Oh! Oh! The Sound Outside picks up the beat
Sallie Ford and the boys head to Pickathon with a new old sound
It's a sunny afternoon in Southeast Portland, but the Sound Outside is inside. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Sallie Ford is rehearsing with Alaskan natives Tyler Tornfelt on standup bass and Ford Tennis on drums, as well as Portlander Jeff Munger on lead guitar.
Tennis is 26, and his band mates are all 22 and practice weekly in Tornfelt's basement, where they create music deeply rooted in old-fashioned blues, country, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and swing, but which sounds young and fresh coming out of their amps.
You can hear everyone from Bessie Smith to Fiona Apple in the group's style, which contains enough of an edge to veer into early rock 'n' roll at times. Ford's lyrical concerns address such issues as lovers, letter-writers and libations.
Her voice, as well as her self-described 'nerdy look' - complete with bobbysoxer dress - sets this group apart. Her vocals are a cross between a belter and a sweet talker, and she slides out phrases like a leaner, sharper Mama Cass.
Despite her considerable vocal talent, she appears to be no diva, giggles a lot and readily takes input from her band.
'I haven't sung in a couple of days,' she says, breaking into one of her many smiles, her cat-eye glasses framed by mounds of wavy brunette hair. 'I sound kind of gross.'
More singers would do well to sound this gross, as Ford's sharp lyrics cut across the just-what's-needed sounds the boys provide.
Tornfelt and Tennis are a solid rhythm section and Munger complements Ford's voice with tasty guitar leads, occasionally enhanced by his judicious use of a whammy bar. He answers her vocals with the kind of brief runs of notes a lap steel player might produce.
'I know you're not the dancing type/But I can dance with you all night!' Ford sings.
'I don't like thinking too much about the lyrics,' she says afterward. 'I think I just kind of fit them until they're rhythmically pleasing and not dwell on whether they're cheesy or not because inevitably they're going to be somewhat cheesy.'
TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT • Sallie Ford tackles love, libations and other subjects in her original compositions, which are rooted in blues, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, country and rock 'n' roll.
Belting it out
The band is preparing for its appearance at Pickathon, an indie roots music festival in Happy Valley Friday, Aug. 6, through Sunday, Aug. 8. The Sound Outside plays two sets, one on Friday evening, and another on Saturday afternoon.
It's a sign of how far the group has come, considering it's fronted by a woman who had hardly sung a professional note before moving to Portland from Asheville, N.C., in 2006.
Her father a puppeteer, her mother a musician, Ford has performing in her blood, but says she took awhile before realizing it was what she wanted to do. She played some house parties back home and wrote a few songs in high school, spent a semester in college, carried a backpack around Europe and had considered San Francisco, New York City and Austin as possible places to settle as she entered adulthood.
'I heard a lot better things about Portland,' she says, crediting the reasonable cost of living and the thriving music scene for bringing her here.
Meanwhile Tennis and Tornfelt, who moved to Portland from Anchorage about the same time Ford arrived here, have been playing together for years, and have jammed with Tennis' sister, Emily of the local experimental folk rock band Syran. One night in 2007, Tennis heard Ford belting out as a soloist at a local open mic.
'Usually when I go to see an open mic, people are reserved, and Sallie wasn't reserved,' Tennis says. 'When she sings, she lets it out.'
The Alaskan duo eventually began backing Ford, who met Munger when he was busking in the Alberta Street district. At first, she wasn't sure he'd make a good fit as he attempted to play with the rest of the band, but 'he helped me write songs and come up with some catchy guitar licks.'
Munger calls Ford 'awesome' and says her vocals perfectly fit his style.
'There's not a lot of people who like to do the bluesy, noodley kind of thing I like to do,' he says. 'I don't know anyone else in Portland I'd be in a band with.'
TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT • The Sound Outside is tight-knit band and comprises (from left) Jeff Munger on lead guitar, Ford Tennis on drums, Sallie Ford on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Tyler Tornfelt on standup bass.
The rest is history
Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside cut a five-song EP 'Not An Animal' last year and have sold about 1,200 copies of it as well as several hundred downloads.
They've also played several shows with national folk rockers The Avett Brothers and have also opened for Southern Culture on the Skids as well as Trampled By Turtles.
Ford and company have played out around the country and have seen children at family friendly shows dance and throw temper tantrums, watched a break dance troupe bust a move while they played and endured the occasional extroverted drunk.
Meanwhile, they've also been steadily building a fan base, enabling Ford to quit her job as a waitress and the band to seriously consider making this a lifelong gig. They aim to get on some soundtracks and also plan to release an album next year, Ford adds.
'Our goals are to tour Europe and Japan and hopefully pique the interest of National Public Radio,' Ford says.
She notes sometimes it can be a challenge being the one girl hanging with the boys, but she generally enjoys their company and says the group gets along fine.