Before the term "riot grrrl" was coined or Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang came out of the closet, Austin band Two Nice Girls wrote songs about women falling in love — with each other — and the joys of being queer. The group first formed in 1985 when Gretchen Phillips set out to create what she called a "particularly lesbian band."
This past June, 15 years after the band broke up, Phillips reissued the band’s debut album, 2 Nice Girls, on her own Seasick Sailor Records. Her decision to reissue the album, she told AfterEllen.com, was prompted by seeing the album sell for $69 on eBay and thinking, "No one should have to pay that much!"
Back in the mid-1980s, she initially hooked up with local musician Laurie Freelove, and they later asked Kathryn Korniloff to join. Even after adding a third band member, they decided to keep the band name, Phillips explained, because they didn’t want to be like the "Jackson Five going to The Jacksons."
Inspired by radical indie-punk bands like The Slits, The Roaches and The Avengers, among others, the trio shared all songwriting responsibilities. From the beginning, each member brought a distinct sound to the group, which musically is often described as folk in melody and harmonies, but punk in lyrics.
Korniloff credits Phillips and Freelove’s different songwriting styles as one of the band’s greatest strengths. "Their writing style is polar opposite," she told AfterEllen.com, "but somehow it all came together through the arrangements and harmonies. Gretchen’s sense of humor was the counterpoint to Laurie’s deeply introspective style."
The band’s unique sound took off, and after playing at the first South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, they began working with manager Jim Fouratt. When Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records heard their rendition of "Sweet Jane (With Affection)," a rare and beautiful mash-up of Lou Reed’s "Sweet Jane" and Joan Armatrading’s "Love and Affection," he signed them immediately.
Two Nice Girls’ popularity quickly soared, but it was not entirely a smooth ride. The recording of their debut album was stalled when the IRS closed down the studio because its owner, Willie Nelson, owed back taxes. Then, in 1989, just as they were finishing, the Cowboy Junkies released their own version of "Sweet Jane."
Even so, the release of 2 Nice Girls received wide acclaim, and the band traveled the country on tour. Though they graced the covers of LGBT publications such as Lesbian News and Out Week, they garnered a strong following with gay and straight audiences alike. "The crossover happened immediately," Phillips recalled.
Austin during the mid-1980s to early ’90s was brimming with female-led bands, and lesbian clubs such as Chances created a "brilliant community center," said Korniloff. "It was a place where straight people were coming to see queer bands, and straight bands were playing for [queer audiences]. It was an ‘anyone’s welcome’ vibe. If you had some chops and you had something to say, you could get a gig."
After the debut release, Freelove left to pursue a solo career. She recorded Fifty Words for Snow and then signed with Chrysalis/Ensign Records, which released her celebrated album Smells Like Truth. She later started her own production company, Nineline Productions, with Bill McCarely.
"I had strong ideas about what I needed to be doing as a musician apart from what we were doing as a trio," Freelove said to AfterEllen.com. "I didn’t have the maturity at the time to manage myself well enough to do both my thing and the second thing. [I was] just too young to know I wasn’t in competition with either myself or the band."
After Meg Hentges and Pam Barger stepped in, Two Nice Girls released two more notable albums, including Chloe Liked Olivia, which won a GLAAD award. When Rough Trade folded, however, the band’s new configuration and the overall stress from years of touring ultimately led to the band’s breakup.
"It was another one of those sad but very common stories of bands who fall apart because of a lack of infrastructure," said Korniloff. "The pressure was just too much for us to do everything ourselves."
"We toured a lot, and that can really take its toll," added Phillips. "It’s a weird way to live: drive as fast and as far as you can."
Though once an asset, it became trying to navigate all the members’ different musical tastes. "It’s certainly a factor in democratic bands," Phillips admitted, "when you’ve made an agreement to share songwriting."
Plus, they simply stopped having fun. "We did a lot of processing," Phillips said, laughing. "I don’t know if this is true for all lesbian bands, but in our lesbian band, there was much discussion of our feelings — and we had big feelings."