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Ali Wadsworth: On Her Own (With The Help Of Her Friends).

February 24, 2014

AliWadsworthKeg01Text and images by Michael Bucher.

It’s 20 minutes before Ali Wadsworth is to perform at Greenfest Philly and she’s still waiting for her band. She’s scattered, unable to think clearly and finish thoughts.

“I got like 50 songs,” explaining how many submissions she had to chose from when making her debut self-titled album, which dropped in the fall.

And then out of nowhere, “Oh my god. Where are you guys?” to no one in particular, looking down at her iPhone that is so badly cracked in two spots you can see it’s internal components.

Wadsworth has pale purple hair and comfortably walks among the crowd in a long black sundress. Behind the stage, she pulls out a 16-ounce Mason jar filled about an inch high with whiskey and takes a nip. She’s not feeling well this morning and whiskey is her medicine. The sick feeling might have something to do with her as-of-yet, unaccounted for power trio of Joe Bisirri on guitar, Brendan Cunningham on bass and Josh Friedman on drums. Bisirri played a huge part in recording and producing her self-titled album. Cunningham and Friedman are members of another Philly rock band, The Lawsuits. Through years of active participation in Philly’s rock ‘n’ roll/ folk scene, Wadsworth could make a few calls and have a full orchestra to fill in if needed.

But right now, she just needs these three.

This uneasiness is a familiar feeling for Wadsworth. At times, it’s as if her musical career relies on the assistance of others. Luckily, she has a personality that naturally attracts relationships – friendly and intimate. These have been the source of both pleasure and pain. Or at times, both. But as she learns to leverage these relationships with her own energy, she gains the creative support and inspiration needed to be a true frontwoman.
AliWadsworthShowOnlineJuicers, middlers and rockers. Every song in the world can be be put into one of those categories, according to Wadsworth’s father, Dave Wadsworth.

Juicers are slow, ballad songs. Middlers are mid-tempo, in-between songs. Rockers explain themselves. Her father has a formula for where and how many of each should appear on an album and a different combination for a show. And there can never be enough rockers. From AC/DC to ZZ Top, Dave raised Wadsworth on classic rock, setting the musical foundation that she never outgrew.

As a little girl growing up in Houston, Wadsworth would sing and play music with her father. With his close friend, the three would perform for people in the neighborhood who often hung out at their house. Her father and his friend would write and practice fun ‘rockers’ in his garage recording studio.

“Come on baby, come on ma, let’s go out and get bombed,” Wadsworth sings from rote memory. “Cause I gotta get this evenin rollin’, soooo, let’s get drunk and go bowling.”

She went on to study classical opera in Russia, musical theater at Summit Senior High school in northern New Jersey, then sang jazz at the University of Vermont and has now settled on rock ‘n’ roll.

“I’ve never met anybody who is a more natural singer than her,” says Dan Schwartz, guitarist for Good Old War.

Schwartz and Wadsworth started informally playing together in Vermont before moving into a small apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Philadelphia around 2003. They recorded together and eventually realized they had something special. With drummer Andy Nick, Schwartz and Wadsworth formed the creative base of Unlikely Cowboy. They played regularly in the city and even performed at the Philadelphia Rodeo & Fall Festival, for which Wadsworth believes the invite came due to the band’s name.

“That band really taught her how much she loved making music with people,” says Schwartz. “I don’t think before that she knew what was going to be her life goal.”

Wadsworth recalls first being drawn to fame. She thought she would make a good famous person and she’s probably correct. She is eccentric, affable and armed with a smile that draws people in. Continuing to work toward a full-time music career, her priorities have now changed.

“The goal is to be respected by the people I respect,” says Wadsworth. “To get props from the bands I look up to.”

Wadsworth and Nick dated for roughly two years while playing together. One day in 2006, the group was hanging out in their practice space which doubled as Nick’s apartment in Northern Liberties. Out of nowhere, he broke the news he was moving to Los Angeles in two weeks.

