Confessions of a Steampunk Siren: Jody Ellen of Abney Park
If you believe the legends, mad scientists, aviators, steamship captains and brave warriors have been adventuring between the past, present and future for more than a century. Jules Verne was the first to chronicle these escapades in the 1860s, the CBS TV-series The Wild Wild West followed suit 100 years later, and Thomas Dolby’s landmark The Golden Age of Wireless album and Flat Earth Society fan club were introduced a decade after that.
Today, Steampunk is a full-blown cultural phenomenon — and at the helm of it all, is a band of airship pirates called Abney Park. Under the fearless leadership of lead singer/songwriter/Airship Ophelia pilot, Captain Robert Brown, Abney Park has become a self-contained cottage industry, selling steampunk apparel, accessories (including custom-made aviator’s goggles), CDs (almost a dozen) and original fiction online (at a website that rivals most major bands) and at their sold-out concerts all over the globe.
Popdose coaxed some surprising confessions out of Abney Park singer Jody Ellen as she prepared to embark on her greatest adventure to date: a solo album called Skyscrapers & Helicopters.
Despite having centuries of gadgets, gizmos and contraptions at their disposal, when they needed a new female singer, Abney Park turned to Craigslist.
Jody Ellen: My dad is a professional bass player and has done a lot of touring work, so I grew up wanting to be a musician like him. He taught me how to sing and by the time I was ten, I was harmonizing with Mariah Carey and Jewel on the radio. As soon as I knew I wanted to pursue singing full time, I went to Craigslist and typed in the word “singer.” The Abney Park audition was the first thing I found.
Jody one-upped the other singers at the audition by visiting Abney Park’s leader in the past — and she didn’t need a time machine to do it.
Captain Robert is my cousin, that’s why his ad jumped out at me. At the time, all I knew about Steampunk was corsets and top hats. I went to the audition in jeans and a t-shirt and when I saw how amazing the other girls were dressed, I wished I had known more. Steampunk, turns out, is completely my scene. I loved dressing up as a kid; corsets and vintage fashion always intrigued me. When I found out I got to dress up in antique yet futuristic costumes on stage I was excited.
Corsets may look hot — unless you’re the one wearing it.
When we went on tour, I quickly found out corsets are really hard to dance in — and even harder to sing in. I customized my outfits to make them less cumbersome, playing up the showgirl aspect and leaning towards the late Victorian era. When I first started, I was wearing long ruffled skirts, but with the stage lights and dancing, it was too hot. I slowly scaled it back and came up with my own look, which is much more comfortable.
An Airship Pirate’s most daunting nemesis isn’t a mad scientist; it’s the TSA.
When Abney Park tours, it’s a challenge getting through airports. Imagine six people with the long coats, industrial boots, bullet shells strapped to our belts, carrying weird objects and large, strange instruments. The TSA always goes through our stuff. But once we get to the venue, the people are wonderful. Steampunk festivals are such open and inclusive scenes. We just played London and have gigs in the Netherlands and San Francisco around the corner.
Jody Ellen will soon meet Steampunk legend Thomas Dolby, if someone points him out to her.
I just found out about Thomas Dolby, I’m not too familiar with his music but I hope everything comes together for the Steamstock show in San Francisco; it’s going to be an amazing night. In addition to Abney Park and Thomas Dolby, Good Co. (featuring Abney Park’s trumpet player, Carey Rayburn) will be debuting their Electro Swing sound. I played on four songs on his album and will be performing with his band in addition to Abney Park.
Star lit dirigible ride? Romantic. Being skimmed by a news chopper? Priceless.
I’ve been writing songs for my debut album since I was 16 and finally started to record it earlier this year. The title track, Skyscrapers & Helicopters, tells the love story about my husband Chris Akerman. I had dated several guys who weren’t the best. I was kinda done with love, and then I met Chris. For our first date, he wanted to meet downtown, so I suggested we meet at the Space Needle. It was cold out. Wind blowing. You could see your breath. When we saw each other it was right out of a movie. There was a helicopter landing nearby. It was love at first sight, so the track is a really happy love song.
Whereas Abney Park combines techno rhythms with world music and folk, Jody Ellen’s debut combines modern alternative rock with of all things, bluegrass.
My style is very modern, like Paramore and Evanescence. I use some of the Abney Park techniques like layered harmonies throughout the record, but also added a bluegrass sound with violin, cello and mandolin.
Despite the absence of Kanye West, there are still plenty of cameos on the record.
My husband and I handle most of the vocals and guitar work. When I needed violin, keywords and additional guitars, I called in Titus Munteanu, Kristina Erickson and Josh Goering from Abney Park. Erica Mulkey, a Steampunk goddess who goes by the name Unwoman, contributed some haunting cello parts. Nathaniel Johnstone, Abney Park’s former violinist, guitar, banjo and mandolin player, produced the album. He plays guitar, bass and mandolin on many of the tracks.
To finance the record, Jody bypassed the indie labels and Kickstarter for a truly DIY approach.
By hosting the fundraiser on my own website, I’m able to pour every dollar I raise into the album, the artwork and the video. So far, it’s going really well. Most fans donate what they can, from $5 and up. We’ve had some generous donations in the two to three hundred dollar range, so I thought, if someone wants to donate that much or more, I have to make it worth their while. That’s where the Super Awesome and Epic packages come in (featuring everything from a Steampunk makeover, 1:1 Skype chats and a guided tour of Jody Ellen’s Seattle).
The Skyscrapers & Helicopters fundraiser continues through Friday, September 14th right here.
Skyscrapers & Helicopters will be released September 23 exclusively at JodyEllen.com. At 1:00 PM (PST) on release day, Jody will be hosting a live chat with her fans (see her website for details). A West Coast tour is in the works, Jody will keep all of her friends on Facebook posted with the details.
To whet your appetite, here is one of Skyscrapers & Helicopters’ full throttle modern rock tracks: