Sallie Ford hails from Asheville, North Carolina, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Enjoying a musical upbringing surrounded by performers, she grew up playing the guitar and the violin in addition to singing.
On a whim, Ford pulled up her Carolina roots and moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, where she has been writing songs since 2006. She met drummer Ford Tennis and bassist Tyler Tornfelt in 2008, and then a year later met lead guitarist Jeff Munger while he was performing on the streets.
Though inspired by the vocal stylings of old jazz, blues and soul singers like Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Etta James, Sallie and her three-piece band, ‘The Sound Outside,’ also seek a contemporary sound to throw into the mix. Continuing to enjoy the musical community in Portland, Oregon, Sallie Ford and The Sound Outside self-released their first EP ‘Not An Animal’ in May 2009. Portland, Oregon’s “Willamette Weekly” voted them the best new band in 2010.
Sallie Ford - Rythm Guitar & Vocals
Jeffrey Munger - Lead Guitar
Tyler Tornfelt - Upright Bass
Ford Tennis - Drums
Not an Animal EP
Best New Band 2010
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1. Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside - 107.5 Points WHO: Sallie Ford, Jeffrey Munger, Tyler Tornfelt,...1. Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside - 107.5 Points
WHO: Sallie Ford, Jeffrey Munger, Tyler Tornfelt, Ford Tennis
SOUNDS LIKE: A 21st-century Ella Fitzgerald who channels rock-’n’-roll history through Gossip Girl.
Onstage at the Doug Fir Lounge in early April, Sallie Ford is quietly tuning her guitar. She’s wearing retro black cat-eye glasses and a blue polka-dot dress that wouldn’t look out of place on I Love Lucy; one assumes her band, the Sound Outside, will play “more of that typical Portland folk bullshit,” as the scruffy-looking dude standing to my left so aptly puts it. He continues yapping as Ford awkwardly fidgets in front of the mic and thanks the anxious crowd for coming. The lights go down and she opens her mouth.
“I can feel it deep down in my soul/ From the top of my head to the tips of my toes,” Ford sings in a soulful, guttural blues drawl. “I’m telling you, darling, you’re making me weak/ Making me tired, unable to speak.”
The room becomes so quiet you can hear a glass shatter way back behind the bar.
I imagine this isn’t the first time Ford has effectively silenced an entire crowd. The 22-year-old has one of those voices that invites cheap clichés and usually garners off-base comparisons. While there are definitely hints of jazz legends like Billie Holiday and the brash woodland hiccups of Joanna Newsom, Ford’s pipes are beasts entirely their own, fluttering between an anxious upper register and a deep groove, equal parts geeky musical theater and sexy siren song.
“When I stop singing between songs, people see my nerdy, giggly, weird side and realize that I’m not a smooth, sultry jazz singer,” she says from the porch of bandmate Tyler Tornfelt’s Southeast Portland home, bursting into her unmistakable, piercing laugh. “But that’s not going to stop me from trying.”
Until moving to Portland in 2006, Ford kept her talent mostly hidden from the public eye. She grew up home-schooled in Asheville, N.C., listening to the Beatles and playing the violin (“All the classical-music kids thought I was a weirdo”) in a creative household. Ford’s father, Hobey, is a world-renowned puppeteer—he created “Peepers Puppets” and is the recipient of three Jim Henson Foundation grants—and her mother teaches music. Still, she struggled with the idea of performing until venturing west and playing solo gigs at tiny watering holes like Chaos Cafe and Mississippi Pizza.
It was there she met Alaskan transplants Tornfelt and Ford Tennis, who had been playing together as the rhythm section for various bands in Anchorage and Portland. The threesome—with Tornfelt on upright bass and Tennis on drums—began playing around town, and eventually met lead guitarist Jeffrey Munger while he was busking during Last Thursday. The wiry Munger was a natural fit, and his guitar skills—which are subtle and fluid, more Robbie Robertson than Eric Clapton—fleshed out the quartet’s sound.
Still, until last spring, the Sound Outside was relatively obscure in its hometown. That’s when Seth Avett of North Carolina folk-pop outfit the Avett Brothers invited the band to open two sold-out shows at the Crystal Ballroom. They were introduced through mutual friend and local artist Jeremy Okai Davis; Avett’s bond with Ford was so strong he asked the band to play as its main support for a New Year’s Eve show in Asheville—for an audience of 7,000.
“It definitely broke us in,” Tennis says of the show. “It was really cool having to step up to the challenge of playing for so many people,” Ford adds. “We became a much tighter band.”
