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Those Who Dared 

Why the three San Francisco music scene vets who make up Virginia Dare have happily retired to home and hearth

Wednesday, Jun 16 1999
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Virginia Dare songwriter Mary O'Neil and her husband, guitarist Brad Johnson, both work day jobs. They rent a tiny but cute Bernal Heights cottage, which they share with Kit, their 4-year-old son, and a cat. Some nights they strum music together -- Mary on her autoharp and Brad on his electric guitar, supplied with a screwdriver for a whammy bar to get that perfect twang -- but most nights they don't.

"Mary writes songs if nobody's home," says Johnson, sitting at a table among all the right vintage stuff in the couple's sunlit kitchen; on his left sits his wife and to his right, bandmate and bassist Greg Freeman.

"The truth is, at the end of the day, we're just so wiped out," says O'Neil. "It's having a kid. We always lament, 'We should play some music,' and then nothing happens."

No member of the band has ever been in rehab, nor is there a signing to a major label in the offing. Virginia Dare is simply a dark, folk-pop-punk band comprised of O'Neil, Johnson, and Freeman, who in recent months have had publications across the nation and throughout cyberspace calling them everything from "homespun and charming" and "roots music winner" to what Spin describes as "halfway between the moon and West Virginia" (whatever that means) and "the next big thing" -- the last of which is highly unlikely since a) they could really give a fuck what anyone thinks about them, and b) they don't get out much.

"Bands that are together because they want to 'make it' -- those bands suck," says O'Neil. "And those bands don't have any fun. It's really about the people -- people you like and get along with -- which to me is almost more important because this is a human endeavor."

Freeman, a longtime local musician, engineer, and producer, agrees wholeheartedly with O'Neil's philosophy. "We're not driven to succeed at all," he says while O'Neil giggles. "We don't know why that is. It's a hobby. Sort of. Not really."

" 'Hobby' makes it sound like there's decoupage involved," says O'Neil as she bursts into laughter.

"Music is important to all of us," says Freeman, "but it's valuable to do music and not be completely consumed with it or look at it as a possible career. I think that's a problem for a lot of people."

Ah, the anti-thing: It worked for R.E.M. and later for Nirvana, Pavement, and plenty of others, right? But Virginia Dare has no marketing plan, doesn't tour, and doesn't plan to. Nor does the band have a smartassed independent label with a fat wallet in its corner.

"I think that's why the band works so great. We have the same realistic feeling about what we're doing. If we get to go to interesting places, that's just a perk. If people want to pay us money, that's great. And if people want to put out a CD, no one's thinking we're going to buy a house," says O'Neil, laughing. "Especially not in San Francisco."

The underachiever credo did not, however, dissuade a fan, Cory Brown, from chasing the group down for a year in an effort to get them to sign to his modest label, Absolutely Kosher Records -- refuge to the recently defunct P.E.E. He released the follow-up to Virginia Dare's two 10-inch EPs for Nuf Sed -- and their first proper album -- the 13-song Baby Got Away.

"I wish success for all my bands, but that's not what I can offer them. I'm basically a bedroom label," says Brown. "I find their humble band-next-door attitude extremely appealing."

Named after the first baby born to the first European U.S. settlers (but also a brand name of wine and artificial flavorings) -- "We didn't really know any of this," says O'Neil -- Virginia Dare the band was born in San Francisco in 1993, when O'Neil and Johnson hooked up with Paula Frazer on bass and Jonathan Segel, formerly of Camper Van Beethoven, on violin. Freeman was recording them at his former studio, Lowdown. Though Segel was sent off once the trio no longer thought his fiddle fit, when Frazer quit to work on other projects -- specifically Tarnation -- Freeman raised his hand. "I weaseled my way in," he says. "Because nobody has an agenda, and it fits in so nicely with our lives, it seems like it could go on indefinitely."

"Hopefully," says O'Neil. "Until Greg does something horrible."
"Why me?" he asks, somewhat defensively.
"Because you're Satan," she says.
"Oh, that."

In the band's bio, penned by Johnson, there's the tiniest suggestion that Freeman once got the boot from an early '80s Santa Cruz band, the Call, because of his alleged affiliation with Satan.

"The hatchet's long been buried," is all Freeman will say on the subject, but he gained some experience with major label/big studio/big budget recording technique in that time, as he did with his time served in the on-again-off-again, once-signed-to-Geffen instrumental band Pell Mell. He also observed the path of the bands who came through his studio, from locals like the Donner Party, Cat Heads, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, to touring acts like Royal Trux and Faust.

