It's a Tuesday night, and the Whiskey Ring feels more like an old-time hootenanny than a Cherokee Street tavern.
Wedged into a tiny vestibule by the door and gathered around some prehistoric microphones, Ryan Koenig is holding court with various instruments and fellow musicians. After playing accordion alongside guitarist Nick Pence and fiddler Alena Wheeler, Koenig takes a break and reconfigures his set-up with his new backing trio, the Goldenrods. Kellie Everett holds up the low end on upright bass, Jess Adkins squeezes her turquoise-sparkle accordion and guitarist Jenny Roques strums and sings alongside Koenig, her strong voice booming through the bar's open door on an early spring night.
Singing alongside her friends is a situation Roques has been in many times before. Over the past decade, she's been an integral part of a few folk, Americana and rock bands: with Jacqueline Oberkrom in the twangy duo Arson for Candy; alongside Mike Leahy in the desert-noir rock band Tortuga; and as part of the short-lived but mighty fun all-women quartet Joan of Dark.
But as the leader of the rock quartet Desire Lines, Roques is breaking new ground in a few ways: She's the sole singer and lyricist in the group, and her recent embrace of the electric guitar brings a nervy and hardened edge to songs that might normally have been adorned with country and folk affectations.
Reached by phone just a few hours before her Whiskey Ring gig, Roques talks about her band's debut record, After Sundown, while her daughter jumps in mud puddles in their backyard.
After Sundown, Roques says, is yet another milestone in her career.
"It's my first full-length album I've ever written. It's a big deal — it's my baby!" she says, laughing. "It's baby number two!"
Roques didn't have to look far for source material for the eight-song release. "I went through a lot of personal life changes and stuff — getting divorced and all that fun stuff," she says. "I wanted to do something completely different." Part of that change included how she approached her songs, which led her to set aside the Americana palette for something more rangey and raw.
"I love country music, but I'm kind of a weirdo and I like all sorts of music," she continues. "I was starting to feel almost crunched in a corner. I do a lot more than that, and sometimes my writing is a little weird for country."
Likewise, her embrace of electric guitar not only gives Desire Lines a dreamy and slightly psychedelic charge; it also affected her compositions. "Buying an electric, I couldn't just strum; I would have to play it differently," she says. "It impacted what I wrote."
Having played as part of larger ensembles for so long gave Roques some trepidation at being Desire Lines' focal point, but working with a band of well-seasoned musicians — bassist Matt Pace, guitarist Sam Golden and drummer Ryan Adams — made her more comfortable with embracing the role of a bandleader.
"They actually made me take a more commanding front and asked me to tell them what we are going to do," Roques says of her bandmates. "They really helped me develop that director role and be very vocal about what I was wanting to hear."
The process of developing the band's sound was gradual. Desire Lines initially started as an acoustic project between Roques and Pace, and the pair would often play a mix of covers and originals in less formal, more happy-hour-centric settings.
"After Matt and I were playing acoustic around the apartment, I felt I needed to do something else with this, something different," Roques says. "I wanted to abandon everything I'd ever done before and do something new."
After Sundown will be released in mid-April — a rush order to aid the band's Record Store Day set at Vintage Vinyl, Roques says — and Desire Lines has continued to gig around town, including a recent set at the Duck Room. Playing as part of a showcase celebrating the release of Reedy Press' The Sound of St. Louis, Desire Lines performed alongside more established rock bands Finn's Motel and Grace Basement.
Being a part of the celebration of St. Louis music has special resonance for Roques, whose ancestor John Roques is credited with leading St. Louis' first drum-corps band in the 1820s. She even has the documentation from the Missouri Historical Society to prove it.
Rather than just playing a gig, Roques had a sense of making good on her birthright.
"I thought, 'Holy shit, I'm doing what my grandpa did 200 years ago,'" Roques says.