Kool Kat of the Week: Bernadette Seacrest: From Ballet Dancer to Punk Rock Girl to Torch Song Provocateur
In an ocean of great musical talent in Atlanta, we’ve discovered a shiny pearl perched on a high rock on the shore. ATLRetro’s Torchy Taboo had the opportunity to chat with singer Bernadette Seacrest and was immediately enchanted by her humble nature and artistic approach to giving performances. Bernadette plays the last Tuesday of every month with a revolving list of local favorites accompanying her at various intimate settings. On September 25, you can catch her at Sister Louisa’s CHURCH of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium; the show is upstairs from 8 to 10 p.m. and there’s never a cover. Bernadette opts to play small venues where she feels she is sharing the evening with the audience, the bartenders and wait-staff, everyone in the room. This intimate approach is informed, she explained to me by the deep creative fulfillment she gets from performing, one that began as she was growing up fully immersed in the world of ballet.
Torchy Taboo: You are originally from Cali; North or South and is that where your performance background began?
Bernadette Seacrest: Yes, I grew up part of the time in California. My mom and dad split up when I was four. My dad stayed in NYC and my mom moved back to San Francisco but went back and forth between San Francisco and Venice Beach. My sister and I figured it out and all-in-all we spent the majority of our youth in Venice. Because we moved around so much I ended up attending ballet schools at the San Francisco Ballet, the Los Angeles Ballet and the American Ballet Theater in NYC.
Bernadette, as with all true ballerinas, grew up obsessed with the dance. It influenced every part of her growing psyche and was all she knew or wanted. Then all that suddenly ended. She suffered a tragic injury in ballet rehearsal which ended a promising dance career after which she ended up in NYC. How did you cope with that abrupt change and loss?
I dropped out of high school when I was injured; had a bit of a break-down when I couldn’t dance, was living in a foster home at 15, and went to beauty school when I turned 16 (LA and Kansas City). Then I moved to NYC on my own in ’82 [at] 17 years old and lived in the East Village.
Is that where and when you developed your unique individual style? Did the punk undercurrent of the time in NYC give your angst a place to make itself useful?
I worked for a punk rock designer and started dabbling in fashion, and I also did a bunch of stylist work and modeling and junk – all with the crazy underground punk rock fetish peoples. No formal education in the fashion. I ended up moving to LA and creating a clothing line for a company called NANA. I took a few classes in fashion at Santa Monica Community College, but mostly I just figured shit out on my own. The women who influenced me back then, designers that I sold in the store I worked at [Enz's - still in existence], were Vivienne Westwood, Dianne Brill and the like. Betsey Johnson had her little store just around the corner from one of the stores I managed. These ladies were kind of self-taught, too. It was the “punk rock” way, you know – if you wanted to play music, you played music, you picked up an instrument or whatever. I did have friends in school, but most of the folks I hung out with were doers.
How long have you been singing? And what was your first show?
I’ve been singing for just over 10 years. My first show was with Pat Bova in Albuquerque, NM. I was a wreck! I had had really bad stage fright all my life - I was also a mess when performing with the ballet or doing any runway modeling. So I hated my first show! But I had always wanted to sing and I made a little promise to myself that I would perform five times, and if at the end of the fifth show I still felt the same way, I would stop. I would stop knowing I had given it my best. Luckily I was completely addicted by maybe the third or fourth show!
How much influence and input do you have in the writing of your songs? You describe them as “heavy”; does the phrase “Torchy’” (hahaha) also apply?
Torchy is most definitely a good description. I feel very fortunate to have found writers that I resonate with; it’s a real gift. They have all been my bandmates and have come to know me well. I am a feeling-based person more than anything. My guys bring me songs, I listen and see how I feel. It’s very simple. I don’t come at them with ideas- I allow them space to do their thing, the same way they allow me space to interpret their material the way I feel it. It’s a beautiful thing.
Actually, I had kind of a major epiphany this year regarding the song-writing. I have struggled with major insecurity about the fact I don’t write my own material, for as long as I’ve been singing. Really down on myself about it, not feeling confident about myself as an “artist” feeling like the cliche – “fraud.” But this year I met with Pat Bova while I was visiting New Mexico and it hit me like a tidal wave. I’ll try and articulate it, but I am not sure I have the words to convey the depth of what it felt like to realize that my gift is to interpret his brilliant, and to me profound, material. It is equally as important for me to sing his songs as it would be my own. His songs need a voice. They need to reach people, they’re important. I feel they are important. They have such deep meaning for me. He knows me so well, knows my struggles and heartache, etc. He has been struggling the last several years, not performing himself as much, life kind of hitting him hard in some ways, and as I sat there with him, listening to him sing these songs he wrote I was filled with this feeling of “Oh my god! I HAVE to sing his songs, people need to hear this!” A wave of emotion came over me with an understanding like I’d never had before.
Bernadette explained to me the relief of finally finding that same complete fulfillment on stage that she’s experienced in the ballet. The list of accompanist is impressive, including local favorites RL Martin on guitar, Kris Dale on bass and Marlon Patton on drums. One week she found herself in a last-minute need of a drummer and as luck would have it, Kingsized‘s own king of the pipes, Big Mike Geier himself took a seat at the skins. Now that IS a creative approach.
All photographs are courtesy of Bernadette Seacrest.