Plenty a future has been pondered in a French café, and so it was for Sallie Ford. During a tiring tour of Europe last winter Ford's then-bandmate Jeff Munger mentioned he was ready for a break from the tours Ford and her band, The Sound Outside, had logged. She said she too was ready for something new. "And I said, 'I wish I could have an all-girl band,'" Ford says.
Ford calls Slap Back, her Vanguard Records debut an "ode to all the babe rockers." To Pat Benatar and PJ Harvey, Xene Cervenka, and Joan Jett, and Heart. But it's also her first album without guitarist Munger, bassist Tyler Tornfelt and drummer Ford Tennis, so Slap Back is just as much an ode to herself, to her accomplishments and her ambitions.
She wanted to play more guitar, so she made herself the guitar player. She wanted to play in a band with keyboards, so she signed up Cristina Cano (Albatross, Siren & the Sea) on keys. She added Anita Lee Elliott, who's been in Viva Voce and Blue Giant, on bass, and Amanda Spring (Point Juncture, WA.) on drums. Like that, Ford had the band she hoped for.
Ford wanted to distance herself some from the rockabilly tag she and the Sound Outside picked up over the course of two albums bookended by two EPs. So she wrote garage rock, surf rock, and straight up rock songs. "I wanted to blend different eras of music–the 80s, 90s, 60s, 70s–maybe some 50s," she said, before pausing. "I was kind of over the 50s."
She turned her room into a studio and sat for hours with a notebook, her guitar, a friend's Nord Electro keyboard, and a four-track recorder. She downloaded drum loop apps with basically named rhythms like Rock Beat 1 and wrote to those. She tracked vocals on top of vocals. Slap Back's opening song, the appropriately titled "Intro," finds Ford alone in that room, building an a capella gospel tune that ends with the assertion, "I'm happy, I'm spoiled, I'm fine."
"When I was coming up with the idea of having a new band, I knew I wanted Chris involved," Ford says. "He was kind of the silent collaborator I knew was going to come into the picture."
That'd be Chris Funk, who's produced albums by Red Fang and Langhorne Slim. Funk is best known for his multi-instrumental work in the Decemberists and Black Prairie. If you play music in Portland and you're any good, you know Funk. Ford and the Sound Outside had opened for the Decemberists, and Tornfelt's sister, Annalisa, sings in Black Prairie. The group also worked with Funk on projects for Walker, the music supervision company where he is also employed.
In February of 2014, Ford and her new group went into a Portland, OR studio called Destination: Universe! and went to work on all the songs Ford had ready–a collection full of "simple lyrics about raw emotions," Ford says, played with the urgency exemplified in the fuzzed-out, missed-love-by-just-that-much lead single, "Coulda Been."
What interested her on the last Sound Outside record, Untamed Beast, interests her here–relationships. "Lucky to Miss" is about being in one and on the road. "Gimme Your Lovin'" and "You Bet Your Ass" are pick-up lines, and not exactly subtle. But then, why should they be? As she sings on "So Damn Low": "Gonna start up fresh, gonna start up clean, gonna learn to say what I really mean."
Slap Back is that, too–a new start for a singer and songwriter who had plenty of success after moving from her native North Carolina to Portland.
"Oregon" is a power-riff ode to her affinity for her adopted home state. "An Ending" covers the relationship with her former band mates, and it makes two things clear: "I hope this friendship never ends," and, "I think this is how things are supposed to be."
In 2010, Ford and the Sound Outside were voted Portland's best new band by Willamette Week. Even in a town where everything old is stylized there was something classic in her voice, something no one else had. Comparisons came back: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. NPR would throw Cat Power into the mix. Ford could purr and howl and even managed to hold her own in awkward banter about glasses with David Letterman after blistering his stage.
"Slap Back has a new sound on purpose," states Ford "'cause music should be about taking risks, doing something new and being inspired to change it up."