I want to bite the hand that feeds me,

I want to bite that hand so badly,

I want to make them wish they’d never

seen me…”

  • Elvis Costello

Radio, Radio”

By Mark Langton

IJ Correspondent

From the moment she steps onto the stage, Victoria George makes it clear she is nobody’s kid sister.

At first glance, this scrappy, self-styled independent singer-songwriter is just a little slip of a thing, 5’3”, in her early 20s, freshly-scrubbed and cheerleader-cute, with blonde hair, blue eyes and just as pretty as she wants to be.

But when she steps up to the microphone, this girl rocker is all business, looking like a Texas gunslinger with an itch as she swings her guitar into position, wide and fast like Johnny Cash used to do, like a Boy named Sue, like a little tough cookie who knows what to do.

Nope. No nose-scrunching here. She doesn’t even bat an eyelash. Baby, it's midnight in Fairfax -- this is no time to get cute. With a steady gaze she scans the crowd until she finds a fixed point in the middle, usually, she says, a random pair of eyes. And when she finds them, she puts on a kind of LOCK.

With eyes that say, we came to play, so let’s get busy.

The blonde singer grabs the microphone, and before you can say “Chelsea Morning” belts out the opening line of one of the better songs off her recent EP, a capella, curls into it with an ironic drawl:

Welllllll, it’s easier to pretend nothin’ happened...

The club goes silent. All you can hear is the bar. The little blonde at the microphone has our attention.

Then her band slams into gear, at wide, full throttle, as she sings the rest of the song. It’s a big voice, bigger than what you’d expect coming out of such a small package. Then, gradually, as it warms to its task, the voice gets even bigger. It’s like her voice is building a flight of stairs to reach the song’s hook – each board weighed, each nail sunk, every board in place, tight. The crowd is taking every step with her, roaring their approval with each power chord. And when she gets to the main chorus she lets ‘em have it, with both barrels. Right between the eyes:

Don’t worry ‘bout

breakin’ my heart ,

you’re not the man,

not the man for the job…

A young man up front in a football jersey who probably wouldn’t know a “female empowerment” song if it jumped up and bit him on the Astroturf looks pretty impressed, nonetheless. He sums it up this way: “This girl,” he shouts into the ear of the guy standing next to him, before the song is even over, “is under arrest.”

It's a rainy February night in Fairfax, and George is the headliner for an evening called "Women Who Rock," a showcase at 19 Broadway for singer-songwriters. Despite the steady downpour, the club is packed. "And with good reason, too," says Jeff Irving, the club's sound man, booking agent and jack of all parades.

According to Irving, tonight's bill is as good as it gets.

This group of women playing gigs around the county have striking looks, a consistent level of professionalism and a sophisticated degree of talent unlike anything Irving's seen for years. And for some reason, a disproportionate number of them grew up in Fairfax. It's as if they're putting something in the Fairfax water supply these days that turns out singer-songwriters.

"The only thing is," says Irving, "when the cream rises to the top, when they get there they look around and discover that it's already pretty crowded."

There is enough local talent to prompt several "women only" series. Among them are: the Acoustic Singer-Songwriter Showcase at Bookbeat in Fairfax (first and third Wednesdays of the month); Women Who Rock at 19 Broadway in Fairfax (intermittent gigs; next show May 12); Sexy Sunday at Peri's in Fairfax (second Sunday of the month); and the Sleeping Lady Concert Series at San Anselmo Coffee Roasters (intermittent gigs; next show April 22).

"When I started the Singer-Songwriter Showcase a few years ago, we got the people who were playing open mikes and they all just happened to be women," says Jack Irving, a Fairfax singer-songwriter who has helped promote the careers of George and Larkin Gayl among others. "I don't know what it is. Women seem to be good at this particular format. Guys more often want to be in a band and hang out with the other guys. There happens to be a lot of very talented women in this area. Larkin and Victoria, for instance, are very driven and serious about their careers. I think there are a lot of other women who are not necessarily pursuing their performing careers as much as they could."

Marin musician Krickie is the host of Sexy Sunday at Peri's. "Every time we have a show, there's a new person who walks in and blows me away," she says.

Indeed, on this night there is a full flock of songbirds at 19 Broadway. Not only are they on the bill, but several are sitting in the audience.

Beth Waters, a local favorite, is going to sing. So is Gayl, who just learned that she landed a coveted contract with About Records, one of the larger, more "artist-friendly" independent recording labels. Waters is generously sharing her spot with Gayl, as they have done many times, each providing backup vocals for the other. Waters lives in Berkeley but regularly plays in Marin.

