really surprised by. And mountains everywhere—the whole of Tucson is surrounded by mountains on four sides," she said. "I'm Pagan—I'm a huge nature person—so I was like, 'Screw it, I'm just gonna stay. There's a music scene and a desert. What more do you need?'"
Stopford's love for Tucson isn't always reciprocated. She noted that Burning Palms suffered some backlash as its popularity grew.
"It's a sort of small-town mentality," she said, "where I think the town sort of wants you to be successful within the town, but as soon as you start doing well elsewhere, then they turn on you. Really bizarre; I can't get my head around it."
Still, the band has supporters like Matt Rendon, who plays and records as the one-man psychedelic pop band The Resonars. Rendon recorded Burning Palms at his Midtown Island Studio for $195. He also helped connect the band with the L.A.-based indie label Lolipop Records, which released the album.
"He actually arranged a show for us in Tucson," Stopford said, "where we ended up playing with one of the bands that the Lolipop boss dudes play in. ... They really liked us, and they said if we were ever to record anything that they'd definitely be interested in signing us."
Stopford hopes to keep Burning Palms' momentum going. After this tour, she and her bandmates plan to write and record another album in two months and get back on the road in February.
Despite Burning Palms' quasi-mystical beginnings, the band has a commonplace goal.
"We really want to quit our day jobs," Stopford said, laughing. "And this is a good way to do it."