Brigitte Handley, 2006
THE sound of Brigitte Handley’s dusky voice coming down the phone line is almost enough inducement to roll up the legs of your blue jeans and grow side-burns.
But there’s more to Handley’s passion than ’50s rockabilly: the charismatic Sydney singer mixes fishnet and coiff with style and passion, putting a dark spin on classic rock ‘n’ roll.
“My music’s not rockabilly or psychobilly,” she says of her hybrid sound. “I think a rockabilly purist would choke if they heard it described like that. I grew up on that music and loved it. At school I couldn’t find anyone my age who was into it, so I had to play with old guys who had been playing it when it was new. People would ask me, why do you want to do all that old shit for?
“If I didn’t believe in it and love it, I’d be a fool for doing it. I’ve been a freak and an outcast for digging it, but now the r-word is more acceptable.”
It sounds like a tough path, but Handley’s got the conviction and the humour, bubbling out in chuckles over the phone and adding a touch of the Addams Family to her music.
Handley fronts the three-piece Brigitte Handley and the Dark Shadows, an outfit she formed in 2005 with bassist Carly Chalker after the pair met at a punk gig. They recently replaced their drummer of the past 12 months, David Warren, who left to concentrate on his art, with Nerida Wu.
For Handley, finding herself fronting an all-girl band is a new experience.
“When I met Carly, she just got what I was about straight away. We jammed and wrote together for a while before we formed the band. I always say, it’s about the music, not the gender. It’s happened by accident. It’s unusual for me not to be the only chick in the band.”
They take ’50s rock a la Handley’s icon Gene Vincent and add a touch of Vincent Price and another of Handley’s inspirational musos, The Damned’s David Vanian.
“There’s some Gene Vincent influences in Vanian,” she reckons. “I’d love to have a conversation with that guy. I reckon if you speak to a lot of those late ’70s punk rockers, they’d all dig Gene Vincent. He was the ’50s punk _ his attitude and craziness were way out there. Gene Vincent just did what he did.”
When Handley does her thing, the results vary from catchy, fun ditties like Alien Movies and Sleeping with a Vampire, to the empowering, straight-up rock of Identity, the title track of her recently released EP. Identity was included on the soundtrack of the Brisbane-based movie, 48 Shades of Brown.
While not a horror movie, the inclusion on the soundtrack was apt, given Handley’s love of cinema. She says her horror-themed songs hark to her childhood love of classic horror movies.
“I’m a fan of old horror movies like Nosferatu and Frankenstein. I love the darker side of things. Ever since I was a kid I was attracted to that side.”
There’s something of a rebel yell about Identity that Jimmy Dean and Marlon Brando would probably relate to.
“Identity wasn’t written with a female perspective in mind. I’m totally into kick-arse chicks, obviously, but the song’s not about female lib. It’s encouraging females and males to be what they got to be. Be who you have to be and who you want to be.
“I’ve always been the odd one out. You’ve got to be tough and believe in what you do. There are so many people out there who want to put you down, and I say, who are you to tell me what I have to do?”
Handley’s search for musical direction included spending time making music in the US with some of the rockabilly pioneers, which inspired her to write her own take on the genre.
“Dickie Harrell, from the Gene Vincent and Blue Caps days, has heard our EP and he likes it — he can see how the music’s evolved — and that means the world to me. I went to the States and got to meet those guys, the original guys, and they all told me to do my own thing, to make my own music. That’s what they were doing in the ’50s.”
Doing her own thing meant picking up lead guitar, as well. Her weapon of choice is a reissue of an everyman’s axe from the 1950s.
“I have a Danelectro 56-U2. The originals were cheap guitars in the ’50s. A lot of great players started on them, like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. It suits the style of my music — it’s got the twang. I love my guitar.”