Once upon a time she had a Chuck Taylor collection. Now, cowboy boots. Around seven pairs, less than $5 apiece.
This day, Wonky Tonk (acoustic guitar, vocals, banjo) wears white, fringed boots. Her clothes are littered with mismatched stripes and stars. She has a crooked pierced lip, a pierced nose and some tats to brag about.
She chews fruity gum. Hates mint. A flower hangs from her straight, edgy hair. Vibrant and vegan, she often eats pretzels and Oreos on tour.
Wonky grew up here, yeah, but she stumbles over the answer: “It’s been alright singing and all. People are pretty nice, but I can’t stay here. Let’s find a way to get out. Music. Keep on keepin’ on.”
Only 20, still in school, she’s studying political science.
“I wanna write songs like John Lennon,” she explains, “and fill the more folky side of Wonky Tonk with some sort of political undertones.”
Wonky taught herself guitar a few years ago, but banjo is her baby.
“If you’re a musician, there are some instruments you pick up and you’re like, ‘This is home,’ ” she says. “I pick up banjo and I can’t play it traditional Bluegrass style, but it just makes sense. I’m like, ‘OK, I know exactly where to go.’ ”
She does. A natural songwriter, Wonky’s solo performances quickly earned her a 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Award nomination for New Artist of the Year.
In her free time, Wonky freelances in the film business; her credits include work on music videos for Feist and Death Cab for Cutie. At one wrap party in Dayton, Wonky coincidentally met Moriah Lawson, who happened to be hanging out there with a friend. Grabbing their instruments, the two jammed at a hotel, and they’ve been playing together every since.
“She’s badass,” Wonky says.
Lawson (fiddle, mandolin, vocals) lives in Jacksonburg, Ohio, a town “with like 43 people and 20 cows,” Wonky says. Apparently Lawson hates shoes.
Of Lawson, bandmate Nick Mitchell says, “She’s amazing.
Since she was like 8 she’s had banjos, fiddles, everything just lying around her house. She can pick up anything. She plays in her family’s Bluegrass band (The Lawson Reunion).
“She can play acoustic guitar like Tony Rice. She’s a really good singer, too. You’ll hear her all over that (points to CD). She dominates.”
Mitchell (melodica, mandolin, piano, vocals) was a 2008 CEA winner in the Experimental/ Electronic category with his other band, Chick Pimp Coke Dealer at a Bar. With moppy hair and a kind, oval face, Mitchell always wears flip flops whatever the weather. The bare-toed one has a Rock star job: delivering pizza. Mitchell met Wonky and Lawson at a show at the Mad Hatter in Covington.
“Moriah and I were watching him play synthesizer,” Wonky says, “and I was like, ‘I love him. He’s in Wonky Tonk now.’ ”
And then there were three. Since March of this year.
“It’s fresh and going strong,” Wonky says. “It’s happening fast, but it’s quality still. We recorded Super Holy Fantastic in two nights and it’s awesome if I must say so myself. I think it’s pretty badass for us to come together and just be like, ‘Let’s get it done.’ Every day, we live in Neverland.
“We all sleep in my queen size bed together.”
After Mitchell and I bond over our dislike of Chipotle, Wonky admits her crush on Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock.
“He is the essence of me,” she says.
Throw in some Johnson Mountain Boys, Bjork, the Avett Brothers and Mirah, and Wonky Tonk is somewhere in the mix.
“‘Wonk’ is the new word for Punk, so we just use it all the time,” Mitchell says. “Moriah has a Bluegrass background, but I think we (he and Wonky) have more Punk and Rock influences. We just happen to like the sound of these instruments.
“Didn’t really see it coming. I like our sound and stuff, but we’ve already talked about electronic sounds. She wants me to bring my synthesizer. I don’t know how we’re gonna make it work, but I know we will.”
“We’re phasing into this stage,” Wonky adds. “The way that I view it is, if we wanna play something, let’s do it, even if it doesn’t sound ‘Wonky Tonk.’ We don’t have to create another project for it.”
She says songs will still be guitar- and banjo-based, but they’ll mess around within the limits. Get on the Train was Wonky Tonk’s first full-length CD. After a slew of local shows, the band will hit the road in February, promoting Super Holy Fantastic, the brand spanking new four-song EP recorded at a bought-out church, aka Soap Floats Recording Studio.
With New York gigs booked and other out-of-town shows in the works, Wonky says, “We’re trying to go to South By Southwest ’cause I applied. Even if we don’t get in, Austin is still gonna be bumpin’ at that same time with music going on, so we’re taking the tour out there. That’s kind of the ultimate goal.”
The hope is to tour year-round.
“If we could stay on the road playing music … I don’t care about the rock star part,” Wonky says. “ I don’t care about money. I just care that we get a shower and food sometimes. Musical transients. And if somebody’s gonna help us with that via some sort of contract or anything else, alright.”
“She’s a road warrior for sure,” Mitchell states.
The plan from here? Wonky smiles, her eyes shining.
“The stars, baby.”
WONKY TONK plays Rohs Street Café Jan. 23. The Super Holy Fantastic CD release party is Jan. 24 at the Southgate House Parlour. Info: myspace.com/wonkytonkmusic