The two members of the goth-punk band One-Eyed Doll aren't too keen on labels, but they've been the recipients of some colorful ones over the years. One worth mentioning is "GWAR meets Strawberry Shortcake," a difficult image to conjure. Drummer Jason Sewell's favorite, though, is "Pantera with Dolly Parton standing on top."
The Dolly on top is Kimberly Freeman, the head-banging, high-kicking, oft-face-painted frontwoman who made Guitar Player magazine's list of 20 Most Extraordinary Female Guitarists in 2011, alongside the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Kaki King, and math-rocker Marnie Stern. She kicks a lot of tail, and she sings like Cassandra Wong in Wayne's World.
Freeman's in-your-face theatrics didn't come naturally, though. Growing up in a family that moved from Ohio to Oregon, Montana, and SoCal, she says she was "kind of invisible" as a child. She joined a few choirs in high school, but she often found herself lip-syncing the word "watermelon" onstage, afraid that someone would hear her voice.
It wasn't until she landed an English teaching job on China's Shandong Peninsula that anyone pushed her to sing solo. She vividly remembers sitting in a banquet when her employer started showing her off to some Communist Party members. "He said, 'Look, my American is a songbird, and she's going to sing for you,'" Freeman recalls. Not wanting to dishonor her boss, she acquiesced and then timidly launched into a quintessentially American tune — something by Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline, she can't remember which.
"I got through that, and I was horrified. I was about to pass out," Freeman says. "And apparently it went over well, and he just kept doing it to me all the time."
Back home in the States, she told her grandfather, longtime musician Bernie Jones, that she was interested in pursuing singing, and he handed her his guitar and told her she ought to have something to back herself up.
Freeman and her band have done some shape-shifting over the years since landing in Austin at the end of a tour in 2005, with several lineup changes and some excursions into electronic dance music and acoustic folk.
Sewell says the band's current two-member format was not a gimmick or even a conscious decision. The show just had to go on. "Kimberly's like, 'We don't have a bass player, but we have a show on Thursday night, and we're gonna play it,'" Sewell says. "'Oh, the drum set fell apart? I'm gonna do a guitar and vocals. Oh, my amp broke? It's gonna be an a cappella song.'"
For their latest album, Dirty, Freeman and Sewell traveled to the Weed, Calif., studio of legendary '90s hard rock producer Sylvia Massy (Tool, System of a Down, Deftones), where they played inside an old church with a bevy of vintage '60s equipment. Before, they had done much of their recording in bedrooms, and Sewell had handled producer duty, but when Massy made an inquiry, Sewell was floored. "[Freeman] gets this e-mail, and she's like 'Oh, this is a girl, that's interesting.' So she forwarded it to me, and I saw it was from Sylvia Massy, and my jaw hit the floor. And I'm like, 'Do you know who this is?'"
The resulting songs don't feel too polished, retaining some of the garage-y feedback of their previous releases. Freeman's voice is at its best on tracks like the haunted, industrial-tinged "Roses," where she lets loose on some sustained wails between verses. And her guitar work shows a tendency toward classic-rock soloing and bluesy hooks.
"I had been holding on to some of these more blues-based songs for years, just waiting for the opportunity to record this particular album, and the time was finally right," Freeman says. "It was really fun to let that all out."
In the dude-centric world of American heavy music, the fact that One-Eyed Doll is currently on tour with two other woman-fronted bands — the groovy, guttural Otep and the horror-thrash Butcher Babies — is unignorable. It is telling of the music scene that, in addition to the Guitar Player accolades, Revolver magazine featured Freeman as 2010's Hottest Chick in Hard Rock, with a flattering photo spread. She gently deflects the compliment, saying, "I'm sure it was a typo of some kind." And she gives the magazine props for also doing a Hottest Dude feature on Ville Valo, the brooding frontman of the Finnish band HIM.
Freeman says she likes to encourage her female fans to pick up a guitar and ignore the people who will inevitably discourage them. "They want you to sing," she says, "but by golly, my grandpa told me I should play the guitar, so I'm going to do it for him."
One-Eyed Doll and Butcher Babies will open for Otep on Sept. 5 at the Music Farm (32 Ann St.). Tickets are $13 in advance, $15 at the door.