Two years ago Swan Island drummer Vera Domini and guitarist Aubree Bernier-Clarke were no longer playing in bands and had become restless with their break from creating music. Friends who both had connections in the lesbian music scene in Portland, they decided to form a new project with some old friends.
“It was Aubree and I, she and I were talking and we were sad we weren’t in bands anymore,” Vera said. “We started playing together and it clicked, piece by piece we got the other members of the band. I was really pushing for Brisa to be our vocalist. She is the perfect vocalist for us.”
After convincing Aubree, Vera talked childhood friend Brisa Gonzalez into fronting the fledgling band, which soon added a second guitarist in Torrence Stratton and bassist bob. e. kendrick (note: Torrence is a Vanguard copy editor).
The band members’ musical tastes and styles vary wildly, contributing to an eclectic sound that references both classic rock – especially Heart – and Riot Grrl decendants Sleater-Kinney. But in the end Swan Island is intrinsically Northwest rock and there is little getting around that fact.
Brisa, Swan’s disarmingly attractive singer, said “folk sentiments” and activism are the main influences in her songwriting.
“I’m really into the idea of music bringing people together,” she said. “I’ve been studying international politics recently and it’s a really frustrating and complicated set of problems right now. Making art that expresses the kinds of emotional reactions I’m having, hopefully people will relate.”
“I’m completely hip-hop,” she said. “A lot of my beats are breakbeats or house beats. I don’t play a lot of rock beats in the traditional sense. We all come from such weird different spots.”
Layered over Swan Island’s political vocals and hip-hop influenced drumming is the core of what makes the band accessible (and rocking): the unapologetically loud, melodic dueling guitars of Torrence and Aubree.
“My early musical roots are bad ’80s rock and Tom Petty,” Torrence said. “I definitely have listened to a lot more classic rock as I have grown into my role in the band. I listen to a lot of slow music too, I try and blend my musical influences.”
The group got the name Swan Island courtesy of Aubree, who came up with it after she moved to Portland and someone gave her directions that mentioned Swan Island.
With images of a beautiful island paradise, Aubree tried to have a picnic on the island, only to discover a McDonald’s and a UPS processing center where there should have been lush fields and elegant waterfowl. Intrigued by the dichotomy between the compelling name and the disappointing reality, she suggested the name to her bandmates and it stuck.
With a built-in community eager to support good music, Swan Island’s Portland shows are typically well attended. Even so, there are still people in the enlightened year 2006 who are resistant to the idea of a band of all women.
“We want to be a valid, exciting, supported band. We love our community. There’s a lot of great queer music right now,” Vera said. “But it’s amazing when we’ll pull up to a town on tour and they’ll be like, ‘you’re an all-girl band then?’ They don’t have any reference in their mind what we would possibly sound like. They’ll say ‘how would you play that instrument then, being female?'”
The answer: by turning the amps up loud and rocking the fuck out, creating songs that are riffy and aggressive, yet pretty and melodic as well. During shows, most of the band stands to the side, concentrating on the intricacies of creating highly proficient rock music.
With her bandmates taking care of the rock part, the show is embodied in Brisa, who prances and struts and shakes like a woman possessed by the need to compress an entire life’s worth of emotion into one show, a single song, the perfect note at the perfect time.
“Music can energize and fulfill and bring people together,” Brisa said.
More often than not, she succeeds. The band, which loathes the overproduced music of the mainstream, has been hitting Jackpot Studios to capture the raw power of their live performances. The album will be co-released by Holocene’s new label and bob’s 16 records, which she started as a DIY way to get music she wanted produced.
“It’s basically a hobby,” bob said. “I wanted to have a resource for queer musicians.”
Already having recorded enough material for a healthy EP, Swan Island will return to the studio this May to record a couple more songs for their tentatively titled first LP, The Centre Will Hold, which is scheduled for release in late August or early September.
“Music is transcendent,” Vera said. “It’s saved all of our lives in the band, at one point or another.”