“What?” Wadsworth remembers asking. “Are you breaking up with me in front of Dan and quitting the band in the same day?”

It devastated Wadsworth. She promised herself she would never date someone in her band again.

“It ruined something that was so important to me,” she says.

After Nick left, they tried to hold the group together but it was too difficult. Wadsworth’s heart wasn’t in it anymore. Dan pushed her to continue singing and recording by writing her a song called “A Little Bit of Heartache.”

“He wrote it based on conversations we had about Andy and it was so fucking spot on,” says Wadsworth. “I remember the first time I sang it. It was a week after he left and it was at the Italian Market Fest or something. I was crying while I was singing it. And I was crying while I was singing it in the studio.”

AliWadsworth05On election night eve, Monday, Nov. 3, 2008, The Fire held their own election. It was to determine the president of open mic night, a popular gathering for the city’s folk musicians and acts, like Hezekiah Jones, The Spinning Leaves and Toy Soldiers. On the ballot was Wadsworth, who bartended and always lent a hand on open mic nights, and Jonas Osterle, who officially hosted the event every Monday night. They each got on stage and delivered passionate speeches. Osterle’s platform was based on big city values. There is disagreement as to the exact details of Wadsworth’s speech but Osterle claims she promised the crowd she’d flash her breasts. Regardless, it never happened. But Wadsworth won in a landslide, 12-4.

“Youre not gonna beat Ali in a popularity contest,” says Osterle. “It’s not gonna happen.”

Wadsworth became so popular at open mic night that she actually stole the job from Osterle. He trained her before he went on tour with his former band, The Teeth.

“When I did get back, Ali had sort of won over the crowd,” Osterle says. “I would say it was clear. It was no longer my shift.”

The open mic night was a desirable shift and now Osterle was out. Wadsworth sensed he was pissed but instead of grudge-holding, Wadsworth and Osterle collaborated to make open mic night different. They did silly skits between acts, encouraged theme nights and organized an open mic night Olympics.

“If you give her an idea she likes, she gets really excited and vocal about it,” Osterle says. “It rubs off. It makes things seem more exciting. That’s the perfect personality that you would want for an event like that.”

During this time, there was an endless stream of ideas coming to her. She was meeting tons of different musicians and songwriters. She started other bands, like the all-female rock group called Goldiebox and a supergroup called Fantasy Square Garden, which she still considers the best band she’s been in. She started doing backup vocals for other bands through open mic night.

After about a year and a half, the scene at The Fire fizzled out and Wadsworth began bartending at Fergie’s. Three years ago this past October, she took over open mic night there and brought along Osterle to continue hosting. The crowd changed, introducing her to even more bands in the city, like The Lawsuits, Levee Drivers and The Districts. Other regulars include Chris Kasper, Ross Bellenoit and Sonja Sofia.

“It’s about beginning that creative relationship,” says Osterle. “A lot of times, the seed of that relationship is planted at open mic. Or the seed is planted elsewhere and is germinated at open mic because it’s a place you can practice in front of a live audience.”

The problem for Wadsworth is she can plant too many seeds. She can become overwhelmed by different obligations.

“She’s hyper creative,” Schwartz says. “She’ll get so many ideas and then honing them down becomes the hard part.”

Being on her own musically was difficult because it was up to her to decide what took precedent.

“I get really stressed out trying to balance all these things that are important to me,” says Wadsworth, whether it be a friend’s birthday party, an album release party or working on her own music.

While balancing between personal and private, or between fame and fortune (fortune as far as a fortunate music career), Wadsworth has always remained accessible. It is not uncommon for those who have seen her perform to approach her afterward.

Between her sets at Greenfest, a man with a gray ponytail approaches her.

“Hey Ali, I really enjoy your singing,” he says. “I saw you at Folkfest a couple weeks ago.”

“Aw, thank you,” she replies.

