Many of you are no doubt listening to the new Gwen Stefani single and thinking back to when you first heard Tragic Kingdom. Where you were, what you were doing, how long the show Beverly Hills, 90210 could possibly last. Hate to break it to you, ’90s kids, but there are a ton of teenagers listening to the song without a clue that Stefani ever fronted a band, never mind the groundbreaking, genre-fusing Orange County outfit she did.
And so some of these singer-songwriter bands may come as absolutely no surprise to you, but they may to others. Might even lead to you brushing the spiderwebs off some old CDs while you’re at it. Below are 10 singer-songwriters who began in a band.
Many know Juliet Simms as a solo artist and even as a runner-up on season 2 of NBC’s The Voice. But those well versed in rock should also know her as the lead singer of Automatic Loveletter. The Florida-based four-piece were initially a family affair, with Simms’ brother Tommy on guitar. If this is news to you, you’ve got your rock ’n’ roll homework for the evening. Beyond the breathy ballad here, “Hush,” there are plenty of anthems to sort through. Standouts include “Parker” and “The Day That Saved Us.”
Jesse Malin has been so prolific for so long as a singer-songwriter. Even this writer occasionally forgets he once fronted NYC punk-rock royalty D Generation. It became easy to remember once he was plumbing the depths of his soul for opuses such as “Brooklyn” or his belter of a duet with no less than Bruce Springsteen himself, “Broken Radio.” This was at the opposite end of the spectrum with regard to his old band. D Generation’s second album, No Lunch, was produced by the late Ric Ocasek from the Cars. It threw rights and lefts, Ramones-style. They ended with the ’90s but have reunited for shows over the years.
Ever the enigma, circa 1990, Marilyn Manson was better known as Brian Warner, intrepid South Florida music journalist at night, Broward College student by day. But he was also, in his spare time, finessing his alter ego, with stalwart guitarist Daisy Berkowitz already by his side. While the gimmick of merging a sex symbol’s name with that of a serial killer was already intact, they were performing under the moniker the Spooky Kids. Enter Trent Reznor. The Nine Inch Nails mastermind signed them to his brand-new label, Nothing Records. In fact, Manson was the very first act signed. His first record would emerge in 1994.
St. Vincent—aka Annie Clark—has been around far longer than many know, releasing her debut record, Marry Me, back in 2007. She snapped up street cred quickly enough, but arguably, it wasn’t until 2017’s Masseduction when household-name status became within reach. Rightly so with tracks such as “New York” and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” being as beautifully cathartic as they are timeless, and “Pills” is as in your face as it can get. But it all began with her tenure in the Polyphonic Spree, the Dallas-based choral rock outfit who aren’t shy on violins, french horns and flutes.
Tori Amos specializes in breathy, plodding ballads that manage to render F-bombs as acceptable as they are expected. “Silent All These Years” remains a classic, with “Winter” right behind it, equally as introspective and melancholy. But there’s brooding there in place of rage on the latter. Amos has her upbeat moments, too (see: “Cornflake Girl”), but nothing in her solo catalog quite touches her Y Kant Tori Read years, before the singer-songwriter left her band days behind.
Lenny Kravitz, too, had his years trying to be someone he just wasn’t. Hence, Romeo Blue, the thankfully short-lived period before the rocker began to “Let Love Rule.” Interestingly, Blue was hanging on with that debut Kravitz record, with shades of bohemia informing that title track, along with “I Build This Garden For Us.” But soon enough, all bets would be off. Anthems such as “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and “Fly Away” would be shooting up the charts. Blue was the last bastion of the ’80s Kravitz before he decided to be true to himself, fortunately for us.
Bridgeport, Connecticut-born and Berklee-attending John Mayer disenrolled in that esteemed music school to head for Atlanta with his then-partner-in-crime Clay Cook. They dubbed themselves Lo-Fi Masters and made a go of it as a duo. The outfit proved short-lived, but the collabs didn’t end there. Much of what the singer-songwriter worked on with Cook found its way onto Mayer’s first two releases, the Inside Wants Out EP and debut full-length, Room For Squares. By the time Mayer was delivering his Grammy acceptance speech for “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” Cook was playing with Southern-rock icons the Marshall Tucker Band. Never one to be outdone, Mayer would soon be noodling with Grateful Dead in Dead & Company. Maybe Lo-Fi will come back from there one of these days?
Another Connecticut-born guitarist/vocalist, Liz Phair’s debut, Exile In Guyville, remains as peerless as it was fearless. Released in 1993, it makes just about every list of “greatest albums of all time.” The project also paved the way for many a ferocious female. Funny then that her first band would go by the name Girly Sound. Tongue was clearly planted firmly in cheek, much like Strat was plugged firmly in outlet. All of Girly Sound was self-produced, with most being on tape cassette only. But the success of Exile made them sought after, reborn as bootlegs. Then, in 2018, the tapes were released in their entirety via Matador Records’ 25th anniversary box set, Girly-Sound To Guyville.
The gone-too-soon powerhouse vocalist made noise with her eclectic debut album, Frank, but it was Amy Winehouse’s 2006 follow-up, Back To Black, that brought her fame, especially thanks to perhaps that year’s theme song, “Rehab.” Winehouse took home Grammy upon Grammy, at that point earning the tagline “most wins by a female artist in a single night.” But long before there was such fame and, dare we say, notoriety, there was Sweet ’N’ Sour, a hip-hop duo with Juliette Ashby that the singer-songwriter would later describe as a “little, white, Jewish Salt-N-Pepa.” It was the stuff of precociousness, but it did pave the way for her then joining the Bolsha Band as a vocalist. S&S recorded three songs, with one of them titled “Boys…Who Needs Them.” That was the thing about Winehouse: Heart always on sleeve.
Conor Oberst is a force of nature. Not only is he revered as a singer-songwriter, and before that at the helm the indie darlings Bright Eyes (recording with them for over a dozen years and recently announcing a reunion), but the versatile musician played in many a band, most notably Commander Venus. Straight outta Omaha, Commander Venus recorded two albums, and without them, he’d have never found his way to Bright Eyes—or to the solo career that he’s carved out for himself since. To dismiss Commander Venus as a college band would be to dismiss Oberst completely. And we all know how foolhardy that’d be.