Opening will be another local singer-songwriter, Brindl, and N.Y.-based Interscope recording artist Kristin Hoffman, who is making a stop here on a national tour, rounds out the bill. A group of record executives from Interscope is in the audience, though it is unclear whether they are scouting for new talent or just there to hear their artists. Regardless, the place is abuzz.

Someone recognizes and points out Amie Penwell, who is sitting alone at a table in the back, describing her as "one to watch." Penwell is a relative newcomer at the various open mikes in the area in terms of performing - mostly, she's been observing. But ever since she opened her mouth to sing, she is regarded by some as yet another heavyweight.

All are at different starting points in their careers. But the one thing they seem to have in common is a desire to remain independent.

"The Internet has changed everything," says Waters, who has been doing this for more than 10 years and is at a point when she just wants to "cut through the crap."

Waters has a beautiful voice. She does a slowed-down cover version of Paul Simon's "Slip Sliding Away" that is so emotionally authentic it could heal a wounded relationship on the spot. (The song will be on her coming CD, released by the independent label Mermaid Mafia, which she owns with her husband).

"An independent artist can record a pretty decent-sounding CD right at their desktop," Waters explains, "and if you're willing to go the distance, you can do it all yourself."

Waters clearly has a clue. She defines an independent artist as one who is disenchanted with the way the Big Four (EMI, Warner Bros., Universal and Sony BMG) treat their artists, and who places a premium on maintaining control of the music and the career, often releasing albums on independent labels or no label at all, relying on touring, word of mouth and airplay on independent or college radio stations for promotion.

"Or they go to Myspace.com, the marketing tool of the future," Waters says. Various musicians post songs directly on their Myspace profiles and songs can be uploaded onto other profiles. Because of the site's popularity, mainstream musicians have entered this trend as well.

"It has leveled the playing field," Waters says. "For example, I just broke even for the first time in 10 years from international CD sales, I think because of Myspace. And, for all I know, it's because my first name starts with a 'B!'"

Waters says the scene has become more intellectual. Fans of singer-songwriters tend to place more emphasis on the lyrics and are more likely to memorize them, she says. She writes her own lyrics, and for many of her fans, it's all about the words, even if they don't know it.

"People come up to me and say, Oooh, what a great voice,' and I really think it's because they're not used to the hypnotics of repeating certain words," Waters says.

Not everyone is enamored with the new sound. Marin's Maria Muldaur, who sang the 1974 hit "Midnight at the Oasis," says all female singer-songwriters sound the same, as if somebody is crying for a towel with soap in their eyes.

"Stop your caterwauling!" Muldaur says. "Get a therapist! Get a goddamn job!"

Muldaur is 62 now. Her singing career dates to the nightly jams and hootenannies in New York City's Washington Square Park and later in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, where she was born and raised, and in the fabled music community of Woodstock, N.Y., in the late '60s. She calls the new stuff "Dear Diary music."

She says, "We had an old joke we used to tell about singer-songwriters: What does a singer-songwriter sound like when she's warming up? She sounds like this: 'Me me me me me me meeeeeeee!'"

Larkin Gayl, it would seem, is the odd duck in this local flock, as she would be the first to point out. "I know," she laughs. "It's like I fell out of a tree."

It's ironic that she should be the one to be signed by one of the major independents because she only started two years ago. She is still learning how to play the guitar. It makes sense, though, that she should be noticed. Gayl might be that rarest of songbirds: a total original. She writes quirky, at times, erotic songs that seem to float in on a lily pad.

And don't even try to pigeonhole Larkin Gayl -- or any of these women, for that matter. They've learned not to take the bait. Asked what category she would like to see her first CD placed in record stores, Gayl smiles and says, "New releases."


Editor's note: There's no way to compile a thorough list of Marin's female singer-songwriters who play solo gigs regularly. But after talking to several dozen people closely associated with the folk-rock scene, we'll take an unscientific stab at it.

Some of these women are more seasoned than others, some are more electric than acoustic, and some are more known for their work in bands than playing solo. But those on this list were singled out by other singer-songwriters or booking agents at local clubs as ones to watch. (Many of these musicians have their own Web sites, too, but some don't; to promote fairness, we left off specific sites).


Lynn Bobby


Larkin Gayl

Victoria George

Kimberlye Gold

Donna Eagle

Meredith Heller


Katie Knipp


Audrey Auld Mazzera

Amie Penwell

Kelly Peterson

Adrienne Pfieffer

Stefanie Pisarczyk

Amber Rose

Devon Shane

Makela Susnow