In 2005 California's Shivaree released its third album, Who's Got Trouble?, but in many ways, it seemed as though the band had just released its debut. "It does feel like we're starting all over again," lead singer Ambrosia Parsley told Helen Brown in the London Daily Telegraph. After the band's well-received debut in 1999, I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump, many believed that band was on the verge of reaching a larger audience. Shivaree's contract with Capitol, however, proved a mixed blessing when the label refused to release 2002's Rough Dreams in the United States. Two years later Shivaree received an unexpected boost when "Goodnight Moon" was chosen for the soundtrack of Kill Bill, Volume 2. With the release of Who's Got Trouble on Zoe, the band once again reached out to American fans and found its artistic footing.
Shivaree, a name describing the practice of banging pots and pans outside of a newlywed couple's room, formed around the songs and voice of Ambrosia Parsley. Born on June 23, 1971, Parsley grew up in Reseda, California. She learned classic American pop songs from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s from her grandmother, known as Da Uke Lady, who lived in an Airstream trailer behind the family home. Parsley performed as a child at the pizza parlor across the street where her family ate dinner four times a week, and at 13 she sang songs like "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye" with a 99-piece senior citizens' banjo orchestra at a restaurant in a nearby town. "It was a helluva a noise," Parsley recalled to Brown. "It was also kind of sad because they kept dying. Banjos, funerals, pizza and beer."
Originally calling itself Junebug, Shivaree formed accidentally in the late 1990s. Parsley had recorded several demos, and received a call, she told Dan Cairns in the London Sunday Times, from Danny McGough, a keyboard player who had worked with Tom Waits. "He called me and said: 'Your stuff doesn't suck as much as most people's. If you ever wanted to work with me, I guess I would.'" Parsley and McGough worked on several songs the following week. When they returned to the studio to replay the recordings, though, they were surprised to learn that someone had secretly dubbed a guitar part to one of the songs. They soon learned that the part—which they both liked—had been the work of Duke McVinnie, a guitarist who slept on a camp bed next to the studio.
Still, the trio had no intentions of forming a band. Parsley handed the tape to a friend, however, and soon she, McVinnie, and McGough were receiving offers from record labels. "It was kind of ridiculous," Parsley told Brown. "But I said, 'Hey, why don't we just sign one of these deals.'" Shivaree signed with Capitol and began recording songs in singer-producer Joe Henry's backyard. In 1999 Shivaree released I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump. The title came from an episode of television's Green Acres, in which a cow swallows a radio that continues to play.
Critics praised the album, but seemed perplexed on how to categorize Shivaree and lead singer Parsley's performance style. Brad Reno of Trouser Press wrote, "Parsley has star quality to spare—a talent for sometimes surreal southern gothic lyrics, supermodel beauty, hilarious interview patter and a voice best described as a smoky mix of Gwen Stefani, Altered Images' Claire Grogan and the Motels' Martha Davis." Timothy White wrote in Billboard, "Shivaree's sound is a bit of a Dole fruit cup: colorful, tart, and surprisingly appetizing for something served at room temperature."
With a successful album behind them, many believed that Shivaree's sophomore release would introduce the band to a wider audience. Released in September of 2002, Rough Dreams followed in the dark footsteps of the group's debut, and a number of critics preferred the newer album. Capitol, however, chose to only release the album in Europe, where Shivaree's following was strongest. Because of Capitol's marketing strategy, the band more or less disappeared from the popular music radar in the United States. However, Shivaree toured continuously, while Parsley struggled with chronic stage fright. Interviewed before the filming of a video for "John 2/14," she confessed to Cairns, "I'd rather have nails driven under my eyelids."
In 2004 Parsley turned her attention to politics and radio, performing "Ambrosia Sings the News" on Air America. Each Friday, she would turn the headlines into song lines, penning lyrics that skewered the politics of the day. To meet the demanding schedule, Parsley developed a routine. Each Thursday she sat down with a stack of daily papers at her favorite restaurant, Café Havana. "I sit down, order a bloody mary and huevos rancheros," she told Paste. "Then I go through the papers, rhyme it up, go sing it, and they play it on Friday."
Shivaree also received a boost when film director Quentin Tarantino chose "Goodnight Moon" for the closing credits of Kill Bill: Volume 2 in 2004. The same year, the band released the EP Breach, featuring two new tracks and three covers, including Eno's "The Fat Lady of Limbourg." The EP more or less paved the way for 2005's Who's Got Trouble? on Zoe Records.
Who's Got Trouble used the film Casablanca as its touchstone, subtly offering observations on contemporary politics by way of a world view of an earlier time. "The songs are kind of like ghosts coming back at you," Parsley told Philip Shelley in the Washington Times. This haunting quality, combined with evocative arrangements, has become Shivaree's trademark.
I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump, Capitol, 1999.
Rough Dreams, Capitol, 2002.
Who's Got Trouble?, Zoe, 2005.
For the Record …
Members include Danny McGough, keyboards; Duke McVinnie, guitar; Ambrosia Parsley, vocals.
Shivaree, originally Junebug, formed in California, late 1990s; recorded I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in This Dump, 1999, Rough Dreams, 2002, and Who's Got Trouble? 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Zoe Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: 1-800-768-6337, email: www.zoerecords.net.
Billboard, January 22, 2000.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 23, 2005.
Sunday Times (London, England), June 16, 2002.
Times (London, England), September 1, 2000.
Washington Times, October 7, 2005.
"Looking for Trouble: Ambrosia Parsley and Shivaree Get Political," Boston Phoenix, http://www.bostonphoenix.com/ (October 24, 2006).
"Shivaree," Paste, http://www.pastemagazine.com/ (October 24, 2006).
"Shivaree," Trouser Press, http://www.trouserpress.com/ (October 24, 2006).