Bernadette Seacrest transcends the blues in life and song
The Filthy South Sessions is driven by femme fatale’s noirish confidence
Bernadette Seacrest looks like trouble.
The 45-year-old femme fatale and singer who fronts the trio known simply as Her Provocateurs, has the face of a 1950s pin-up model and the tattoos of an old-school, streetwise punk. Every drop of ink on her body â€“ from the barbed chain around her neck to the brilliant colors that sleeve her arms â€“ tells the story of a fiercely independent woman who has suffered the highs and lows of life on the fringes to carve her own musical niche.
Her pure, angelic croon seems more likely to be found in the pages of a pulp crime novel than in the here and now. Having grown up in Venice Beach, Calif., she’s filled with tales ranging from being bullied by Dogtown skateboarders in the late ’70s to dating Jane’s Addiction bassist Eric Avery, whom she calls her first love. But there’s a dark side to her past as well, one that’s marred by battles with a heroin addiction that, had she failed to overcome it, would have stopped her from ever finding the confidence to sing for an audience.
With Bernadette Seacrest and Her Provocateurs’ new CD, The Filthy South Sessions, Seacrest’s haunting presence collides with songwriter/guitarist Charles Williams’ heady arrangements in a sound that skirts the boundaries of jazz, blues and lounge music. “Swing noir” is the clever catch phrase she likes most. The songs simmer with a sparse, spectral sound that builds on the complex chemistry between Seacrest and Williams. “Charles is a very cerebral person and I am the polar opposite of that,” she explains. “That’s what’s really good between us and that’s what creates tension. Everything I do comes from the gut … and my hips, and he’s in his head. It’s amazing that we can do what we do without killing each other,” she laughs. “It’s like a pelvis thing and it’s a cranium thing.”
A few years after kicking her drug habits in September ’97, 35-year-old Seacrest was living in Albuquerque, N.M. She had moved there to clean up and was looking for some sort of artistic outlet. She had no prior singing experience, but was intrigued by the prospects after being prodded onstage one night. “When I was a user, drugs and booze gave me confidence in some ways, but in other ways I was dwarfed emotionally,” she says. “I had been sober for a few years, my confidence was up and I had a friend who was in this great band that had recently broken up. One night he jokingly said, ‘Come sing with the remaining members of my band.’ So I thought about it and called him the next day and said, ‘OK, I’m going to do this.'”
The friend was jazz performer and songwriter Pat Bova. Together they played in the rockabilly roots band the Long Goners, and later formed the backbone of Bernadette Seacrest and Her Yes Men, who released two albums â€“ a collection of mostly standards titled No More Music by the Suckers and a live CD that followed a year later.
The two worked well together, but without warning Seacrest moved to Atlanta in June 2006 to “follow her heart,” she says. It wasn’t long before she was appearing at out of the way venues around town with Williams, best known as a founding guitar player for Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit and the main songwriter for local jazz group the Bonaventure Quartet. Kris Dale, who plays bass with Hampton’s Quark Alliance as well as the Bonaventure Quartet, soon filled out the lineup. Williams and Seacrest both refer to Dale as “the glue that binds them together.” The trio’s early sound snaked through loungy renditions of such standards as “Fever” before easing into haunting rearrangements of such recent numbers as “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails.
Over time, Williams crafted several songs with Seacrest in mind, all of which appear on their debut release, The Filthy South Sessions. The CD consists of entirely original material that often supplements the sparseness of the gypsy-like guitar, bass and torch singer lineup with various strings, light percussion and horns.
The Filthy South Sessions perplexes with its simple arrangements extracted of anything overtly jazz- or blues-inspired. In some instances, the disc eerily lingers before jumping to life with a rocking pace. Such songs as “The Tango Below,” “Empty Streets” and “Cabbagetown Girl” unfold with an unquestionably Southern sound arrived at purely by innuendo. “Working with Bernadette is a lot like working with Bruce Hampton,” Williams says. “He would always tell me what he didn’t want me to play, but never what he wanted, so I was always searching for something. And it turned out that he had no idea what he wanted, either!” Williams laughs. “He just wanted to see what I would come up with. Bernadette kind of does the same thing. She said, ‘Let’s keep it small and I don’t want any jazz, and no blues.'”
The resulting songs follow these stylistic guidelines, so much so that their naked and unorthodox approach is what makes the album memorable. But their obscurity could be a detriment to any kind of commercial success. For Seacrest that’s not such a bad thing. “I don’t like the idea of making records to appease anyone other than myself,” she laughs.