Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald started their band the Ditty Bops four years ago, but this lesbian couple will celebrate their eight-year anniversary this coming February. Perhaps that's why the musical duo's signature harmonies are as smooth and deceptively effortless as a ride on a bicycle built for two. These two know how to work well in tandem.
The Los Angeles-based band debuted in 2004 with a self-titled major-label release. They played only a handful of shows before signing with Warner Brothers and the illustrious producer Mitchell Froom (he has produced Los Lobos, Paul McCartney and Suzanne Vega, among others). The Ditty Bops' second and latest album is this year's Moon Over the Freeway.
“We like to spend a lot of time together,” says Barrett, who shares a home with DeWald in Hollywood.
The Ditty Bops just capped a four-month tour that took them from their home base in Los Angeles to New York City, and they traveled the entire route by bicycle. They averaged about 65 miles a day, sometimes riding more than 100 miles before reaching the next town and their next stop on the tour.
Barrett and DeWald generally encourage cycling over driving, even offering discounts at the door to their shows for anyone sporting a bike helmet. They also invited fans to join them on this summer's bike tour.
“Trying to ride your bike and chat is really hard, so I understand why that isn't done more often,” Barrett says. “We discovered that it's hard to climb a hill while talking to fans about your musical influences. That was something we hadn't planned on, like going up the Rockies and talking about Ricky Nelson.”
On their albums and at their live shows, the ever playful Ditty Bops transport listeners to a reimagined bygone era, melding ragtime, jazz and swing with cabaret costumes and wigs. Sometimes they even break out the puppets, skits and slide shows.
The women share a penchant for fancy dress — as comfortable in Bowler hats and ties as glamorous gowns and sequined accessories. They model an array of lavish but scanty getups in their 2006 bikini calendar, which features portrait after portrait of the pair in elaborately staged settings and classic two-piece suits.
Next up is their 2007 Vegetable Bikini Calendar, coming out at the end of this month. When pressed, the women confirm that it will feature vegetables in bikinis as well as bikinis made of vegetables.
“It will definitely involve farmer's market vegetables, recipes, fun,” says Barrett. She and DeWald both used to sell fresh pasta at the local farmer's markets in Los Angeles.
The Ditty Bops' music is experimental but rooted in the 1920s, like many of their costumes. And they manage to pull it all off with less ironic cynicism than homage to a free-spirited yesteryear.
It's an aesthetic that carries over from their music to their elaborate website — which is filled with original drawings, lace borders and sepia-toned photos of the pair in Wild West-era garb, sipping from tea cups. The site also features recipes, original artwork, music videos and footage from the band's television appearances.
“When we played the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, we had to leave all our boys behind, so we had a duo,” Barrett says, referring to their all-male backup band that includes upright bass, piano, guitar, accordion and drums. DeWald and Barrett play a variety of percussion and fretted instruments.
Both of the women grew up in California, though at opposite ends of the state. DeWald, who occasionally performs in early cowboy duds, hails from the northern county of Shasta. Barrett — with her flapperesque bob and long, often bare legs — grew up in Topanga Canyon, which is as Bohemian as Southern California gets. (It's the canyon whose ladies Joni Mitchell sang about on her 1970 album.)
Barrett got an early start singing third-part harmony at age 13 in her mother's British Isles duo. She learned to play fretted dulcimer and often plays mandolin as well as washboard for the Ditty Bops. She's a longtime performer, a former child actor and model. She also performs sketch comedy with friend Michael Lucid in their show, Pretty Things.
DeWald is an avid cook and talented illustrator. The shorter, snarkier of the two, she usually plays guitar but grew up with piano lessons and dreaded recitals. “A lot of what you're trying to do when you're a kid is be perfect about the performance,” she says. “You have to memorize the lines and get it just right, and play the classical piece without a mistake.”
But now the stage is pure fun for both women. What changed for DeWald? “I guess the spirit of what you're trying to do,” she says. “We just made our whole thing about totally screwing up, and then it worked fine.” She explains that they had to set it up that way: “Otherwise people would realize how many mistakes we're making.”
Barrett and DeWald invite fans to snap photos and tape their shows (venue permitting). They also welcome audience participation in the form of “Wishful Thinking Karaoke” and a “Sister Kate Dance-Off” on their latest tour. The latter entailed no judging or prizes — just fans dancing on stage to the band's cover of “Sister Kate.”
