After meeting at an open-mic night and busking around town, Santa Barbara natives Rainbow Girls thrust themselves into the life so many only dream of: traveling to Europe to perform and couch-surfing across the continent, and releasing their first album a few years later. Today they’re back in the states, and the electric stomp-folk band will be releasing their latest record at SOhO on Friday, June 5, at 9 p.m. In anticipation of their return to Santa Barbara, I spoke with bandmember Erin Chapin to discuss their new album, open mics, and busking.
Tell me about your new album. Where did you draw inspiration from musically and lyrically?
The inspiration for these songs is almost as broad, partially due to all of us being songwriters. Some of the songs have a feminist message, telling women to be strong and have respect for themselves, while others are inspired by the people we love and those we meet on our travels. All of them, however, espouse the idea that life is what you make of it. The world is full of challenges and obstacles, with lots of people and structures trying to dictate what you can and cannot do, but ultimately every choice is yours. This album calls for everyone to live their own truth, whatever that may be.
What’s your new album called and why? How did you choose the album’s artwork?
Our new album is called Perceptronium. The idea is drawn from the theory that thoughts have mass — ask and you shall receive, the universe responds, etc. Perceptronium is the name for the massive thought (though it’s not officially part of the Webster’s Dictionary as of yet). This is a central force of life, a concept we rainbow ladies accept and acknowledge, and a universal theme throughout all our music.
As for the album’s cover art, our resident artist, Miss Caitlin Gowdey, made a hand drawn collage using elements of various Tarot cards that resonated most with us and paired them with images we found in street art from our travels (anywhere from England to Seattle), which she then projected onto a 3x3 ft. canvas and painted.
What was it like recording your new album in San Francisco?
We recorded our album north of San Francisco, about 20 minutes from our door at a studio in Cotati called Prairie Sun Recording Studios. We moved from Santa Barbara to the North Bay tow years ago so we could afford being musicians. We miss Santa Barbara dearly, but it’s hard to pay rent like that when you’re gone on tour most of the year. For Perceptronium, we got to record all the instruments live, just overdubbing our vocals and a couple extra percussion tracks here and there — plus horns on a few tracks! The ending result is a much tighter sound with real live energy.
So you guys met at an open mic. What was your first experience playing at one of those like?
Most of us had never performed at an open mic night before until we did so at Rainbow House. We used to live at this unofficial housing and arts co-op in Isla Vista that held a weekly open mic (without a mic) every Monday, and it was our church. It was a very welcoming crowd, with several regulars, beans and rice for everyone, red wine tossed about, people singing along and encouraging performers when they forgot words or played wrong chords. The room was often packed, stuffed to the brim. It was scary to get up and do something like that in front of a bunch of friends and strangers, but not so bad when you got the hang of it.
I remember the first time we performed a song as the Rainbow Girls at Bean Night. Caitlin and I had been performing as a duo (Red & Yellow) and decided to ask the other gals who regularly performed if they wanted to join up and start a band. We sat around the dining room table one day and wrote a rather racy song together, “Old Fashion Passion,” and decided to sing it at Bean Night the next week. Normally people would perform on the fireplace, but we decided to climb up the bunk bed and perform from the top bunk. It must have been quite a sight to see: four women atop a bed singing their hearts out about wanting their men this way and that…I’ll never forget all the hootin’ and hollerin’ that came from the crowd after each verse, and how good it felt when we hit that last note together. I remember thinking that as long as I had these ladies by my side, I could do anything.
Any advice for young busking musicians — girls in particular? A lot of young girls (myself included) are scared to travel to Europe and couch surf and busk without a backup plan; you girls have guts!
This is by far one of the best questions we’ve ever been asked. First and foremost, you HAVE to be willing to rough it. And more often than not, hostels are NOT roughing it. Bring a sleeping bag and sleeping pad and be willing to sleep on the floor and out of doors in the tiniest of places. Get on CouchSurfing.org and be smart about the people you message. Look at their reviews, search for families and other women as hosts, and plan your route at least a few weeks ahead so you’re not stuck with unwise options. Couch surfing is better than staying in hotels/hostels anyways cause you get to meet real locals, find out the best places to eat and hang out, and often they even make you dinner or have a vehicle to take you around in! And then you have instant friends for life, instead of debt and bedbugs.
Next word of advice: don’t be a tourist, profit off of them. There are plenty of tourists milling about western Europe, excited to throw coins aplenty at your feet. Give them something to take home! Bring some burned CDs/demos with you to sell for 5 euro/franc/pound each. Or if you can really get you stuff together, bring download cards to sell. Those don’t take up any room in your bag and customs won’t even take another look. On that note, shut your mouth at customs! If they ask you about your instrument DO NOT SAY YOU ARE IN A BAND. Say you just started taking lessons and you really want to learn, or if you are moving within the continent, say you just bought it while on your trip and can’t wait to bring it back home. The United Kingdom is particularly strict, and we were once refused entry, detained for seven hours, and ultimately kicked back out into the EU when one of us blabbed about being in band.
And last, but certainly not least, have an act together that you feel confident about before you jump in. We were able to go as long and as far as we did because we had a team dedicated on all fronts to making it work. We played the songs that got us the biggest crowds, we made friends everywhere we went, we learned performing tips from other buskers, we used our charisma and went with the flow, and we said yes to every opportunity that presented itself to us. To sum it all up: rough it, be smart, don’t be a tourist, and be sure to have an act that is as much commanding as it is entertaining.