Johnson's own professional musical history is also arm-long, from American Music Club's beginnings and stints in early local loungecore groups like Connie Champagne & Her Tiny Bubbles and Timmie Hesla's Converse All-Stars to a gig in a swing band on a cruise ship. "I still have dreams about that -- more like nightmares," he says of his seafaring days. "I finally had to decide why I'm doing this. It's not a very easy way to make a living. That's not why I do it." Johnson works for the comics publisher Last Gasp; he draws comics, as well as the band's distinctive primitive-art-style sleeves.

"When I was with American Music Club, and they started getting really professional, it incrementally got less fun," says Johnson. "I think there are other ways to be a professional band. The examples I want to follow are people who are doing it because they like doing it. Like Barbara Manning does what she wants to do."

Coincidentally, San Francisco-bred singer/songwriter Manning is the only outside musician who made the cut on Baby Got Away, harmonizing with O'Neil, although a handful of friends and locals were invited to the studio over the three years it took to complete all of the sparse and dark folk-tinged songs, O'Neil's autoharp up front. O'Neil wrote half of them before Kit was born. Afterward, the band toured the Netherlands, 5-month-old baby in tow, to support a compilation CD of their first two EPs combined with two new tracks. Afterward, O'Neil enrolled full time as a student so she could get her B.A. in art history. Some more songs came. Then there were the mishaps, like the day the band cut "You Kill Me," the only song on which Johnson contributes something other than his eerie guitar.

"Yeah, Brad was in there singing and Greg, 'Mr. Studio,' spilled his coffee in the board," says O'Neil.

At this point, Freeman and Johnson adjourn to a nearby room for a practice session -- one of maybe two they claim will take place over the next six months -- leaving O'Neil to speak for herself. O'Neil is slight in stature but she's got a voice, as they say, that's as big as Texas -- though she hails from Oceanside, Calif. The songs she writes on her autoharp could slice right through even the hardest of hearts, detached as Courtney Love's, but with a Carter Family twang. The words, however, come from a much warmer and poetic place. Her lines refer to things that are broken and rusted, sharp and hurtful -- but through hardship and loss, there is hope.

On Baby Got Away's title song, she sings that "she pierced her tin heart and threw away the bad parts," while on "Johnny Depp," the film star "saves all his love for me, it's OK." "Dumb as a Doll" has a subject with "pink satin shoes and a bottle of whiskey"; Mary sings, "I watched you hanging from the half moon."

"I didn't set out with an overt theme in mind," she says. "I'm just writing about my own feelings. It sounds so corny, but a lot of the songs are about becoming a mother and how that was fucking with my identity the whole first two years of having him. It took away from enjoying this little creature.

"It's about not being afraid. Those are the people I'm drawn to because I have so much fear. Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground is an interesting case in point. She's an icon -- and she's got five kids! How did she raise them? The way everyone raises them, the hard way, and she still does her stuff.

"We should write that stuff because it is part of life. It's not the part of life people really want to talk about or that gets attention or noticed, but that's what makes the fucking world go 'round, you know. I don't know, it's not as if it's my cause, it's just who I am."

O'Neil acknowledges her debt to X's Exene Cervenka. "I had the privilege of getting to meet her and play with her, but it was so hard for me. She was such a huge hero that I couldn't relate to her as a human being. She was really nice -- even sent a little present to the baby when he was born." She and Johnson are also simpatico with the Mekons' Jon Langford and Sally Timms; that band put out a record in the U.K. by the couple's first effort together as the Wannabe Texans.

With Kit entering kindergarten in the fall, O'Neil, who is also a painter, may or may not start making more art and music again. "I don't know. Art and music is life, not something outside of life. I feel disconnected from it at times because my life is filled with things that aren't really exciting and interesting -- the things people read and write about. I'm taking care of a kid, that's really what I'm doing.

"I hope this isn't boring," she adds. "But having not finished school, never being able to decide what to do with my life and having a kid, I felt like I wanted to complete it for myself and as an example to my son. I want him to achieve his own dreams and objectives and I feel a huge responsibility to achieve my own."

As the sound of her bandmates making music filters down the hall, O'Neil's body language suggests that she's feeling drawn toward the other room to join them.

"Our motto is we don't have to do anything we don't want to do," she says. And with that, O'Neil leaves to join Johnson and Freeman for band practice -- one of a handful to have occurred this calendar year.

About The Author

Denise Sullivan

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