Great northern

Pub date August 20, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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After the gold rush of her July residency at National Underground on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I recently sat in the sunny, sub-level kitchen of singer-songwriter Serena Jean Southam’s East Village flat, listening to Jerry Garcia, playing with cats, and admiring her father’s old Martin guitar as she proceeded to explain her band’s name:

"It came from Jimmy, our drummer," Southam said. "The Whiskey Trippers were the old bootleggers [in the South]. And both Gitano [Herrera, her lead guitarist and writing partner] and Jimmy love the NASCAR. Well, apparently the Whiskey Trippers were the fastest drivers ’cause they had to run all the booze, and outrun the cops. And so these gentlemen went on to found NASCAR…. You know this … were you testing me?"

This redneck Negress was not. Still, it was a delight to discover a host of linkages, sonic and otherwise, between the Winnipeg, Manitoba–born beauty and myself, a NASCAR- and twang-lovin’ southern gal. Not least of which are a shared obsession with Neil Young and Levon Helm, and a historic disdain for female singer-songwriters — Palo Alto–bred Stevie Nicks excluded. Going by Serena Jean and the Whiskey Trippers’ first, eponymous self-released EP — brimming with rich, autobiographical songs only six months into their collective career — it’s safe for me to rephrase Alfred Stieglitz on Georgia O’Keeffe: "At last, a woman on wax!"

Meditation on the private dark times and hard-won victories behind Southam’s songs "Moving On" and "Whiskey Led Me Down" occasioned our worshipful Nicks talk: "I was married to a guitar player … big mistake! There is so much to learn from Fleetwood Mac….

"So yeah, married to the lead guitar player, and I was in this jam band Hiway Freeker, and also in a band called the Bob Dylan Project," she continued. "We had two different bands: one where we would just cover Bob Dylan songs, and the other, which was originals. And we played in New York for a couple of years. Then it was time to start touring, and we didn’t want to pay the crazy rents here so we moved back up to Canada."

O, Canada. The singer-songwriter revival afoot seems to be garnering the most ecstatic attention since the movement’s early-1970s heyday, sprung from Southern California’s easy breezy attitude and wooden music aspirations at the Troubadour. However, inspired by Canada’s classic Laurel Canyon-meets-Woodstock twang gang, including the aforementioned Young, the Band, and Joni Mitchell, Southam is a genuine artist who will carry on 20 years forward and beyond — a brave individual of style for sticking to her aesthetic guns.

"On one hand," Southam offered, "I’m really excited because people have said to me, ‘Nobody’s making music like this in New York right now.’ And then sometimes I get really insecure, like, is that because nobody wants to hear music like this? But this is what I like, and want to listen to. This is my voice."