HUNTER VALENTINE with TRASH & READY and DJ WILL MUNRO playing as part of the Queer in the Headlights reception, Friday (June 17), at the NOW Lounge (189 Church). $5. 416-364-1301, www.huntervalentine.com. And with DRAGONETTE at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Saturday (June 18), $10, 416-777-1777; with the VYLETZ at the Gladstone (1214 Queen West), June 23, $tba; and as part of the Wet & Wild Boat Cruise for Pride, June 24, $35, www.wetandwildcruise.ca.
When you walk into Hunter Valentine's cramped rehearsal space in a warehouse building down by the St. Lawrence Market, two hand-scrawled signs jump out at you right away. A casual code of conduct for the folks who hang out in the grungy room, they read something like this: Rule One - No pussyfootin' around. Rule Two - However, pussy is always welcome.
At first glance, the house rules seem like typical groupie-shagging rock 'n' roll ickiness. Then you start noticing clues that tip you off to the fact that these aren't your average boy-band ballers, like the supply of tampons propped beside the light switch, or the glossy L Word group shot taped beside a poster of Prince on the wall.
Welcome to the world of Hunter Valentine, where the ballsy cockiness of testosterone-charged heartbreakers rubs up alongside the tempered sweetness of girls-with-guitars. Everyone kinda digs the friction. Well, not everyone.
"This other band that shares our practice space," begins frontwoman Kiyomi McCloskey, "they kinda got pissed off about the way we, uh, left the environment. We got a note about how we weren't keeping it clean or nice or safe enough."
Apparently, the kind of ladies who make womyn-with-a-"y" music aren't into Hunter Valentine's version of rock atmosphere, and that's fine with them. Anyone who's caught the spiky all-girl three-piece live knows they're not the types to make apologies. They play heartbreaker music, a kind of driving, relentlessly hooky pop that's shot through with drum breaks you tap out on the back of your school notebooks, bass lines you hum at the end of a bittersweet drunken night and melodies that stick in your brain and become soundtracks to those days when you feel your life is like a movie.
The trio of McCloskey, bassist Adrienne Lloyd and drummer Laura Petracca almost fit neatly into a long line of kitten-with-a-whip female popsters beginning with the Shangri-Las and running through the Bangles, the Go-Gos, Heart and Tegan and Sara. Almost. The thing they have going for them, though, is the heart-skipping X-factor of their frontwoman.
Even during a performance marred by technical glitches, McCloskey is a hypnotic powerhouse. Bolstered by a guttural, throaty wail that's equal parts Janis Joplin, Joan Jett and PJ Harvey, she exudes an effortless, unapologetic tough-girl sexiness onstage that makes you feel like she's playing to an arena - even when she's testing out cover tunes during a rehearsal session.
"One of the worst things in the world is when you see a performer and it's not believable," groans bassist Lloyd. "You don't buy it. With Kiyomi, though, it's all natural."
"You have to find the middle ground," McCloskey chimes in. "I've been to shows where the frontperson has been so exaggerated, where you can tell he thinks he's a rock star even though he has yet to do something significant. Or the flip side is the boring person who's just onstage playing songs and that's it.
"I grew up as a tomboy rough kid, so that's what comes out onstage, and I guess it works. Maybe it even seems empowering."
The chemistry you see between the members onstage is a pretty accurate reflection of their real-world personalities. Petracca's genially goofy ham antics and Lloyd's shy braininess serve as a perfect balance to McCloskey's Kristy McNichol tomboy steez.
Although they've only been playing in this formation for a year - Petracca and McCloskey hooked up (musically) after a couple of chance meetings at a dyke bar (" that shall remain nameless," mutters a sheepish Petracca), and Lloyd came on board soon after - the 20-somethings have musical backgrounds that go back way further.
Petracca (who can trace her lineage back to the Italian poet Petrarch) grew up whaling on kits that belonged to her grandpa and uncle, both of whom performed in bands, while self-proclaimed band geek Lloyd, who used to puke before Royal Conservatory exams, is a classically trained bassist who did the orchestra thing before discovering she could make extra cash by trading her upright bass for an electric and jamming with rock bands in university. Yes, she's played weddings.
McCloskey will tell you she first played in front of crowds as a teenager during a songwriters night at Graffiti's, but if you ask her childhood friends or her mom (who's at almost every show), they'd say she started her musical career entertaining family friends at her cottage near Kinmount, Ontario.
Incidentally, that extended circle of family friends included local icon Lorraine Segato, of Parachute Club fame, who helped mentor Hunter Valentine after some pals suggested she check out the band. Segato's stopped being so hands-on, although she still shows up at some of their gigs.
With or without Segato's input, Hunter Valentine have developed a pretty remarkable amount in the last year. Last June they were a shaky battle-of-the-bands-level outfit compared to the confident, swaggering, tight rock sitting across from me today.
That's partly due to the incredibly supportive nature of the community within which they've established themselves. Like the political protest folk movement of the late 60s and early 70s or the second-wave-skewed feminist singer/songwriter genre epitomized by the heyday of the now controversial Michigan Womyn's Music Fest, Toronto's queer music scene provides unprecedented performance opportunities and built-in crowds for artists within a certain identity politic.
The downside of such a tight-knit scene, however, is that it comes with its own glass ceiling. Can you evolve artistically if you keep playing to the same queer cabaret crowds at the Gladstone? And when you decide to move beyond that insular sphere, your core fan base isn't always happy.
It's a tricky place that Hunter Valentine's trying to navigate right now. Before our interview, at their rehearsal, they spent time running through the Sapphic classics - Crimson & Clover over and over - they'll need to fill up a two-hour set when they play a straight-out-of-The-L-Word lesbian boat cruise during Pride.
They joke about throwing in the piss-take parody tune they've written about cheesy stereotypical dykes, but worry it might not go over well with the politically correct mullet set.
At the same time, for a band that's used to the warmth and familiarity - and guaranteed turnout - of community-based shows, playing for skeptical outsiders can be a real letdown. Last week I watched the trio nervously try to win over a reserved NXNE crowd, with mixed results.
"If you're smart about it, you can have a full career within that community, but as a musician, do you really want to do that?" says McCloskey. "You don't want to turn your back on your community, and they've been so-o-o-o fuckin' supportive and so amazing, but even this article might define us as a queer band and leave us in a fuckin' hole that'll take forever to get out of."