A pint-sized, bespectacled songwriter with the woodsmoke voice of Ella Fitzgerald and the personal affect of Hermione Granger, Sallie Ford—who began writing songs at age 19—belongs to an echelon of songwriters whose effortless facility with pop music seems almost unfair. Now 23, she is easily among Portland’s most recognizable songsmiths, as well as one of its most remarked-upon vocal talents. Much has been made of Ford’s vocal abilities, and it’s a case where even the most egregious hyperbole still manages to seem insufficient. Ford sings with boundless confidence and strength, utilizing her naturally arresting pipes to breathe life into songs that howl with a leering sense of humor.
But Ford wasn’t always the darling of the Portland music scene. A native of Asheville, N.C., Ford is in many respects the ultimate Portland immigrant. She has made good on the Left Coast, but when she set forth in 2006 it was with little more than a one-way ticket marked “PDX” and a vague notion of Portland’s status as a “cool, artsy, happening spot,” she says.
After a short stay in the Hawthorne Hostel, Ford wound up living in a house in Southeast, and when her roommates booked a show in their living room, they put Sallie Ford on the bill. “Right before the show I was like, ‘Well, if I’m gonna play a house show, I might as well write some songs.’”
Originally performing solo as Down South Sallie (“I always felt really stupid about the name because it had a sort of dirty connotation”), Ford eventually hooked up with Alaskan transplants Ford Tennis and Tyler Tornfelt, who provided bass and drums, respectively. Jeff Munger lent his chicken-peck lead guitar to the group after Ford discovered him busking on Northeast Alberta Street. It didn’t take long for the quartet to start getting attention.
It’s easy to hear why: The Sound Outside plays pop music through the lens of classic Americana. There is a hint of the Tennessee Three in the group’s minimal, country-tinged arrangements, but the Sound Outside is a versatile beast, wandering into the realms of gospel, blues and balladry, all beneath the pace-setting tone of Ford’s brash vocals.
But there’s an edge to the Sound Outside’s sound. Ford is fearless—combative, even. There’s no place in her songwriting for affected whimsy, and when the situation calls for it, she howls. In her song “Cage,” Ford belts out, “The bitch, she got me up in a cage,” pushing the sentiment so far over the top that it becomes a macabre joke. In “Write Me a Letter” she manages to sneak in a reference to E.E. Cummings right next to a cheekily deployed “fuck” (though that latter line has undergone some prudent editing as the group starts angling for wider recognition).
In the past year, Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside has recorded a full-length album—under the guidance of Portland omni-producers Adam Selzer and Mike Coykendall—and signed to the venerable, New York-based Partisan Records. Her debut album, Dirty Radio (released last week), provides polished rehashings of several of the tracks from Not an Animal alongside new songs that maintain the spare professionalism of the Sound Outside’s live shows. The soulful dirge of “Nightmares” and the howling blues of “Poison Milk” show Ford reaching new emotional heights as a lyricist while the Sound Outside expands its precisely trod range. This is a debut record with huge potential, as the PR agents, managers and label heads helping engineer Dirty Radio’s release seem keenly aware.
“It’s nice to have everybody work for you and stuff,” says Ford, punctuating her statement with a loud laugh. “I feel like the boss or something.”
She can laugh if she wants, but with a band of her caliber, she’d better get used to the idea.
SEE IT: Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside play Doug Fir on Friday, June 3, and Saturday, June 4. See listings for details. Both shows 21+.