april 2011 city beat

April 12, 2011

Below is the original version of this story. The slightly edited one that made it to print can be read here.

Indie-pop project Fort Wife is the latest graduate of Millikan High

If the west coast ever gets its own version of Fame, Broadway would need to look no further than Long Beach’s Millikan High School for inspiration.

Through its impressive music and art programs, the campus has recently generated a handful of young performers, some of whom still aren’t old enough to drink.

With world-wise lyrics and indie-pop sensibilities beyond their years, these alumni have teamed up with other local musicians to form a new generation of Long Beach bands that has included Avi Buffalo, Forest of Tongues, Time of Wolves and Eugene and the 1914.

The de facto queen of this motley community is Elise Ewoldt, a soft-but-well-spoken 19 year-old who works part time at a frozen yogurt store and harbors an escapist alter ego named “Elkie.” Her band, Fort Wife—fronted by Elkie, of course (“She brings more to the table”)—began when she wrote her first song two years ago on her mother’s old Yamaha guitar.

“Writing my first song was empowering,” Ewoldt—who had previously only played for other songwriters—said. “It felt like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I felt more like me.”

Ewoldt originally enlisted schoolmates Avi Zahner-Isenberg and Sheridan Riley to back her dreamy melodies and floating vocals. Eventually, she settled on a rotation of musician friends, making Fort Wife either a duo or a four-piece depending on the show.

Her most steady collaborator lately is Zachary Mabry, a 21 year-old drummer she met last year through friends from Millikan. Other part-time band members—including Dylan Wood, Joel Jasper and Chad Matheny—might fit in with Ewolt’s on-stage sound, but her artistic compatibility with Mabry goes beyond a musical understanding.

“The last time we played at {open}, I just told Zach, ‘Okay, you’re in San Francisco, just pretend you’re falling into a huge cloud of fog but you’re not afraid because you know the fog will catch you,’” Ewoldt said. “And he played it perfectly. I only do that because I trust my musicians.”

Ewoldt admits that Fort Wife could easily be acoustic versions of what she creates alone in her bedroom, but trusting other musicians with her tunes is part of her M.O. Unlike many other songwriters who have begun to make music in the Internet age, she rejected the idea of using computer programs to flush out her self-recordings and instead envisioned her homespun riffs with a live, beat-backed texture.

“Recording by myself through Garage Band has been lame,” Ewoldt said. “I really want the band to be represented as drum oriented. Drums are more powerful than cutesy little melodies.”

Ewoldt’s cutesy melodies, however, are powerful in themselves. Nurtured by an eclectic mix of Neil Young, Bjork, Deerhoof and Prince, her guitar work swirls around snarky lyrics such as “You’re a girl, they can see/the sides of your tits thru the sleeves” to build a rainy day soundtrack that is innately mature and yet perversely child-like. Though the multi-layered tracks that make up the band’s yet-untitled debut album (hopeful release date: this summer) are anything but over-sweetened, one would still never expect exorcism to come into the equation.

“I’ve been thinking about that word a lot, though,” Ewoldt says,” because the best way I can describe writing a song is that it’s like an exorcism that’s really painful. I feel a huge sense of violence even if the result isn’t violent. For me, [songwriting] is about turning something threatening into something beautiful and harmless.“

http://www.myspace.com/fortwife, http://www.facebook.com/fortwife.

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