Music News

The Near-Death and New Life of Valley Queen

Valley Queen
Valley Queen Courtesy of Valley Queen
Music history is peppered with parent-child legacies, some more esteemed than others: Tim and Jeff Buckley, Ravi Shankar and Norah Jones, Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Valley Queen frontwoman Natalie Carol can’t relate.

Technically speaking, she’s the black sheep of her family. Her parents are doctors, as is her brother. Medicine runs deep and dominates dinner table conversations. Carol herself considered medical school before pursuing art history at Loyola Marymount University, and previously worked as a scrub technician.

Despite her non-surgical leanings, Carol remembers her parents being supportive of her initial musical explorations as a teenager in Little Rock, Arkansas — starting with her mother buying her a white CD player, a Paula Abdul album, and Carole King’s Tapestry from Best Buy. (The CD player is still in her childhood bedroom.)

That’s not to say that they offered much in the way of a proper musical education. Instead, she and her best friend, Jessie, would retreat to the latter’s old wooden pool house, where they spun Exile on Main Street, Led Zeppelin, and other requisite classic-rock records on a turntable set up by Jessie’s mother’s boyfriend.

“We spent so much time listening to music. Having that moment in my life where I’m like, ‘Rock and roll forever!’ when I was eighteen — it sounds cliché, and I know everybody went through it, but it’s really powerful when it’s happening to you,” she recalls. “It totally set the course of my musical life.”

Other key teachings from her early musical life included guitar lessons from her middle-school choir teacher. But it wasn’t something she took seriously at the time.

“When I was playing by myself alone as a little girl, I was always singing for thousands of people,” she says. “It just never registered to me at that time that you could actually pursue that. I thought it was just a fun thing to do.”

Carol started to actually pursue that following her move to Los Angeles to attend Loyola Marymount — a Jesuit university smack dab in the middle of the surfing and meditation communities, but far outside the music and art ones. While Loyola wasn’t exactly a musical oasis in the desert — “It wasn’t like a UC Santa Cruz kind of deal,” Carol says — college-aged guys can always be relied upon to start jam sessions in public.

“People were playing on campus one day, and they started meeting every week," she says. "I would just go and quietly sing."

It was during this time that she met and started writing songs with bassist Neil Wogensen. Guitarist Shawn Morones and drummer Gerry Doot joined later, and the quartet began playing locally.

Outside of the band’s somewhat relentless gigging, it took only a handful of singles and debut EP Destroyer — a title derived from the quartet’s spacious and jangly cover of Destroyer’s “Painter in Your Pocket” that closes the six-song release — to hook listeners. Even in those early releases, the band, who played Lost Lake on August 11, sounds remarkably self-assured: Destroyer is thorough, intelligent, open-hearted folk rock, checking off the requisite classic-rock influences of Rumours and Dylan without losing its sweeping and psychedelic (and distinctly Californian) sense of grandeur.

What followed Destroyer was, on the surface, great: The band landed a record deal and high-profile support slots for lauded British folk songwriter Laura Marling and longstanding alt-folk outfit Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.

Until it wasn’t, that is. Touring didn’t just wear on the bandmembers; it very nearly tore them apart. Doot left the group altogether to spend time with his wife and newborn daughter. Morones and Carol’s relationship buckled under the stress, and the band splintered in kind. Carol hired session musicians to play the remaining tour dates, only to discover that she couldn’t live with that approach. By the end of the summer of 2017, the prognosis for Valley Queen’s survival wasn’t remotely positive.

“I was kind of like, ‘Wow, what am I going to do? This doesn’t work for me. Maybe this just doesn’t happen.’ I was in an ‘I don’t know’ place for a while,” she says. “There’s something about the dynamic that is really tough. It requires so much communication as a band.”

Slowly but surely, Carol decided to get the band back together to record the debut album. She reopened an admittedly vulnerable dialogue with Morones and reached out to Mike DeLuccia, a college friend living in San Francisco. He agreed to fly south and play drums full-time. The foursome entered the studio in November 2017 and emerged four months later with the finished product — debut album Supergiant — and more than a few mended fences.

Needless to say, she’s glad she did it.

“The toughest thing was being vulnerable to the fact that it sometimes gets kind of messy in your dynamics,” she remembers. “But that doesn’t mean it’s all a mistake.”

And now, maybe more than ever before, she’s sure it wasn’t.
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Elle Carroll is a writer and photographer based in Denver. She has written for Westword since 2016.
Contact: Elle Carroll