“We just wanted people to come up and join us,” DeWald says. “Sister Kate” is a song she first learned to play on the ukulele. “I was pleased by the level of participation. Some shows we had everybody up dancing, and sometimes people would come up on stage and strut their stuff.”
DeWald and Barrett say they chose their original hit “Wishful Thinking” for the karaoke segment because it's one of the more familiar songs to their fans. But it's also particularly appropriate given that karaoke is so often about wishful thinking.
“It was a lot fun to see the different groupings of people: who knows the harmony and who doesn't know the words and makes up their own,” DeWald says.
Opening up the bike trip to the public opened the women up to more personal contact with their fans, for better or worse. “There's a variety of people, as you can imagine, who would be interested in riding with us,” Barrett says. “Most of the time they were really cool, but on occasion I would've preferred it to be just us.”
Some fans weren't sure whether to treat the pair like celebrities or human beings. “Sadly there's more than a few that just really have no boundaries,” DeWald says. These individuals didn't always show the keenest sense of how to behave around the women when they're living daily life as opposed to performing.
“Because we're so free with people, and we say, ‘Hey, come tape our shows, take as many pictures as you want,' that doesn't mean follow me around in a grocery store and take pictures of me when I'm picking my nose,” DeWald elaborates. “People just don't understand it's not appropriate to do that. If you want to take my picture in a grocery store, you just ask.”
Another thing the pair wasn't fully prepared for was the climate changes. “It was hard to plan on weather for four months over the entire country,” Barrett says. “It was cold in some places but then the heat took quite a toll on us at certain times. In the beginning I thought it was easier than I expected, but that changed after it got hot.”
“One of my most exhausting days was St. Louis,” Barrett recalls. “It was like a hundred miles, and I'd been chased and bit by a dog and had a spider on me going through this spider zone with all these leaves, and then arriving and going straight to the show and setting up and tearing down. It was just such a long day.”
DeWald says, “It's good and bad to be accessible to your fans. It's great to get out there and talk to them and show them you appreciate them being there.”
Barrett concurs. “It was really fun to hear people's stories and talk to people from different areas and meet lots of cyclists. I'm totally glad we did it, but I think if we do it again — or some version of it — it will be more like smaller stints of regional areas.”
The pair is considering a one-to-three-week tour in Europe or Japan. “I'd like to not have to do as many miles a day so we could relax a little more and have more energy for the performances,” Barrett says. “We were pretty zonked when we got finished.”
But now that they're home, these ladies are hardly resting their legs. Neither of them owns a car these days — which is no easy feat for residents of one of the most automobile-dependent cities in North America. These avid cyclists travel the sprawling metropolis by bike.
And those bikes are about to get makeovers. “We just ordered Extracycles, which helps you schlep large amounts of things,” Barrett says.
“It adds about a foot and a half length to the end of your bicycle, extending that bracket in back,” DeWald explains.
“It has all these panniers on it, and it allows you to go to the market without things falling out everywhere,” Barrett adds. “Yesterday I had my dry cleaning, groceries and a big pot — we went to get kitchen supplies. I was almost falling over. So life is about to get a lot easier, hopefully.”
Barrett also enthuses about the social aspect of riding bikes. “A lot of our friends have given up their cars over the summer too and are riding around, so it's not just us being the crazy ones,” she says. “Now we get to go on group bike excursions, to the market or wherever. It's nice to create an activity out of stuff because you're going by bike instead of just in your car by yourself.”
And when they're not working, walking or riding? “We like making food,” DeWald says, “and visiting our friends.”
“We've been cooking a lot since we got back,” Barrett says. “Abby has, anyway. I've been eating a lot. And doing art projects.”
The Ditty Bops' current projects also include music for an upcoming comedy film from Sony as well as a guest performance on the third season of The L Word. They flew to Vancouver in September to record a song written for them to perform on the Showtime series, and the episode will be shot at the end of this month. “When we were at the studio we got to see Jennifer Beals,” DeWald enthuses.
“Jenny's gonna be in it. That's all I'm gonna say,” Barrett teases regarding their L Word scene. “Jenny's gonna be there. Tina's gonna be there. And I think the rest is probably top secret.” Stay tuned.
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