Lana Rebel has a way with good, old-fashioned country heartbreak.
On her most recent album, All I Need, the Portland, Ore., artist sings about broke-down cars and restless hearts, but in the sort of intimate way that Loretta Lynn and Neko Case do: matter-of-fact, quietly pained and often wry, letting the little details of everyday life become the backdrop for whiskey-soaked laments. In "Yes Is Better Than No," for instance, she sings, "Did you see that ticket on my car? The damn thing wasn't runnin' anyway." On "When I'm Gone," she says, "Nights grow colder and longer by and by. Just hold on darlin' it'll be all right."
But part of Rebel's appeal is that she's proven her diversity: She made the leap in 2004 from sludgy math rock band Last of the Juanitas to country-fried singer-songwriter Miss Lana Rebel, as she's now often dubbed. She has garnered fans at festivals like South by Southwest and praise from music producers at the BBC and NPR. But between 2000, when she first came to Missoula and played heavy, grinding rock at now-defunct punk venue Jay's Upstairs, to her most recent solo country appearance at local indie music festival Total Fest in 2008, she's developed one of her stronger relationships with Missoula's music scene.
"We have a small scene of country musicians in Portland, a pretty awesome one, and we're tight," Rebel says. "And we all go to each other's shows and know each other's songs. But I do feel like I have a bigger fanbase in Missoula than I do there."
In fact, Rebel is part of Total Fest's genesis. Now in its ninth year, the festival—first spearheaded by promoter and Wäntage record label owner Josh Vanek—is an increasingly popular music extravaganza. Music fans from Portland, Seattle and other Northwest locations make the journey each year to join locals in watching 40 or more independent bands from all over the country over the course of three nights. But the very first Total Fest in 2002 started with five bands who just happened to be on tour, and Last of the Juanitas was one of them.
"It wasn't a planned-out thing," says Vanek. "They were on tour with Drunk Horse and The Champs—this amazing three band bill. I decided to see if I could get Federation X to come out to Missoula and Japanther, who was on tour at the time. We were able to line it up and it sort of fortuitously fell into place. Those bands were the Total Fest originals."
After that first Total Fest, Last of the Juanitas played several shows over the next few years in Missoula. In 2005, around the time the band broke up, it released its final album, In the Dirt, on Vanek's Wäntage label. Rebel, who had been playing bass for the group, began to teach herself guitar by playing along to old country records. Caught up in the style, she started writing her own songs and formed the country outfit Juanita Family and Friends, which was often a rotating cast of rock musicians who also happened to know essential country instruments like pedal steel.
"We loved playing together, and we also thought that it would be our money maker—but that never really happened," says Rebel. "You know, on the road you can get the gigs where you play covers, and you get paid more generally at those places, but it never got to that point with that band."
Juanita Family and Friends put out a record and began touring, ending up at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, busking in front of venues where scheduled musicians were playing. It was a rough time—she and her bandmates were unemployed and broke—but while on the streets they met BBC radio's Huw Stephens. The DJ, one of those who took over at the BBC when indie champion John Peel died, liked the Juanita Family's sound. He invited the band to London's legendary Maida Vale Studios to record a session for broadcast. After a brief tour and being flown to England, the band's album enjoyed play on other BBC programs and eventually ended up on NPR's "All Songs Considered." But then things came to a halt.
"By the time all the touring was over nobody wanted to hang out with each other anymore," laughs Rebel. "We're all still friends but they were like, 'Lana, I don't think I want to do this with you any more.'"
Since that time, Rebel has recorded the solo album All I Need on Wäntage and formed a couple of different bands, including The Broken Promises and a rowdier, more honky-tonk group called Miss Lana Rebel and the Love Lasers, which plays in town this week.
But restless hearts make for restless lives. Rebel loves the road. She's currently in the process of selling her share in a produce store she owns in Portland, and hitting the highway for as many music gigs as she can manage.
"I plan on getting a school bus and roaming the country," she says. "That's what I want to do, you know? I don't think I'll be able to travel around with a band so much but my current boyfriend, we know each other's songs and we'll just probably cruise around non-stop as long as we can handle it. I love being on the road."
And that just might mean Missoula fans will get a chance to hear her lo-fi country voice more often.
Miss Lana Rebel and the Love Lasers play the Badlander Friday, June 25, at 9 PM with Bird's Mile Home. $5.