That closeness is apparent the minute the band takes the stage, where the juxtaposition of Ford’s off-kilter voice and the group’s vintage chops really blossoms. The Sound Outside mixes swinging rock ’n’ roll with strong doses of Americana and blues, putting a contemporary spin on a set of old-fashioned sounds. Despite Ford’s bubbly nature, most of her songs are honest, sassy and modern rather than goofy. “I like writing things that are racy or edgy. There are four songs I wrote that are like, ‘Wow!’ People don’t expect that from me,” she says.
In the rollicking “Write Me a Letter,” for instance, she sings about listening to Sunny Day Real Estate and Jets to Brazil, eulogizes the death of the Polaroid picture, and slips both “fucking” and “damn” into a verse. The song is catchy and relevant, rallying against current technology without sounding like some Luddite rant. “Today, I think I saw 10,000 cell phones,” she sings over a handclap beat and spare guitar. “But not one decent conversation.”
As a set of dark clouds pushes the band inside, conversation turns to the future. At present, the Sound Outside still has only one five-song EP (2009’s Not an Animal) to its name. The band hit the studio in the winter with producers Mike Coykendall (M. Ward, She & Him, Blitzen Trapper) and Adam Selzer (Norfolk & Western) and now has 11 songs—including the ballad “Miles,” one of the first songs Ford ever wrote, and the jaw-dropping “Shivers”—ready for release once it finds the right label. For now, though, the Sound Outside’s concern is simpler: picking a few kid-friendly songs to play for You Who, a monthly afternoon family show at the Kennedy School.
“Our new goal is to play on [Nickelodeon’s kids’ show] Yo Gabba Gabba!, ” Munger jokes. And with Ford’s arresting voice, it’s hard not to picture the Sound Outside doing the unthinkable—silencing a room full of kids.
Oh! Oh! The Sound Outside picks up the beat
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It’s a sunny afternoon in Southeast Portland, but the Sound Outside is inside. Singer-songwriter-gui...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.”
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.”
Sallie Ford forges her own sound
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A New Year's Eve party at the Asheville Civic Center should be quite the homecoming party for Sallie...A New Year's Eve party at the Asheville Civic Center should be quite the homecoming party for Sallie Ford.
The Weaverville native (now hailing from Portland, Ore.) will open for the Avett Brothers, the Concord, N.C.-based band that dropped its first major-label album earlier this year to wide acclaim. Ford's just three years into her musical career with her band, The Outside Sound. But with an unforgettable voice and burgeoning song-writing chops, Ford has already gotten noticed. It's all still sinking in for the kid who graduated from Asheville High School and only started writing songs after moving from Asheville to Portland in 2006.
"I guess it took moving across the country to realize music was inevitable for me," says Ford.
Even though Ford grew up in a family of artists (her father is professional puppeteer Hobey Ford and her mother, Sue, teaches music at Evergreen Community Charter School), she says she always felt a little constrained — despite the violin classes, performances with her sister Lauren in Asheville Community Theater productions and the occasional open mic night.
"I did a lot of singing, but was intimidated," Ford says of the attention she received. Too many familiar faces. So, after a semester at UNC-Asheville and saving up some cash from her job at Urban Burrito, Ford left those faces to travel Europe and then (perhaps inspired by her rambles) left Asheville for Portland.
That's where Ford hooked up with guitarist Jeffrey Munger, drummer Ford Tennis and upright bassist Tyler Tornfelt. The resulting band — The Sound Outside — has been busy ever since putting their own distinctive stamp on Americana. Their five-song Not an Animal EP mixes rock, blues and folk, all punctuated by Ford's distinctive vocals.
"I knew I wanted to create something not by the rules," Ford says of her approach. "It's definitely confusing, because a lot of my songs have an old-country, Patsy-Cline style, or old rock 'n' roll. It's American roots music, with my modern take."
Ford says she's definitely influenced by soul and blues greats such as Aretha Franklin and Billie Holliday. She admires jazz musicians and loves the work of Regina Spektor. She says she's been into indie bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Animal Collective. And, of course, there are the Avett Brothers.
"They write songs about what I write about, which are really personal and from your gut," she says.
Ford met Seth Avett through a college buddy of his who lived in the same apartment building Ford did in Portland. The mutual friend brought Avett along to a couple of Ford's shows, "and after that second show, that's when Seth asked me if I wanted to open for him at the Crystal Ballroom here in Portland," Ford says. "The shows were rough, but it really pushed us into gear."
Ford calls the Avett Brothers "a prefect model" of a band and its work ethic.
"I think that, as they put it, 'putting in the work and loving it and having fun and not being popular overnight' is the right approach," Ford says. "They've definitely earned their popularity, and for them, it's about the music."
