Natalie Gordon and Lauren Hess, also known as the two-piece rock band Agent Ribbons, met in classic rock 'n' roll fashion.
They met in a record store.
"I was checking out, and Natalie was helping them paint some stuff. We started talking, and Natalie had just started playing guitar again. We just took it from there," said Hess, who plays drums and sings harmony.
She and Gordon spoke to the Tucson Weekly last week while on the road in Northern California. Between Sacramento and Santa Cruz, they'd stopped for a taco and an interview.
That meeting in a Sacramento record store, about five years ago, marked a turning point for both women: Hess, who until that point had primarily played guitar, was taking up the drums; and Gordon had recently returned to playing guitar and writing songs after a hiatus from both pursuits.
"I grew up playing classical piano and started early in high school writing songs; I went to an experimental arts high school," Gordon said. "But I had not been doing much in that area for a while. It was just starting to feel interesting again when I met Lauren, but I think I would have lost interest again if it hadn't been for us meeting and playing together."
Hess conceded that her past as a guitar-player affects her drumming style. "When playing drums, I think more in terms of individual notes, instead of straight beats, and that maybe helps me communicate better with a guitarist like Natalie."
Soon, the pair developed the trademark Agent Ribbons sound, a riot-grrrl-accented blend of punk, cabaret, '60s girl groups and a songwriting sensibility that seems to combine Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building pop, early psychedelic-era folk, Broadway show tunes and Victorian filigree.
That sounds pretty ambitious for a two-piece band, but Agent Ribbons are able to work creatively within the restrictions of their instrumentation to create songs that sound vivid and rich.
"We always tend to hear a lot of possibilities for the arrangements," Gordon says. "And when you're coming from that perspective, but only have drums, guitar and vocals, you have to pay attention to the nuances in the music to bring out what you want to hear. Especially now that we are doing more vocal harmonies, we are always trying to figure out how we can make those nuances bigger with a limited palette."
Diverse listening habits have helped inform Agent Ribbons' approach.
"All of our influences go into making what we are now," Hess says. "I was really into the college guitar rock of the 1970s into '90s, particularly the girls who made music then. ... I collect vinyl singles of girl bands from those eras ... but I also appreciate the style of Edith Piaf and other cabaret stuff. I think we're kind of more part of the DIY style as far our instruments and the way we develop music, though."
Agent Ribbons seemed to spring fully formed into the music world with their debut album, On Time Travel and Romance, in 2006. Two terrific EPs—And the Star Crossed Doppelganger and Your Love Is the Smallest Doll—followed before the group released its second album, Chateau Crone, last year.
Chateau Crone comes with a 25-page booklet that details "an ideal estate that we hope to build and live at someday. Each page is illustrated by a different friend or artist. It all about what the ideal or perfect home would entail, sort of like an idealized existence. And that's sort of what the album is about," Gordon said.
"The album is basically about being yourself," she continued. "Usually, when you do a concept album, a lot of the music has a solid thread, and ours was more that it was all written in the same period of time. But one of the unifying themes is this sort of liberated experience for women, how we can live in this world and reconcile that with having artistic integrity—about living in a place of balance. It's not meant to be confrontational or abrasive, but just really honest."
In that pursuit, Gordon has seen her songwriting voice evolve during the band's career.
"I think I have always written personal material from a first-person point of view since I was in school, which is often what a developing writer does. Especially the first album was written in a really personal way. That's been changing as my writing style has changed. I really like telling stories and having the songs not necessarily be about me so much as they are narratives."
For most of its career, Agent Ribbons have stuck to the rudimentary building blocks of guitar, drums and voice, with the occasional inclusion of Hess' accordion. For a time, however, the group was a three-piece. Naomi Cherie played violin and cello with the band in 2009 and 2010, and appeared on Chateau Crone.
The band actually moved from Sacramento to Austin last year to be closer to Austinite Cherie, who promptly left the band. "It worked out for the best, though, because we are getting used to that music scene and are happy there," Gordon says.
Tucson is another city the gals in Agent Ribbons appreciate. They have played here often, most recently last month while opening for The Octopus Project at Club Congress. "That was kind of a last-minute thing, sort of on our way out on tour, but it turned out to be a pretty cool gig," Gordon says.
This time around, Agent Ribbons will return to headline at Solar Culture Gallery on Friday, May 27.
"In fact, we love Tucson so much, every once in a while, we've considered the idea of moving there instead, but I think we're going to continue trying to give Austin a go," Gordon said.
After Agent Ribbons finishes its current tour, Hess and Gordon plan to take the summer off to complete work on a third album that should see release in 2012.