Highway to Well
Shivaree’s Roiling Rise And Fall And Rise Again Teaches Ambrosia Parsley How To Handle The Truth
“We were driving down the road in Arizona the other day and there was a big coyote right in the middle of the road in front of us,” the spectacularly named Shivaree chanteuse Ambrosia Parsley recalls over the phone from a tour stop in Los Angeles. “We slammed on the brakes and we didn’t hit it, and he took off in the other direction and the van next to us smashed into it. It was the most violent thing I’ve ever seen—he went up in the air in about 20 different pieces, in about one second, and that was it. It was like, ‘Ohhhhhh . . . look how fast . . . ’”
Unable to get the vision out of her head these couple of days later, to the point where the avowed meat eater has since steered clear of ingesting anything that ever had a face, Parsley says the lesson she’s been chewing on ever since is mighty clear: “I don’t wanna be wasting any of my time worrying if this or that is gonna happen, or if someone likes me or doesn’t like me, because it can all be over in one second. Just like that.”
These sorts of reminders come in handy when you’ve been dealt the kind of hand the noirish New York-based cabaret-pop band (in which guitarist Duke McVinnie and keyboardist Danny McGough round out the creative core) has received over the past several years. The Shivaree story started off promisingly enough: Fresh-faced California native Parsley—nurturing a torchy, Billie Holiday-esque voice partially inspired by the old-timey songs taught to her by her grandmother—linked up with veteran musicians McVinnie and McGough (who had previously recorded and toured with, respectively, Exene Cervenka and Tom Waits, among others) in 1995.
Their demos soon wowed Capitol Records into handing them a contract, and the group released its darkly elegant 1999 debut, I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump, to exceedingly positive reviews. A nonstop year-and-a-half of U.S. and European touring followed, with audiences and venues growing larger each time Shivaree returned to a given city. And with Capitol’s strong financial support making it feel like a high priority at the label, it felt like only a matter of time before Parsley and company could enjoy a big commercial breakthrough.
And then, of course, the bottom dropped out. Shivaree wrote and recorded a follow-up album, Rough Dreams, handed it over to Capitol in 2002, and the label—put off by the fact that its investment in the band hadn’t already reaped radio hits and sales—decided not to release it in the U.S. (though it did get put it out in Europe). Plenty of bickering followed, and soon the band was dropped by Capitol entirely. With no backing, Shivaree couldn’t afford to tour and was forced to shut things down for a while as it dealt with the career blow.
“That definitely pissed me off,” Parsley admits. “It definitely put me out of commission for a couple months. I had just finished making something, and then it was gone. So I was upset, and upset at the way it was handled, but then again you can’t get mad at a crocodile for being a crocodile, right? But I had to get over being mad—it’s an emotion that takes up a lot of space and you can’t get anything done, and I’m really good at it. I’m a great mad girl. But where does it stop? You pull a thread, and then the sweater’s gone, and then you’re cold and alone and sad.”
So Parsley and her band mates regrouped, wounded but determined to keep making a go at it, and began playing sporadic shows on the East Coast and in Europe over the next two years when finances allowed, all the while working on new material. In 2004, it signed with indie Zoe Records, which released the band’s Breach EP last October. It also got an unexpected boost earlier in the year when Quentin Tarantino dusted off “Goodnight Moon” from Shivaree’s debut album and used it during the closing credits to Kill Bill Vol. 2. “I don’t know how he found our record, but I’m glad he did,” Parsley laughs. “I went and saw the movie and bought some popcorn and giggled like a little kid when our song started playing.”
Delicately nursing that new momentum, Shivaree went in and recorded its third full-length, the aptly dubbed Who’s Got Trouble? (a title inspired by a line from Casablanca, one of Parsley’s favorite films), which arrived in January. It’s a deliciously sensual affair: the sound of romance and intrigue played out in dimly lit, velvety nightclubs; a combination of atmospheric roots rock and haunting jazz textures wrapping themselves like wisps of smoke around Parsley’s kiss of a voice—sometimes an eyelash-batting, come-hither purr, other times a coy, childlike warble (like a more sophisticated Gwen Stefani). And her stories—shape-shifting dreams of love, sex, heartbreak, and mayhem—veer toward the shadowy side of human nature without drowning in despair. They’re delivered with both a wink and a knee to the groin.
“I just think foibles and cracks and mistakes and things that are slightly askew are more interesting,” she explains. “It’s the broken, fucked-up part of people that makes them special. If something’s perfect, it’s not very sexy anymore, because you can’t relate to it or be drawn into it.”
Though Parsley looks exceptionally comfortable onstage while leading the five-piece touring ensemble (the Shivaree lineup currently includes Verbena’s Scott Bondy on guitar, as McVinnie has opted to retire from the road, though he’ll continue to write and record with the band), she laughs that she’s anything but, relying on her ever-present tumbler of whiskey and the anti-anxiety pill she pops before each performance to get her through the night. (“I have a lot of nervous energy,” she says. “It’s part of my biological makeup, and I don’t wanna get the shakes.”) As for the roller-coaster ride that’s been the 33-year-old singer’s career thus far, Parsley says that she’s arrived at a place of relative calmness and acceptance of whatever twists are around the bend.
“We’ll see what happens,” she says. “It’s so out of my control. I can write songs. I can record them the way I want. I can hand the album to the record company. And then they will or won’t put it out, and people will or won’t like it, will or won’t buy it, and will or won’t come to the show. It all falls under the category of things I can’t do anything about.
“I’ve been there where I’ve said, ‘Oh no, this is the end of me, this is the end of me!’ and it really wasn’t,” she says. “It’s easy to get that way but it’s so whiny and boring and stupid after a while, and it’s not the part that matters. I think living your life and figuring out that what feels good is what you’re supposed to be doing, that’s what matters. I don’t want to waste one second of my time with the negative stuff anymore.”
She pauses, then begins to laugh as the new mantra she’s adopted to deal with those negative impulses pops into her head. “Coyote, coyote . . . splat!”
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