Chances are likely that frequenters of the Long Beach live music scene have encountered Brenda Carsey in some incarnation over the past couple years or so. Whether in the form of one of her solo excursions– the dance-infused Side Show, the blue-eyed soul of eminent.ruth, miscellaneous singer/songwriter projects– as keyboardist of Feral Kizzy, or as utility player in Centuries, Carsey has become a restless local fixture. In actuality, “restless” might be the best descriptor for Carsey’s approach and attitude towards her music. In a relatively short window of time, she has performed at a rate that would tap your average musician into submission (for proof check out brendacarseyart.com, which documents her live appearances dating back to 2006). True to this determined pace, she shows no signs of slowing down; if anything, a more demanding path lies ahead.
What follows is a chronological(ish) tale of a 15-hour day I spent with Brenda on Saturday, March 24. Full disclosure: I’m a longtime friend and musical collaborator with the woman under discussion, and for these reasons I felt that a conventional Q-and-A session would seem forced and unnatural. So, when she asked that I accompany her on a drive to Santa Barbara for a show in which she was to fill in on keys and melodica for La Chilanga Banda, a Café Tacvba cover band from Long Beach, I jumped on this unique (and potentially strange) opportunity. Over the course of the day, we covered sites aplenty and chit-chatted about life, love, and music (the latter of which this article focuses upon since LBI, after all, is a website dedicated to local music coverage). This article would be deprived of its colorful details, however, if I excluded quips pertaining to whiskey bar photo booths, choice food stops, the former guitarist of Maná, and a quite literal trip down memory lane.
I get to Brenda’s house. She makes us breakfast– scrambled eggs, grapefruit, an English muffin, and to top it all off, a blueberry Eggo with honey. She lends me a few hundred milligrams of Ibuprofen for my sore neck (thanks, Brenda). She introduces me to the music of Café Tacvba, 15 of whose songs she learned over the narrow span of two weeks for the night’s performace (plus an additional show the next night in Anaheim).
Without reservations (because this is what friends do), I inquire with a slight degree of perplexity over the seemingly non-lateral and glaringly oddball musical direction. I mean, the last thing I would expect an artistically driven, English-speaking piano balladeer to do is play in a Latin rock cover band (no offense to Latin rock). “I’m fine with being a musician for hire as long as it doesn’t interfere with my own music,” she explains. To provide some context, a friend recommended Brenda to La Chilanga Banda, who employed her talents for the two aforementioned gigs.
Recently laid off from her day job, she now has more time and reason to explore new and unlikely musical adventures. With a typically positive outlook, Brenda views her newfound unemployment as a disguised blessing that is forcing her to become the dedicated professional she has always wanted to be. “Being a musician is a full-time job and is a necessary and needed position in society. Every day you put in hours rehearsing, writing, maintaining a solid website, keeping up with social networking sites, booking shows, working on licensing…” Like all hard-working independent musicians, Brenda has a business to run.
We load up the keyboard and hit the road. The KCRW weekend mix fills the background harmoniously as Brenda and I continue talking about music. “These shows (with La Chilanga Banda) are not so much about creative growth as much as developing my own arsenal of skills.” She identifies ska rhythms, ear training, and improved finger coordination as a few of the techniques that have proved beneficial in getting intimate with a different genre.
Brenda expresses great interest in developing a résumé as a touring musician in order to achieve the heights she desires with her solo projects. Citing Annie Clark– who toured with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens before forming St. Vincent– Brenda recognizes the importance of both experience and networking as prerequisites to “making it” in the infamously cutthroat music industry.
At this point we exit the 101 for a very literal trip down memory lane in Agoura Hills, a valley town that straddles the Los Angeles-Ventura County line. Brenda hasn’t returned to her hometown since she moved to Long Beach 8 years ago. Amazed by the Temeculaesque development the area has undergone over the past decade, she explains the small-town vibe growing up and how starkly it contrasts with her experience in Long Beach. “In high school I would hike, goof off with friends, and go to the movies because there was nothing else to do. And sometimes break into things that you shouldn’t break into.” We laugh.
