AUSTIN, Texas — Austin singer-songwriters Rebecca Loebe, Grace Pettis and BettySoo have each performed for years at Texas’ beloved Kerrville Folk Festival; in fact, that’s where they met and quickly bonded in 2008, the year BettySoo become a New Folk Competition winner.
By 2011, all three had earned that honor. But even though they’re all Star Trek-loving sci-fi fans, they never dreamed that if they fast-forwarded to 2018, they’d wind up beaming onto a Kerrville stage as a hot new tight-harmony trio called Nobody’s Girl — a trio that had signed a record deal, recorded an EP, Waterline, and launched a tour before its members had even picked a name.
Still a bit dazed by this warp-speed chain of events, Pettis explains, “Most bands write a bunch of songs, jam in a garage for months or years, start playing local gigs, go on their first tour, and then maybe make an album.”
Their trajectory was just the opposite. (Pettis, whom BettySoo likens to famed Klingon Worf, claims it was “reverse-engineered.”) Toward summer’s end in 2017, Loebe had casually proposed a one-off joint tour “just to share the road, share our audiences and have a bit of fun.”
They shot some photos in September, and in October, to catch promoters’ ears, made an iPhone video of themselves singing Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Posted in November, it rapidly went “mini-viral.” Someone from Lucky Hound Music, a new label and artist-development firm, was among its viewers. The next thing they knew, they were practically teleported to a songwriting retreat at the Studios at Fischer, a resort-like, state-of-the-art audio and video recording complex an hour outside of Austin. In just 36 December hours, they wrote three of the four originals on their six-song EP, releasing Sept. 28. Two were completed before they went to bed that first night.
“We came downstairs the next morning and played them the songs we had written,” Loebe recounts, “and they offered us a record deal.”
They signed in January 2018, recorded Waterlinewith producer Michael Ramos in February, printed it in March, went on tour and released their debut single, the rock-edged pop tune “What’ll I Do,” in April, played Kerrville in May, and scheduled more dates around Waterline’s release — along with a 2019 European tour.
“It’s honestly like something out of a movie,” marvels Loebe (a cross between Deanna Troi and Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan, according to BettySoo — who’s described by her bandmates as a Capt. Picard type).
For the captain — er, BettySoo — who frequently hits the road as a member of retro-pop trio Charlie Faye & the Fayettes, or with pals such as Michael Fracasso and Bonnie Whitmore, it was a slightly scary scene: already juggling a tight calendar, she’d agreed to the original tour because it was just a few weeks long.
“I think I would have been out of my mind to commit to a whole new band,” she says, quickly adding, “But I love each of them.” She also agrees with Loebe’s assessment, “Something really special happens when we sing together.”
Delving into pop-rock and soul territory they don’t often explore individually, their pristine voices blend so well, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s singing what — even for them. The effect is like listening to sisters — until they trade off lead vocals. Then the distinctive yet complementary elements of their voices become thrillingly evident.
Pettis, who contributed two songs to two-time Grammy nominee Ruthie Foster’s latest album, Joy Comes Back, takes the lead on the first single, “What’ll I Do.” That melodic tune, also included in acoustic form, might be characterized as a Tom Petty song with girl-group harmonies. Pettis’ supple voice also swoops and soars like a wind-riding bird over “Bluebonnets,” a powerful ballad written by their friend Raina Rose.
BettySoo’s lead vocals are encircled by her bandmates’ golden harmonies on the title song “Waterline,” which carries special meaning for Loebe.
“As we experience major changes and cross major milestones in our lives, the change can be so incremental that we don’t notice how far we’ve come until we turn around and see the high-water mark,” she explains. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to work that into a song for the past decade, and luckily, Grace and BettySoo were able to make it happen.”
That’s another aspect of what Pettis characterizes as their “accidental” alliance: their well-matched songwriting skills mesh as seamlessly as their voices, which explains how they were able to craft several gems so quickly. The shiny folk-pop of “Riding Out the Storm” is another example.
“I love this song because I think that there’s a bit of all of us in it, but it sounds really different from anything that any of us would write on our own,” says Loebe. “It deals with the drive that the three of us share, which propels us all forward in life and through the challenges of our music careers.”
Loebe, who earned an audio engineering degree from Berklee College of Music and appeared on season one of The Voice,lends her sultrier style to “Queen City” and their sexy, slow-burn version of Blondie’s “Call Me.”
Onstage, Loebe and Pettis (communications, St. Edward’s University) play acoustic guitars; BettySoo (English, University of Texas at Austin) plays electric guitar and accordion. In the studio, they were backed by A-listers David Grissom on acoustic and electric guitars; Glenn Fukunaga on bass; J.J. Johnson on drums; Ramos on keyboards; and Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel.
For three friends who started out planning to round-robin their own tunes and back each other up a bit, Loebe says their unexpected transformation into a joyful creative partnership “feels like a magic trick.” It’s especially dazzling to her because she hasn’t collaborated much — and wound up being offered a solo deal with Blue Corn Music just as Lucky Hound was signing the trio. In late 2018, she’ll also receive a grant from Black Fret, an Austin foundation that provides professional development funds to 20 carefully selected artists or bands each year. (Pettis, meanwhile, has an unreleased album in the can, and the Fayettes are polishing a new recording with Charlie Faye.)
But back to that magic trick: If one breaks it down into simple physics, it might be described as an energy transfer between types of matter. For Loebe, that’s what Nobody’s Girl represents: an energy shift. A new dynamic. As the name suggests, this trio’s music is “a little defiant, a little edgy.” Maybe a little risky — like boldly going somewhere you haven’t explored before, then discovering, upon arrival, that transporting your energy to this different place isn’t really a trick at all. But it certainly can feel — and sound — like magic.