Folk Singer Enjoys Being Phranc at Last
“I Enjoy Being a Girl” is the title song of Phranc’s new album, and when she sings the 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein show tune it takes on a whole new dimension.
Phranc, 31, proudly bills herself as an “all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer,” and “Girl’s” exaggerated images of frilly femininity become comically surreal coming from a woman with a flat-top and combat boots.
But Phranc, whose fearless solo performances above the area’s slam-dance pits over the past decade have made her a Los Angeles institution, isn’t completely kidding.
“I think it’s extremely consciousness raising for me to be doing that song,” she said with a smile.
“You can tell I definitely have a sense of humor about it. I mean, the lyrics are so out there. . . . But when I was growing up, I really hated being a girl. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, I couldn’t look the way I wanted to look. When I was going to school I had to wear a dress. I definitely couldn’t have had my brother’s haircut then.
“And today, I really can enjoy being a girl. I can look just the way I want to look, I can have my favorite haircut, I can wear my favorite clothes, I can say what I want to say. I can truly enjoy being a girl today, so it is fun to do that song in that context.”
Despite its turns to Broadway and ‘40s pop and a few instrumental arrangements, the heart of Phranc’s second album is the kind of direct, unadorned folk music she’s been doing for years. The disarming whimsy of songs about her dog-riding parakeet, the wonders of Toys ‘R’ Us and her admiration for Martina Navratilova set off the clear-eyed anger of her political broadsides and the emotional resonance of her personal reflections on love and death.
“I think it’s very true to life,” Phranc said. “I don’t think I could make an album that was all happy or all angry or all silly, because I don’t think that’s true to the way that I am. I have days when I’m up, I have days when I’m down, days when I feel really emotional or days when I’m more politically moved than other days. So I feel it’s a very honest collection of songs.”
It’s also one that might match the musical climate in which the Tracy Chapmans and Michelle Shockeds are thriving. The irony of the timing isn’t lost on Phranc, who played the hard stuff in the L.A. punk bands Nervous Gender and Catholic Discipline before becoming a solo troubadour.
“I think it’s pretty amusing that 10 years ago I wanted this folk thing to happen so bad. I was single-handedly trying to do this thing at the Whisky and get everyone together to do these acoustic nights. I kept saying, ‘This folk thing is coming, it’s coming.’ My friends are like, ‘I don’t know, Phranc, I don’t know,’ and then 10 years later--boom--it’s here.”
Phranc grew up as Suzy Gottlieb in Mar Vista, and she embraced the local lesbian/feminist community when she discovered it at 17. She soon found punk, and then drugs and alcohol, which led to hepatitis. Phranc (she adopted the name on a whim) reversed her field and became what she calls “a jock,” joining the Santa Monica College swim team. She released her first album, “Folksinger,” in 1985, then hit a spell of writer’s block. When she re-emerged, she recorded “Girl” with her own money and offered it to record companies.
Island Records, known mainly for reggae and dance music, picked it up and is now faced with the task of easing a performer with all the earmarks of a cult item into the mainstream. It’s a touchy balancing act.
“We’re not in any way downplaying her image,” said Rick Bleiweiss, the New York-based label’s vice president of sales and marketing. “On the other hand, we’re not going out of our way to make it a cause celebre.
“She’s a unique artist, but the most important thing is really the music. Rather than get into the social issues as a marketing tool, we believe when people hear it they will respond. . . . There’s no category in record store racks called ‘Jewish lesbian folk singer.’ It’s not to our benefit to capitalize on that aspect, other than as it’s a part of Phranc.
“It’s not a limited-audience record. We don’t want people to think it was something out of left field. We’re on the verge of doing a video. We’re working on putting a tour together, servicing a track to radio. The expectation is to see if it can be a mass seller.”
That would be fine with Phranc, but she also has her own agenda.
“I got a letter from this woman once who was away at college, and she would come in her room and put on ‘One of the Girls’ when she was feeling really down because she was the only lesbian in her dorm,” Phranc said, referring to a track from her “Folksinger” album.
“Letters like that really touch me. I have a P.O. box where that mail would go from the first record, and I would never go to the P.O. box unless I was really, really depressed and I didn’t think I had any hope left in the world.
“Then I’d go and I’d get these letters. And it really made me feel like: ‘Yes, this is what I do, this is important, it does make a difference.’ I’d sit and I’d read the letters and I’d cry, but they really gave me a lot of hope and inspiration. Yeah, hopefully I make a difference.”
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for a series of shows at the Greek Theatre and the Pacific Amphitheatre, including: Mike + the Mechanics (Aug. 25 at the Greek, Aug. 27 at the Pacific), the Bangles (Aug. 29 at the Greek, Aug. 31 at the Pacific) and Little Feat (Sept. 12 at the Greek, Sept. 13 at the Pacific) . . . . Tickets will be available Monday for two Wiltern Theatre shows: Al Green on Aug. 26 and k.d. lang & the Reclines on Aug. 31.