For several months, Andrea Harsell had only a chorus. She'd sing, "Ooooh, lemonade, I gotta find my way home," but she couldn't get past that one bluesy minor key line, couldn't turn it into a full-fledged song with verses. The local singer/songwriter let it simmer. She'd sit down to write other tracks, settling into a guitar riff, letting the words spill out. But the lemonade song haunted her.
"I'm like, 'What in the heck does this mean? Lemonade? Why are no other words coming?,'" she says.
One night, she ended up at a party and someone suggested that she write about a relationship gone sour. "It was a tortured way to look at it," she says. "But the next day I sat down and all the rest of it came out."
The now-finished "Lemonade" tells the story of a woman who follows her lover from Tennessee to Baton Rouge, working dead end jobs and leading a life she never wanted to lead, but intent on finding a better path. It's a salty, strutting country blues song with Harsell's smoky vocals searing through each line. And it's the second track on Harsell's new album, Rock & Roll Love Child, a collection of songs she's releasing this week but that has been in the works for the past 10 years.
Harsell's a well-known musician in Missoula, born and raised on the Northside. She was the lead singer of the bluegrass band Nine Pound Hammer, which put out an album in 2000 before breaking up. In 2003, she formed the Andrea Harsell Experiment, a 1960s- and 1970s-styled rock band covering Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, as well as doing originals that fused blues, country, folk and jazz. The band dispersed later that year after releasing a live album. Harsell has also opened for numerous touring bands as a duo with her lead guitarist, Louie Bond, and she's traveled solo to various festivals, including Telluride.
But Harsell says she's been stuck in a rut for the last three years. Busy raising two kids and with a husband often working on the road, sometimes gone for 30 days at a time, Harsell says she stayed home and rarely played live. She wrote a lot, but most of the songs were "the tortured kind." That's kind of her style anyway, she admits, but it was still hard for her to completely sacrifice her music.
"I always knew I was going to do music since I was really little," she says. "When you're young and you dream of it, you really don't understand how it happens that somebody gets on the radio. But it's just never been an option to stop playing or stop writing. It would be really weird. It would be like sitting on your hands."
Harsell decided that she would do whatever it took to include her music in her life. She began jamming whenever she could with other musicians. She joined her congregation's music group at All Souls church. And she decided, come hell or high water, she'd record an album.
Diversity is key to Rock & Roll Love Child. The first track, "Gotta Find," is a cross between Joan Jett's growl and Joplin's grit. Harsell sings, "Sittin' here wastin' my sweet time, gonna find me a woman gonna make her mine/Sittin here wastin' my sweet time, gonna find me a man gonna make him mine, now." And she shows her penchant for aggressive one-liners à la ZZ Top or Guns n' Roses when she adds, "We can stay the night, we'll roll around in the grass/Come on baby, baby gonna tap that ass."
Blues, folk and rock songs fill the album, interspersed with field recordings from around Missoula that Harsell's been collecting over the past five years. You can hear the sound of Rattlesnake Creek, cars driving through the Orange Street underpass, a squeaky bicycle wheel and raucous street conversations during Maggot Fest weekend. You can also hear the sound of beers popping open and the laugh of the pastor's wife at All Souls.
The last song of the album jumps to something completely different. "Waterside" features Harsell's 12-person pick-up choir, which includes the likes of Jay Straw, Kevin Van Dort, Mike Avery and singers from the Mason Jar String Band and Zeppo.
"That was kind of a struggle with this CD," Harsell says of fitting in all the different styles. "I want to do rock, I want to do gospel, but then I want to do the bluegrass, a little bit of country, a little bit of rock 'n' roll. People say, 'Stick to one genre.' But I don't want to do that. I asked advice and I got advice, and then I just went with my gut and just did it the way it is."
Harsell's giddy about the long-awaited release. The recording time helped form a new band, Andrea Harsell and the Night Lights, which includes power keyboardist Ryan "Shmed" Maynes of recording studio fame. And she's already set her mind to never let five years go by again before she makes another album.
"I'm trying to live a life as a musician and also the reality of paying the bills and having kids," she says. "And I just want it all. With music, it's kind of like now or never. You can sit there and think about it, but you have to actually make it happen."
Andrea Harsell and the Night Lights play a CD release party at the Top Hat Friday, Sept. 18, at 9 PM with Jaymi White, Wolf Redboy and the Mason Jar String Band. $5. $1 off cover with every donated food item.