In the new year, Ford says she and her band mates plan to get into the studio. "We have lots of songs to record, and I think we'll also write some new songs." Getting together an album, and finding an independent label to release it will be a priority, she says.
First, though, will be the homecoming show at the Asheville Civic Center, a show that will potentially host about 7,000 revelers. Ford says she last visited home in 2008 for Thanksgiving.
"I'm a little nervous," Ford admits, noting that she and her band have yet to perform before such a large crowd. Ford is also scheduled to play an all-ages show at 8 p.m. on Jan. 2 at Harvest Records in West Asheville. It's a place that's near and dear to her.
"I went to Harvest Records all the time and became friends with Matt and Mark," Ford says of co-owners Matt Schnable and Mark Capon. "I would just be like, 'What's good?' and they would tell me what to buy."
After her homecoming show, it's likely that Sallie Ford and the Outside Sound will be one band topping the recommendation list.
Down South Sallie
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OF ALL THE NAMES mercilessly slung about when attempting to describe the pitch and character of Sall...OF ALL THE NAMES mercilessly slung about when attempting to describe the pitch and character of Sallie Ford's wondrously unique voice—Joanna Newsom, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, and bafflingly enough, Amy Winehouse—none of them come close to her true vocal equal: Olive Oyl. Not necessarily the cartoon beanpole muse of a certain spinach-craving sailor, but more the Shelley Duvall character from the ill-fated 1980 Popeye film and her contribution to the underappreciated Harry Nilsson-penned soundtrack. In numbers like the bubbly pop song "He Needs Me"—which remained in the pop culture spotlight long after the bloated film from which it derived faded from memory—Duvall's childlike squeal and swaying melody enter a vocal stratosphere that few can match; with the exception of Ford, of course.
The product of Asheville, North Carolina, Ford packed her bags and headed west to Portland, destination unseen. "People in Portland don't know about Asheville, but people in Asheville definitely know about Portland," she explains. Ford's cross-country relocation was not musically driven, but following the change of scenery, she found her rightful place behind the mic. "I mostly grew up playing classical violin, singing, and doing musical theater, but when I moved here, it just brought it out in me."
Via the open mic scene, Ford's unique voice found willing ears, and soon a pair of Alaskan bandmates, Ford Tennis (drums) and Tyler Tornfelt (upright bass), joined the ranks, followed by one more member, Jeffrey Munger, plucked off the street while busking at Last Thursday. Thus, the Southern gal with the inimitable set of pipes found herself sharing a stage with the Sound Outside.
The band quickly crafted the warm, rural-tinged Americana-pop sound that resonates on their Not an Animal EP, which despite its first recording jitters, was more than enough to capture the attention of fellow North Carolinians the Avett Brothers. The wildly popular Avetts extended an invite to Ford & Co. to join them on the road, a whirlwind tour of large venues that they just wrapped up. Yet instead of resting on their laurels, Ford and the Sound Outside are staying as active as possible, at one time having nearly a dozen upcoming local shows on the docket. "We really just want to play enough as possible. We're willing to put in the work."
Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside build some buzz
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Construction of Atlanta's Fox Theatre finished in 1929, and to build it today would cost $300 millio...Construction of Atlanta's Fox Theatre finished in 1929, and to build it today would cost $300 million. It seats more than 4,600 and has nosebleed seats. Sallie Burgess Ford, 22, noticed this because she and her band, the Sound Outside, don't play places with nosebleed seats.
They've been playing the past two years at places around Portland like Mississippi Studios, the Doug Fir Lounge -- rooms that hold a few hundred. Places small enough you can hear the conversations going on at the bar between songs.
This wasn't any of those places. It was ornate, fancy and old. In the middle of their 20-minute set, Ford broke a guitar string. She handed it to her guitar tech, who, because she doesn't have a guitar tech, was her father, hoping he could fix it before the set was over.
When she finished the song, her guitar was ready, returned to her by Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers, who had sold out the Fox Theatre -- and the Asheville Civic Center in North Carolina on New Year's Eve and the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville the night before that. You know, one of the stars of the show. The place went nuts.
"It was pretty funny," Ford says.
These are the present juxtapositions between the past and the future that occur when talent meets opportunity and buzz builds and momentum takes hold. A year ago, Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside were a nice little band playing around town. A year from now?
Who can predict? But in mid-December, as they sat around a bubble tea and coffee joint on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, talking about 2009, they didn't even have a booking agent. Now they have one, Billions, whose roster includes everyone from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to the Portland Cello Project.
This month Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside will begin studio work on their debut full-length. They're heading in with producer Mike Coykendall, who also can't predict the future but who knows what he's seen while watching the band grow over the past two years.
"I can tell they connect with people," he says.