It happens wherever she goes.
AliWadsworthInside02smallWadsworth is seated in her living room surrounded by cardboard cutout figures. The details of their faces are outlined in black ink, made to resemble some of her closest songwriter friends. With only her voice and hand gestures, she goes from seductive host, to infomercial saleswoman, to nurse, to carnival ringleader, to cheerleader, back to ringleader, to self-assured artist, to female comic book villain, to game show host, to founding father in 28 seconds.

“With the help of many great friends (ringleader), I have conceived a record I believe will one day receive accolades (artist) from aliens visiting our planet (villain),” says Wadsworth.

She then gives the audience a sample of her product: a song with Schwartz on acoustic guitar and Tim Arnold from Good Old War singing backup vocals, seated on opposite sides of her. It’s all part of her video on Kickstarter to raise $8,000 to produce her album. The project exceeded her goal and raised $8,790 from 212 different backers.

After spending years being a backup or co-singer, Wadsworth says she finally had the courage to be the frontwoman solely in charge of her career. When the idea came to her, it was important that she follow through. She emailed friends she met during her time at The Fire, Fergie’s and from playing shows throughout the city, soliciting them for songs to include on her album. The number of submissions climbed into the fifties.

With Ron Gallo, the lead singer and guitarist for Toy Soldiers, Wadsworth approached Bill Moriarty of Waking Studios with the project. Gallo and Wadsworth were dating and his band had just finished recording their album with Moriarty.

It became apparent to Moriarty that she liked to rock, and rock loudly. Moriarty thought It was important the album represented her, her blood family and her music family which includes the community of Philadelphia musicians.

Moriarty describes her voice as “Janis Joplin-y” with a loud scratching element. She can make a sound that forces an audience to notice and then she goes beyond it.

“A lot of what I was trying to do with her singing is get her to wait, wait on that thing,” he says. “Wait for the bridge or the later chorus to get bigger.”

As Moriarty was pulled toward other projects at the studio, Joe Bisirri began taking over much of the day to day duties for Wadsworth’s album. Bisirri, who also played guitar for a lot of the recording, was tasked with combining Wadsworth’s musical ideas with the songs written for her into a cohesive record.

“She wants to really tune in with the lyrics, take the melody of the song and find a register where she can show off what shes got,” says Bisirri.

Being given these songs and then having to decide which to cut was like asking her to pick a best friend, which would be difficult given how many people she holds dear to her. With the help of Moriarty and Bisirri, they came up with 10 songs from 10 different writers.

The decision to go with so many diverse songwriters led to the next hurdle for Wadsworth: how to make them all cohesive.

“I know I have a big, powerful voice,” notes Wadsworth. “But I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t sound lame like a mix CD.”

During recording, her relationship with Gallo started to deteriorate. What started out as an innocent collection of songs written for her about heartbreak became deeply personal. A song like “Where Is Your Love,” written by Gallo, became extra painful. A song by Adrien Reju called ”Still Not Over You” strikes the raw emotion felt by a partner before they can let go.

Now, she could sing these songs with a personal connection and force absent before.

“I feel like there’s these songs where Ali’s really good at conveying ‘angry as shit,’” says Bisirri.

Instead of allowing the anger to kill the project, she used it as a positive force.

“It’s shitty when I don’t put myself first all the time,” says Wadsworth. “I feel like that’s why things are finally starting to happen for me.”

AliWadsworthSmall01Back at Greenfest, Wadsworth’s band arrives with only a few minutes to spare.

On stage, they begin tuning their instruments and testing the sound levels beneath the shade of a canopy. Wadsorth takes her shoes off – playing without shoes is a kind of rule.

Before the band strikes their first note, Wadsworth places a bottle of water next to each of the musicians feet – just because she’s mindful of her own needs now doesn’t mean she forgets about the well-being of people continuing to support her passion.

She introduces herself to the audience and starts with a song called “Long Hours,” a subdued juicer about overcoming a painful experience through the grind of working.

Closing her eyes, she hits that special power she’s learned to restrain and cries, “And these looooooong hours, gives me peace of mind.”

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