She drives us up a steep neighborhood hill and stops in front of a house near the top. “This is my old house.” She entertains the idea of knocking on the door and possibly asking to look inside for old times’ sake, but decides against it and takes us back down the hill. We pass by her alma mater (Agoura Hills High School) and the Vons she worked at as a 15-year-old. We stop and get a sandwich to split, break from the nostalgia, and chug right along the highway bound north.
Santa Barbara. The light-jacket weather feels nice as we stroll down State Street, eventually stepping foot inside The French Press for some chai and espresso. The conversation shifts back to ambition: “I feel like getting laid off was a sign,” Brenda remarks in reflection of the recent changes in her life. “I’m just tired of pretending– working and ‘pretending’ to be a musician.” She has her sights set on playing shows on the road in the near future, referencing the excitement of past performances in San Francisco and Portland.
We continue our trek down State Street, venturing into a retro hat store, a sex-toy shop, and then pass by a crowd of folks waiting in line to see The Hunger Games. As we move past the music venue Velvet Jones, we hear the 2k11 buzzband Cults soundchecking “Abducted”– signs on the venue’s closed doors read: “TONIGHT’S SHOW SOLD OUT”…bummer. We stumble upon a warehouse-looking building covered in murals that pulls us in for some photo ops (like the one above). Brenda asks the man inside about the place and if they ever host shows. She collects the proper contact info and we trudge on. The ocean offers a scenic endpoint to our mini-adventure and we head the other direction for some Indian cuisine.
Thoroughly satisfied by our experience at All India Café, I mention that a drink sounds “goddamned good right now.” And what do you know– next door is a place called Whiskey Richard’s. This can be seen, more or less, as the point in which my journalistic duties start to tumble downhill (put me in any place with the word “whiskey” in its name and results will quickly diminish; or increase, depending on which way you choose to look at it). Brenda wisely holds back on her alcohol consumption due to performer’s integrity; I, on the other hand, say “fuck it” and get to work on a double Jameson. Kudos to the photo booth and its color printer, as evidenced to the left. Opposite of kudos to the college mom in town visiting her daughter at UCSB who feels the need to let out a shrill two-finger whistle every 3 seconds as “A Milli” blasts through the soundsystem. She sure misses her college days. Showtime is soon so we have to split for soundcheck.
SOhO Restaurant & Music Club. I keep the party alive with a Hoppy Poppy IPA and then another (God bless DD’s, aka Brenda). It’s Latin Alternative Rock night– not my typical cup of tea– but the people there are fucking into it. The Saturday night turnout packs the front of the stage, dancing and singing along, obviously familiar with the Café Tacvba catalog (oh, the perks of playing in a cover band, the audience already on your side). Brenda plays the keys and melodica like she didn’t hear these songs just two weeks ago, not missing a beat. The crowd chants, “¡Otro!” and La Chilanga Banda (the opening band, by the way) plays una otra canción.
The show ends and several fans ask Brenda for photos. “Maybe they think I’m someone because I’m literally the only white gal here with ultra blonde hair,” she remarks with a chuckle. Elsewhere, a mob of female attendees take pictures with who I am told is the former guitarist of Maná– his current band is headlining the event. Brenda says that he looks like “the Mexican Kurt Cobain.” Fun day, but it’s 11pm, or thereabouts, and time to get on our way back to Long Beach.
Back home. Tired, sore, and a head that aches from “one too many.” But none of that really matters when weighed up against the fun and unexpected day trip. A freeway detour was nothing that an In-N-Out detour couldn’t cure. For some reason that place is always better late at night. And for some reason I only ever go there at nighttime after throwing back a few. I know those last two sentences link up somehow… Anyways, I help Brenda carry her cased-up keyboard– which now weighs five tons more than it did in the morning– inside her house. She’s sweet enough to give me a ride home even though I only live a few blocks away.