“I feel so much more empowered when I’m onstage with the band,” says Katie Frank. “I can be timid when it comes to singing my songs.”
Timid. Hearing that word comes as a bit of a surprise since, in person, I’ve only seen Frank play with The Pheromones. With four other players and their loud amplifiers behind her, she’s energetic and sassy; her vocals are delivered with conviction and she doesn’t hesitate to bust her bandmates’ chops when the situation calls for it. That’s the antithesis of timid, right?
Then again, my first exposure to Frank was a solo acoustic video from Bands in the Backyard, and in it, we can see exactly what she’s talking about. Videographer Kyle Costill moves from side to side as she plays a sparse rendition of “False Alarm,” and the closer he brings the camera, the more she tries to look away. It’s almost like she’s uncomfortable with the whole idea of video in general, even as she plays her songs to the camera.
The difference there might be attributed to a newbie-ish performer as compared to a more seasoned player. The photographs on her releases tell a similar narrative – the “don’t take my picture” face on the cover of her pre-band EP Covered Bridge Road versus the much more poised and confident image on the new Counting Your Curses, where Frank looks like a freaking rockstar.
When I ask her about this, though, she laughs. She doesn’t deny it, but that isn’t quite how she sees things.
“Really, it’s just not as satisfying,” she says. “The rush I get from playing with the band, I don’t get that when I’m by myself.”
We’re grabbing beers at Bridgewaters with her longtime rhythm guitarist Josh Werblun, chatting about Curses and their respective paths that led to The Pheromones. Certainly its a catchy-as-heck name, kind of a sideways nod to Elvis Costello and The Attractions. But it also speaks to the collaborative nature of the group – of which Frank is the leader, but which she is wary of performing without.
She got started writing songs in 2005, when she was 15. At first she kept it mostly to herself, playing the occasional talent shows during her High School years in Elizabethtown, but never pursuing anything bigger. As a freshman at Temple in 2008, she took a pop songwriting class that provided a greater creative spark. The professor worked as a private songwriting coach, and Frank says her excited mom hired booked her some sessions with him. But the experience was dismaying.
“I’d drive in once a week, 90 minutes each way from E-town to Ambler, to work with him,” she said. “And he’d change two words in a song.”
Frustrated, she put her instrument away to focus on her behavioral health studies, and didn’t pick it up again until after graduation when she moved to West Philadelphia – which is where she met Werblun.
A guitarist and producer, Werblun has been involved in the local music community for over a dozen years – which is ridiculous when you consider he’s only 27. When he was 14, his parents took him to see his cousin Scott Bricklin play an early set at The Point with 4 Way Street – Bricklin’s supergroup with local XPN favorites Jim Boggia, Ben Arnold and Joseph Parsons – and the show made him realize his path in life was music.
“I had his CD, I’d listened to it, but this was the first time I’d heard a band play a song live that I knew from a record,” Werblun said. “I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”
Excited, he asked Bricklin if he could stay for the 10:00 show, and was told sure: so long as he worked the merch table. From that point, Werblun was basically the street team for that circle of musicians, which grew into more hands-on collaborations as he studied music production at Drexel University. He engineered demos and advertising jingles for Boggia, who gave him music-appreciation advice too.
“I got a copy of Revolver,” Werblun says. “And Jim, who is a Beatles nut, just took it away from me. He was like ‘No! You’re not ready for Revolver, you have to listen to the albums in order.’ So I did.”
Werblun and Frank met by chance through a mutual friend – her roommate at the time, photographer Will Hoover (AKA the guy responsible for the image you see at the top of this page, on the album cover, and in yesterday’s post). It was a summer day, he was cooking burgers in the backyard; Werblun came over, and heard Frank playing guitar.
“She was doing a Damien Rice cover,” he remembers. “And I asked if she had any of her own songs.”
“So I played him one,” Frank continues. “And every time he would come over after that, he’d say ‘uhhhhhh…you make a record yet?’”
The two developed a tight friendship that is most easily characterized as brother-sister. That chop-busting I was talking about earlier? Frank is probably hardest on Werblun, who of course dishes it right back to her – something that becomes more evident as we get into our second round of drinks. Werblun introduced Frank to her boyfriend and drummer, Jon McNally, and the core trio worked with a handful of collaborators before landing with Kevin Killen on lead guitar and Greg Orlando on bass.
Counting Your Curses was recorded with a few other Philly music luminaries – Arnold chipping in a piano solo on “Two Face,” John Lilley of The Hooters playing the guitar solo on “Tunnel Vision” and Boggia singing backing vocals througout, while being something of a production and arrangement shaman. Albeit one with strong opinions.
“‘WHAT IS THIS?! THIS SONG DOESN’T HAVE A CHORUS!” Frank barks in a comical low-register impression of Boggia. “THIS SONG IS TOO LONG! MAKE IT SHORTER!”
She says the advice actually helped put her songs into perspective. “In his head, he wants to hear poppy music,” she says. “He’s a pop fanatic! And a lot of my songs were not that way when we started, so he tried to fit them into that mold.”
“A lot of how I learned to be a producer was through Boggia,” adds Werblun. “He’s known me for so long that he had no problem being completely open with us.”
Which, in a push-pull roundabout way, led to the sound you hear on Counting Your Curses – ballsy rock and roll informed by Americana and country, though Frank bristles at the C-word.
“I’m from Central Pa.,” she says pointedly. “When I think country music, I think of people driving 4x4s listening to Keith Urban and Garth Brooks. And besides, you put a pedal steel on something, people call it country.”
But she’s grown to accept the term in the sense of the outlaw country types – Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt – as well as countrified rockers like Grace Potter.
“I want to be more of a rock chick than an acoustic folk chick,” Frank says. “And I feel like there aren’t that many girls in Philly doing the rock-roots-and-blues thing.”
Though with that comes its share of pigeonholing.
“I need to have my guitar with me,” she says. “Some audiences, when they see a girl onstage without an instrument, they just assume she didn’t write the songs.”
Which is why it’s not only important to have The Pheromones as her band, it’s important to make it obvious she’s part of The Pheromones too. And her bandmates have her back.
“You get up there onstage and you do your songs,” Werblun says. “You’re singing them and you’re playing them but you wrote them. They’re yours.”
Counting Your Curses is the featured album in this week’s edition of Unlocked. Download the song “Halfway Gone” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, watch an early video of “False Alarm” in yesterday’s post and check back tomorrow for a photo gallery from the band’s album release show.
Katie Frank, Unlocked