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The unpretentious, gentle manner of Married in Berdichev's Brittany Gould gives little indication as to the intensity of her art

I wanted it for a long time, and my friend Sheena did it at a benefit for the Underground Carrot at the Mercury Cafe," says Brittany Gould of the envelope-shaped tattoo on her hand. "It was mainly so I can remember to send letters and packages."

Performing under the name Married in Berdichev for nearly four years, Gould has an unpretentious, gentle manner that gives little indication of the intensity of her art, much less her perhaps-unasked-for status as one of the central figures of underground music in Denver.

Born in Washington, D.C., Gould grew up in nearby Potomac, Maryland. Although known for her accomplished visual art and music, in high school she was never seriously involved in creative endeavors, nor was she much involved in the vibrant musical climate of the nation's capital.

"I never really went to D.C. much," Gould confesses, "except for a couple of shows at Fort Reno Park, where I saw Fugazi and Q and Not U. But those were the only things I look back on and go, 'Wow, yeah!' I was basically always into choir and very academic kind of singing, but I didn't do any band stuff until Mannequin Makeout."

During most of her teenage years, Gould was something of a punk/ska girl who painted the logos of her favorite bands at the time on her bedroom walls; Operation Ivy, Reel Big Fish, Dancehall Crashers and other third-wave ska bands were her main musical passions. Her father, the owner of a convenience store, strongly encouraged Gould to be a cheerleader, and so she became one for the last two years of high school. During her senior year, she embarked on a different path than might have been expected from her background. Her interest in molecular biology led her to apply to college at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland and the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she ultimately decided to attend.

"I did molecular biology there for a year and then chemistry," Gould recalls. "I wanted to do art then, and my dad said, 'No way.' Then I went to Russian literature." But the halls of academia at that time no longer interested Gould, and she ended up working at Urban Outfitters while pursuing her newfound love of art and music in the dance-punk band Mannequin Makeout.

Gould met her bandmates while living in the dorms; she agreed to form a band after bassist Greg Schoonmaker all but demanded they do so at a party. And so in 2003, with keyboardist Inbar Kishoni, guitarist Nate Wajtalik, Schoonmaker and drummer Nathan Barsness, Mannequin Makeout was born. The four friends later moved to Denver, where they practiced in the basement of Kishoni's house in the Baker District.

Mannequin Makeout's songs were very catchy pop tunes, but as a live act, the group was intensely energetic, and Gould was a powerful, captivating frontwoman. Eventually, though, she longed to do something more intimate and low-key. "I always felt funny being on stage and flailing around," she says. "It always felt kind of forced." She started Married in Berdichev — the name comes from Chekhov's Three Sisters — in 2006 as a solo project, using only her voice and a looping pedal to create gorgeous choruses and melodies. As it turns out, Gould's versatile voice allowed for a broad range of possibilities.

Around the same time, she met Nick Houde, with whom she started up Still Soft Recordings. During its year-and-a-half run, Still Soft put out an impressive number of short-run CDs and cassettes from some of the most innovative artists in the Denver underground: Pictureplane, Pee Pee, Tudaloos, nervesandgel, Hunter Dragon and a myriad of others all had releases on Still Soft. Each had unique packaging that Gould, Houde and their friends spent hours crafting by hand. Every Still Soft item seemed like a real gift instead of some impersonally marketed, throwaway cultural artifact.

The first Married in Berdichev show was at Houde's house, Le Crunk Manor, with Hunter Dragon, and to this day, it's rare to see a Berdichev show outside the DIY environment. This became more a fact of expedience than disdain for other types of venues after Gould moved into the long-running DIY warehouse Rhinoceropolis in early 2007.

"I lived there for about a year and a half," she relates. "When I moved to Denver, I wanted to move into Monkey Mania really badly. It didn't work out, because it was kind of a dump at that time."

During Gould's time at Rhinoceropolis, her music evolved at a rapid pace. After getting the hang of how to manipulate her equipment to create unique soundscapes, she experimented with singing in ways that broke with the more traditional melodic singing she had mastered. The first recorded hints of this came with the 2007 album Cold Feet, Warm Hearts.

That was when the element of the otherworldly started to become part of the aesthetic of Married in Berdichev. Not just lovely, but haunting melodies became part of what Gould evoked with increasing expertise and variety as she incorporated organic sounds like strings of nut shells, singing bowls and bells into the echoing, drifting realm of dreamlike ambience that characterizes much of the most recent Berdichev material.

During one of her tours as Married in Berdichev with Nick Houde's Transistor Radio Sound, Gould met Eva Aguila of the noise project Kevin Shields while on a stop in Los Angeles, where she stayed with Josh Taylor, of Monkey Mania fame, and Mike Zorman, who drummed for Ultra Boyz. Gould and Aguila hit it off famously, and they formed a duo called Caldera Lakes. Whenever Gould is in Los Angeles, she and Aguila play together and record. To date, there are a number of Caldera Lakes releases, most on small tape labels; one was cited by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore in a March 2010 Arthur magazine article as one of their top ten favorite things — musical or otherwise.

While receiving recognition from other famous artists might go to the head of a less grounded person, Gould keeps making her art — both visual and musical — with the same grace and good sense. Her recently released Readying is her most fully realized recording.

"All the songs," Gould notes, "are about a beautiful romance of living and meeting people and knowing people and thinking it could never get any better or get any worse." Asked about how her melancholy songs could sound so expansive and dreamy, she remarks, " Usually the songs are made when I'm hanging out in my room by myself usually really bummed out," she says. "It's all improv when I'm doing it; then it's really talking and getting stuff off my chest, like stream-of-consciousness writing, but singing — like diary singing.

"I'll listen to it later and love it or hate it or maybe like it later," Gould offers. "One of the songs I made a year ago, I hated for a long time, and then suddenly I thought, 'Maybe I like this song now.' I realized what I could do to it to make it okay."

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.