A guitar-slinging heroine conjuring multitudes with only her voice and ax: the image of the singer-songwriter is an enduring one. But this iconic persona has shown its age in our time of sequencers and one-man laptop bands. So it was refreshing to watch Rachel Fannan at the Crepe Place circa 2008, assembling ornate live multi-part arrangements with electric guitar, drum machine and loop box that pushed the limits of what a single performer could produce live.
As Fannan's work matured during her Santa Cruz years, it became clear that she would not be confined to the traditional singer-songwriter model. She began performing with the psych rock outfit Sleepy Sun and embraced the band's visceral physicality, far removed from the intimate sound she had perfected. In 2009, Fannan joined the band in San Francisco, embarking on two years of touring that pushed her limits as a performer even further.
But in time, the resurgent San Francisco psych-rock scene became confining as well. She rarely contributed to Sleepy Sun's songwriting, and being the only woman in a male-dominated outfit was a trying experience, exacerbated by the band's grueling tour schedule. “After three years on the road, you enter survival mode, especially for a girl,” she notes.
Fannan left Sleepy Sun in 2010 to rediscover her muse, but soon found that she had been radically changed. “Playing with Sleepy Sun was freeing—being able to contribute to the power and flow and magic of the moment,” she says. “My material grew exponentially. It exploded, it got louder.”
Fannan moved to Los Angeles to explore the new and strange horizons that had opened to her songwriting and started penning material markedly different from the work she’d performed under the Birds Fled From Me moniker.
“I began as a diary writer,” she says, “and everything was quiet and composed on the piano. As the years went by and I cut my teeth on the road, I developed a more ferocious sound. There's more passion, desperation and volume in what I do now, and the sadness and pain is deeper.” Reflecting on the material from her Santa Cruz years, she adds, “I listen to my old stuff, and I sounded so reserved and meek and afraid. Now I've entered a phase in my life where I'm growling and roaring and trying to flesh out the things that I'm feeling.”
The once-solo artist has also received a master class in collaboration. “I know how to play with different people now,” she says, “and I'm able to accept contribution to my material.” Since moving to L.A., Fannan has worked with an impressive roster of artists, lending vocals to a track on Bonnie “Prince” Billy's forthcoming album and collaborating on a project with Jeff Wootton, the English guitarist known for his work with Gorillaz and Liam Gallagher's post-Oasis Beady Eye project. Perhaps most notably, Fannan is also contributing vocals to Anywhere, a supergroup comprised of Mike Watt of Minutemen fame, the Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Christian Eric Beaulieu of Triclops!.
And while she’s currently working on a new solo album, she may be most inspired by her new all-girl band Only You, with whom Fannan appears at the Crepe Place on Jan. 25. The band weds her increasingly instinctive songwriting approach to a potent brew of ’60s girl-group pop, psych and garage rock, and disparate scraps of the Beatles, goth rock and Sonic Youth. For Fannan, Only You has proven to be a revelation.
“This just clicks and is so fresh and raw,” she says. “I play with a lot of great guys, but there's always a certain energy that's missing. When we play these songs, that energy's there.” And though Fannan is now flanked by three fellow self-assured songwriters and fierce performers in Only You, she has rediscovered an elusive musical kismet she finds unexpectedly familiar. “I get the same feelings in this band from when I first played with Sleepy Sun,” she says. “It syncs. This feeling is just as strong. I've been waiting to feel it again for so long.”