Americana and folk rockers Rainbow Girls are a quartet now and prefer to keep their live arrangements as straightforward as possible, but just a few years ago, as a quintet, they had a way of consternating the sound technicians at the venues through which they passed.
“Back in the day we were every sound person’s worst nightmare,” says Erin Chapin, who sings and plays guitar.
Chapin then takes it as a personal challenge to explain why. The band traveled with a 24-channel board—meaning 24 sound intakes could be plugged in at once—and there were more than a few times that she, Vanessa May, Caitlin Gowdey and their bandmates used up all 24.
“We had four vocals at the time and then we had guitar one, guitar two, guitar three—because we had to have three; all acoustic guitars—and then we had to have the ukulele, the banjo, the mandolin, the washboard.”
She’s just getting started.
“The tap-dancing stage; my friend had to mic that,” Chapin continues. “The dulcimer, the bass, the accordion, the keys, the drum kit and the djembe—because we had to do that, too. And then we have the cajón, electric guitar, melodica, harmonica, kazoo, mouth trumpet. … We also had a fly-by-night cellist. Oh, and a violin.
The four Rainbow Girls, now including Oakland drummer Liliana Urbain, switch from conversation to snappy one-liners in the same breath. In one 20-minute interview at Outside Lands the four will give fake skincare tips, come up with a term for deaths of birds under suspicious circumstances—burder; like bird murder, get it?—explain that ghosts make bad dinner guests because the food passes right through them and declare their love for Courtney Barnett: “Courtney, if you’re reading, let’s hold hands into the sunset!” May pleads.
If you’ve heard more about Rainbow Girls in the past year, you likely have one song to thank for that. In late 2018 they recorded a live cover of 1964 Alvin Robinson cut “Down Home Girl” (popularized by the Rolling Stones a year later) and posted it online. It went viral. Over the next weeks, their Facebook fan count surged to near 100,000.
Rainbow Girls had previously released records in 2013 and 2015, where the group began in Santa Barbara. American Dream, which followed in 2017 (after the band had relocated to Bodega Bay—the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and hence, Urbain’s burder joke)—picked up significant recognition in the Bay Area and beyond and ushered the band’s stripped-back sound and overtly political songs, such as “Song for Standing Rock” and “American Dream,” which paints the dream as an unreachable goal for many.
The new direction was not a random occurrence, with the band writing the songs around the time of the 2016 presidential election and other upheavals like Flint, Michigan’s water crisis and the Standing Rock standoff.
Their latest album, February’s Give the People What they Want, is a collection of covers that fits right in with these turbulent times. It contains soulful covers with the band’s signature harmonies of standards and deeper cuts by the likes of Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, John Prine, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Susan Tedeschi.
RIFF spoke to Rainbow Girls about why they moved from SoCal to the North Bay, recording an album in one night and what’s coming next.
RIFF: When you moved from Santa Barbara, why did you pick Bodega Bay as your new home base?
Caitlin Gowdey: My grandparents bought a property in the ‘60s. And it’s more Valley Ford than Bodega Bay. It’s between Freestone and Valley Ford. … There was a little yellow house on it and they built a cabin out of a magazine kit next to the little yellow house. My mom lived there in the ‘70s. Then it was kind of abandoned. It was a friend’s and family getaway from the world; a safe place that no one really lived in. It was filled with birds [laughs]. Many people were murdered in its hallowed halls. So many birds died!
Liliana Urbain: It was burder.
And you have a studio there?
Gowdey: We put microphones in the house and made it a studio. The living room’s got a lot of good juju. It has a lot of energy and—no. Take that out. Don’t make me say “a lot of energy.” I’ll sound like a big ol’ hippie. Which is fine. [Whispering]. Off the record, the energy is there.
Your February album, Give the People What They Want, has an interesting story. It all started with the one cover that you recorded live and it became a viral hit, so you decided to record it in the studio. How did you go from one song to an entire album in one night?
Erin Chapin: Well, in a couple of hours. We had a lot of people asking us if we had that song recorded. After the 10th or 15th time of someone relatively legit [asking]—the Austrian national radio station—I was like, “Let me get back to ya! It’s in the works.” I texted our friend who run the studio Prairie Sun in the North Bay and they had that Friday open. You have to do a day at a time; it’s a 10-hour slot. So it’s like, “we’re gonna be in there recording one song, might as well record all the other ones that everyone always likes.”
Had you been playing a lot of those songs at your concerts already?
Chapin: A lot of them. One of them, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” we did one time at Kate Wolf Music Festival [between Ukiah and Eureka] with John Cragie and Matt Goff, who plays with Marty O’Reilly and Aviva Le Fey. So we had Matt and Aviva play, and then John Craigie and Ben Morrison from the Brothers Comatose came and sang. It just felt very necessary. It’s really sad that that song still rings true today.
Did you pick those songs for their messages or because they were fun to play?
Chapin: I feel like we usually learn songs that stand out to us. The songs that stand out to us usually have some meaning.
Vanessa May: It may be because of the musicianship or it may be because the quality of the lyrics. But you see it in the title: Give the People What they Want. It’s very simple. We also have so much music that we’ve written that we’re sitting on. So part of it was wanting to share some things with people that we love and the people that love us, while giving ourselves room to work on our own songs and let them firm up before we present them to everybody.
Is your forthcoming original album done at this point?
May: No; it’s not done. We’re spending October workshopping and getting everything ready, and then we want to find the right place to record. This next group of songs we cherish and love a lot. We want to make sure they’re transmitted in the most truthful way possible—in a way that honors them.
I was checking out your Facebook page and it had about 100,000 followers. The previous time I had seen it, a couple of years earlier, you didn’t have close to that. Did the popularity come the viral popularity of “Down Home Girl?” And how did that change the way you interact with the band’s fans?
May: Yeah. Thank you internet! It’s doesn’t change anything. There may be more people to interact with. We appreciate the [artists] whose being off-stage is most in-line with their on-stage presence. We’re performing for more people, but at the end of the day, we are who we are and I will interact with you as a human.