The classification of "girl-with-guitar," a species of the singer-songwriter genus, is, quite frankly, all but useless in the world of modern music. But it's a label that doesn't go away easily and is often used dismissively, consigning its subject to Hawthorne's "d--d mob of scribbling women." This classification allows critical curmudgeons to overlook many talented musicians who work at their music just for the sheer joy of creative expression. The members of Tres Femmes -- Stolie (from Chicago), Victoria Vox (from Green Bay) and Kellie Lin Knott (from Minneapolis) -- clearly transcend this static category. Featuring lots of three-part harmonies accompanied by guitars, harmonicas, congas and even the occasional ukulele or kazoo, the trio moves beyond standard arrangements and self-involved verse. While a musician's joy in performing doesn't always translate into an audience's joy in listening, these women have been wooing audiences across the Midwest and Northeast, leaving behind a trail of converts.
Knott and Vox met at Berklee College of Music in Boston; Vox graduated with a degree in songwriting and Knott in jazz guitar. The expertise gained with a music degree doesn't afford any guarantees for success, but Vox's self-deprecating characterization can't hide its impact: "Since I have a degree in songwriting, I can write a song, right? Rubbish! It has helped me in my understanding of how songs work and what I can do to make them work. Of course, I think more about the movement of the melody, and harmony, and the arrangements due to my education."
Vox and Knott played together on and off through the late '90s and hooked up with Stolie during a May 2003 Midwest mini-tour. Stolie had played with Knott the previous year, sharing a bill at Chicago's Uncommon Ground.
Each of the three women has a nuanced sound that reveals a wider range than a first listen might disclose. Vox's acoustic album reflects her variety of influences, studies and travel, containing tracks recorded in London; Lacanau, France; Nashville and Green Bay. Knott's newest release, due out in early 2004, demonstrates her growing proficiency in the studio, where she is carving out her own sound -- melodic originals rooted in myriad traditions of jazz, cabaret, bluegrass, folk and pop. Stolie's music features self-consciously clever wordplay punctuated by an assertive percussive guitar style that draws listeners in. As a trio, Tres Femmes isn't so worried about how to pigeonhole their sound. "We're laughing about this, anticipating comparisons to Wilson Phillips, and I'm not sure that's a good thing in the progressive age we're living in. We'll definitely have lots of tight harmonies," says Stolie.
The women identify live performances as integral to their music, and each enjoys the shifting dynamics of a crowd. They have already provided easy-to-use nicknames for themselves, with Stolie as "the potty mouth," Knott as "the ditz" and Vox as "the sweet one." As Stolie explains, the good-natured name-calling reflects a "respect that happens when you're sharing the spotlight. None of us will be the center of attention, so the main vocals and highlights will have to be divided between us. We've all been blessed with uncontrollable live banter, though, so there's as much chatter as there is music at a Tres Femmes show." She goes on to emphasize, "We definitely want people to be aware that we are three separate artists up there."
Vox agrees. "With doing a solo show, all eyes are on me. I need to make sure I keep their attention on me. With a trio, we support each other. None of us are there to steal the show from the others. I see it as a harmonious compromise of the stage as we all make music together."
DIY to the core, the three write, play, record, book, publicize, set up, break down -- not to mention drive themselves across the country and back. Their unabashed love for playing music for audiences -- whether in coffeehouses, bars, festivals or the subway -- is striking. "We're all so impressed by each other's capabilities and talent," Stolie says. "Our first collaborations got us thinking that our combined efforts could generate something really beautiful, solid and entertaining. After the bit of practice we've already had, I can't wait to see us propelled by the audience."
Being so self-reliant can be draining, though; as Vox admits, wearing all the hats isn't for everyone: "I find I need to take writing vacations -- that's taking a vacation from the rest to be able to write!" That said, both she and Stolie have confessed to secretly liking the business end of things, and each has started her own company -- Stolie with Screaming Galaxy Records and Vox with OBUS Music Publishing.
Like many hardworking musicians who fill our bars and coffeehouses, these three vacillate between the desire to control their careers and to share some of the work with a label. "I teeter-totter with this all the time. I like doing it all myself," Stolie explains, "because I don't think there's anyone else in the world who could be more committed to my career than me. But I could also use the help so I could be more creative."
Vox is equally vexed by the balancing act: "A label would be great, but I don't send out anything mostly because I'm not sure if I'm that interested. If it's not broke, maybe I shouldn't try to fix it!"
What's to fix? The musical journey of this trio, or the clichéd performances of their more publicized Top 40 counterparts? Or maybe it's time to fix the trivialized category of the "girl-with-guitar."