Ford, who grew up in Asheville, moved in October 2006 to Portland after a semester at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a couple of months traveling Europe. Her father, Hobey, is a renowned puppeteer (check out Hobey Ford's Peepers Puppets at www.hobeyford.com), and her mother teaches music. For whatever reason, be it a little burnout or a little shyness, Ford never got into playing music at home in North Carolina.
That changed in Portland, where she quickly fell in with a collection of singers and writers. She met Ford Tennis after a show in 2007 at Mississippi Pizza Pub. "A friend told me about her," says Tennis, who had been playing music with Tyler Tornfelt, an Alaskan like Tennis. With Ford's voice and guitar, Tennis on drums and Tornfelt on upright bass, they had a band.
Shortly thereafter, Ford met Jeff Munger, a guitar player from Portland, during Last Thursday on Alberta Street. He was busking. ("I was really drunk," he says.) She'd been busking down the street earlier in the evening. They kept running into each other for the rest of the evening. He officially joined the band in April of last year, just as the Avett Brothers were coming into the picture.
When Ford moved to Portland, she met, among many other singers and writers, Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba. "We used to live together in this crazy purple house," Mendoza says. Mendoza told a friend -- artist, photographer and North Carolina transplant Jeremy Okai Davis -- that he had to hear Ford.
Davis recalls Mendoza's advice to him: "Go with fresh ears, and get ready."
He did, and he was blown away. He and Ford became friends, and when one of his old college pals visited town, Davis took him to see Ford. That friend: Seth Avett. Over the past few years, the Avett Brothers have put out increasingly great records while drawing larger, more devoted crowds. He says he was hooked on Ford and the band after about 20 seconds.
"Her songs have that rare quality of somehow combining fun with emotional and artistic integrity," Avett says. "Her voice is 100 percent her own, and she fills the room with it."
He asked her band to open two sold-out shows last May at the Crystal Ballroom. That made it time for Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside to get serious. They recorded a five-song EP, "Not an Animal," so they'd have something to sell. It went well, and later in the year they opened more shows for the Avetts in Colorado, Nevada and California (though without Tornfelt, who'd taken a few months off to join a fishing crew in Alaska).
More Portland shows were booked. They headed to Seattle. After the third show there, they were told they drew too well for an opener -- based on the number of people who left after their set. People started talking. Crowds got bigger.
"It reminds me a lot of the Avett Brothers," Davis says. "Their first shows, there were five or six people in the crowd. It wasn't refined, but you could see the promise."
Go ahead and try to describe Ford's voice. It's a fun game.
There's definitely some Ella Fitzgerald present. Davis, whose apartment is next to Ford's in a Southeast Portland house, says he hears everything from Tom Waits to Billie Holiday coming from her stereo. The band's MySpace list of influences includes Bessie Smith and Snoop Dogg, and describes what they play as "2-step/Big Beat/Gospel."
It works as well as any description. Avett hears the energy of early rock 'n' roll. The first words that come to Coykendall: "raw ... soul."
"I think they've gotten much better, too," he says. "Can't really describe why too much. There is certainly a vintage-y element to the way they do it, but I don't feel like they're just digging up bones."
The music is familiar without being copycat, infectious without being annoying. Munger's guitar melodies deserve some credit for that. He helped Ford finish writing the song "Danger." That was the tune that clinched the lineup and brought Munger into the band.
"It was like, 'Wow, we are now this band, and this is the kind of material we can do; there's something here,'" Tennis says.
Listen to "Danger":
The goal for 2010 is to keep working toward that something, keep opening shows, keep playing gigs, keep writing songs, get that first full-length record done and find an independent label to get it out. Keep trying to get better. Because they'd all like to make a living doing this, as opposed to working as a waitress (Ford), fishing in Alaska (Tornfelt) or magically scraping by (Tennis and Munger). Because strange and great things were happening toward the end of 2009.
They were approached with a licensing deal for a compilation record. They didn't have a lawyer to look at it. (Team Avett lent a hand.) Business people began to call. Those year-end shows with the Avetts materialized, which is how Sallie Burgess Ford and the Sound Outside ended up on stage on New Year's Eve at the nearly 7,700-seat Asheville Civic Center. She used to go ice skating there as a kid. Now they were shooting a music video. Two days later, at Harvest Records in Asheville, they packed the store where she used to buy music. Now people were buying her music
On Tuesday morning, while driving toward the last East Coast show, in Charlotte, N.C., Ford laughs about everything they'd been through in the past few days. That Harvest Records show was full of familiar faces, but a lot of unknown ones, too, the new fans that seem to be showing up at each new show. The past and the present, with the future coming quickly into view.
-- Ryan White