Most articles about Dressy Bessy suggest that singer/guitarist Tammy Ealom is as bubbly as the hook-o-rama tunes she pens — and in conversation, her easy laughter and occasional giddiness seem to confirm this impression. But she also displays a steely tone at times, making it clear that despite her fun-loving reputation, she's serious about her music. She talks about her growing confidence in "my songwriting, my message, my voice"; points out that "in the past, songs have usually come because there was some sort of animosity or turmoil going on in my life"; and emphasizes that she's first among equals in the group's current lineup. "Everybody's just fitting in and letting me be in charge, which has always been a problem," she admits. "I'm not bossy, but I definitely know how the songs are supposed to go. Who better?"
Good question. Guitarist/vocalist John Hill, who's also Ealom's significant other, certainly has an impressive pedigree given his continuing membership in the Apples in Stereo. Yet even a decade ago, when his experience far outstripped hers, Ealom was always the driving creative force in the band, and that's still the case on Holler and Stomp, Dressy Bessy's new album for Transdreamer Records. All of the songs on the disc are credited solely to Ealom, and she's front and center on each one. Holler and Stomp also displays Dressy Bessy's continuing evolution toward a tougher variation on its trademark bouncy pop sound. "Do You Whisper?" isn't quiet in the slightest, while "Left to the Right" and "Ten Million Stars" grind persuasively. As for "Simple Girlz," the irresistible lead single, it mates lyrics that reject the idea of being one-dimensionally upbeat with a chugging riff that reflects Ealom's sonic mood of late.
"I just want to go out and rock people's socks off," she says. "I rock my own off, too. It's good exercise."
Ealom came of age in Colorado Springs, and at least one of her early musical experiences was notably painful. She was hanging with what she calls a "pseudo-hippie crowd" at the time, and she agreed to drive them to a Blues Traveler show at Red Rocks even though she didn't have a ticket. Then, after her friends entered the amphitheater, she and one other ticket-less pal "had this bright idea that we were going to rush the gates." Against all odds, they made it past security, but as she reached the top of the landing, she says, "my flip-flop flipped under my foot because the part that fits between your toes broke, and I flew down that first flight of stairs and landed on my shoulder." The injury hurt worse and worse as the hours passed, but she refused to leave until the show was over and even drove her fellow travelers home before calling her mom and asking for a ride to the hospital. Turns out she'd waited through an entire concert by a band whose music she knew and cared nothing about with a broken collarbone — a decision that still astonishes her. "Stupid, stupid girl," she says, chuckling.
Upon moving to Denver, Ealom first established herself as a photographer — an art form she continues to practice for Dressy Bessy's album packages and her own pleasure. "I'm constantly shooting," she points out. "I have to. I get depressed if I don't. That's part of my existence." Then, in the mid-'90s, she earned a slot in 40th Day, one of the most enduring acts of the era — a big, dramatic-sounding outfit that has little in common sonically with the music Ealom would make in the future. "I just auditioned for the band for the fun of it — like, 'Sure, okay, I'll do it. Okay, cool,'" she recalls. "And I found out I had a knack for melody and an idea for song arrangements." As time wore on, however, she began to chafe at the limits of her role: "I didn't have any control of arrangements or parts of songs or anything like that. And that's basically why I moved on and learned how to play guitar real quick. I had an idea how songs should go in my head, anyway, and the only way to get them out was just to break off, do it."
Hill, whom Ealom had started dating before Dressy Bessy's birth, helped facilitate her artistic growth, buying her a guitar for her birthday and showing her how to use his four-track before heading off on an Apples tour. By the time he returned, she'd written a batch of songs, mostly about him. The first, "Mr. Man," remains unrecorded, and she declares, "I should bring that one back." Soon, she and Hill, along with bassist Rob Greene and drummer Darren Albert, were gigging around town and releasing singles and EPs that led to a deal with Kindercore, a highly influential label out of Athens, Georgia, whose catalogue includes recordings by groups such as Of Montreal and I Am the World Trade Center. Pink Hearts Yellow Moons, their charming debut full-length, arrived in 1999, followed by three more Kindercore releases — 2002's SoundGoRound and a pair of 2003 efforts, Little Music and a self-titled CD/DVD combo — that helped the players build a sizable cult following in the U.S. and internationally.
Kindercore sank into financial turmoil around the time the last of these recordings hit stores, and the lineup subsequently shifted as well: Albert left, replaced by present drummer Craig Gilbert. But these problems didn't doom Ealom's project. The band quickly signed to Transdreamer, coming out with Electrified in 2005. The disc gave Dressy Bessy its largest exposure to date, even leading to an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. But after promoting the album for the better part of two years, Ealom says, "I was fed up with the music business and touring. Not that I was going to quit, but I just needed to be home and not be thinking about a new record.
"We'd been at it fucking hard for ten years — record after record, tour after tour," she adds. "I just felt like people can't give themselves a break. You've got to keep pushing, and I'm not sure why. It's just something in my heart: 'You can't stop, you can't stop. Go!' And I finally let myself stop, and I love the results."
The extended lull that followed that decision left Ealom feeling re-energized, and she believes Holler and Stomp wouldn't be nearly as strong had she not taken a breather. She was especially happy about having the opportunity to work out her frustration over one element of song structure. "I've had trouble finding drummers who respect my vision and my idea of how beats should fit into a song," she concedes, without naming names. "I've always had that trouble. With this album, I built all of the beats. That was one of the reasons I wanted to get away for a while. I was like, I want to show the world I know what I'm talking about."
Unfortunately, the time it took to prove this point put the brakes on Dressy Bessy's momentum. "It's been about three years since we put an album out, and when you wait that long, we've discovered, and with all the fucking bands there are right now, we're just breaking through again," she notes. "You basically have to start again — like, 'Here we are! We're Dressy Bessy! Check us out!'"
Another complication: Because of family and job considerations, Gilbert wasn't able to participate in the group's current series of gigs. Ealom, Hill and Greene responded by reaching out to drummer James Barone of the band Mothership and Pacific Pride multi-instrumentalist Paul Garcia — and so far, so good. "I feel like we're jelling really well and there's no weird personality things that will nip you in the butt six weeks later," she says. "Like, 'Fuck! I hate you!' And that can affect your performance and everything. So we're really good. We're a kick-ass band right now."
And Ealom is the one doing most of the kicking.
Visit http://blogs.westword.com/backbeat/ for more of our interview with Tammy Ealom of Dressy Bessy.