When Rachel Kate Gillon signed on as the vocalist for The Shaniqua Brown, she gave no thought to the idea that strangers would start calling her Shaniqua.
"Honestly, I didn't even think about it, y'know? I was just like, 'Whatever, it's the name of the band,'" Gillon says. "But I get it all the time. It's hilarious. I actually was surprised when one day this summer, I was on the beach, and this guy came up to me and was like, 'Shanny Brown?'"
It is a curse she shares with Darius Rucker (whose name is not Hootie) and Dr. Frankenstein (who is not the monster), but she bears it well. "Actually, I think it's funny," she says. "The name Shaniqua, if you look it up online, means 'warrior princess,' which I'm all about." Listening to Gillon's husky, yowling vocals on the band's hard-rocking self-titled album, comparisons to Xena come easy. But in person, her gentle demeanor could make one wonder where she hides the berserker who comes out at the microphone. She often appends "y'know?" to the beginning and end of sentences, a practice that seems less a vocal tic than a way of confirming the listener is still on the same page.
Raised in Nashville on a steady diet of pop country, the 24-year-old singer has since moved on to harder musical territory, fronting one of Charleston's rowdiest rock 'n' roll bands amidst the heavily distorted riffs of guitarists Thomas Concannon and James Rogers and the house-shaking beats of drummer David Bair. Make no mistake: A Shaniqua show is a swift kick to the tailbone, described by City Paper reviewer Joshua Curry as "nothing short of volcanic."
It was bassist Denis Blyth, a former bandmate of Gillon's from a short-lived group called the Loose Ends, who invited her to add vocals to the songs he and his friends had been writing as then-instrumental rock band The Shaniqua Brown. In October 2009, she signed on as the lone female member.
"You can't ignore the fact that I am a woman in this business that is so dominated by men," Gillon says. "Of course it's going to feel empowering for me to accomplish these things." She says it sometimes takes some convincing to get the band's four male members onboard with more feminine touches to their image, although no one put up a fight about pressing an album on a hot-pink disc.
Gillon spent time in music studios at a young age. Her mother had started working as a secretary for Dot Records in the '70s, and by the time Gillon was a child, Mom had risen in the ranks to become vice president of production for MCA Records. As a girl, Gillon enjoyed running around the studios acting like she worked there. She says her parents today are supportive of her musical career, even if they worry about whether she can pay her rent and buy groceries sometimes. For now, she is trivocational, often spending mornings on managerial duty at Collective Recordings in West Ashley before working an afternoon-to-close shift at the Early Bird Diner. Still, she says the band takes up most of her time. "I'm going 100 miles an hour all the time, but I wouldn't have it any other way," she says. "Basically, the only thing that stops me is if I'm deathly ill."
She doesn't want to work in a restaurant forever, but for now she enjoys the company of her co-workers and the regular customers in the new-school diner on Savannah Highway. People go there for the chicken and waffles, lovingly made with pecan-encrusted chicken, homemade honey mustard, and cinnamon Belgian waffles. "I like to make a sandwich out of it. Just go for the gold," Gillon says. "People that get it for the first time are like, 'How am I supposed to eat this?' It's like, 'However you want, dude.'"
A pastiche of stickers covers the swinging door between the kitchen and dining room at the Early Bird, including two bearing The Shaniqua Brown's insignia of a skull over crossbones made from a pair of scissors and two spools of thread. One happens to be placed right next to a sticker for Bad Brains, the legendary D.C. hardcore punk band that Gillon got to share the Music Farm stage with in September. It was an honor to be the opening band, and Gillon fashioned a special dress for the occasion, starting with a garment that a co-worker bought her from a thrift store.
"It was just this sort of '80s fitted teal thing, and I just chopped it all to heck," she says. "I took a table runner, like you know those lace table runners? I took one and just sewed it down the side. And, you know, my tutu collection's outta control, so I put a tutu under it and I cut it up so it almost is like these sort of flower petals." Gillon first picked up sewing from her grandmother while growing up and is now fond of repurposing used clothes for stage costumes. Inspired by this, the band has adopted a skull-and-cross-scissors logo. "It's kind of tough but kind of not at the same time," she says.
Gillon makes no highfalutin claims about The Shaniqua Brown. "We're not trying to throw any tricks in there," she says. "It's rock 'n' roll." She loves making people feel good, making them dance. "Any shows where we're pretty much on the floor and just right up in everybody's business are my favorite shows," she says. That's why she enjoys playing The Tin Roof and The Mill, as well as the occasional house show.
The Shaniqua Brown is building a solid reputation around Charleston, and Gillon believes in the cause. "We will always deliver," she promises. But with or without a big record contract, or a career arc that elevates the band beyond local-legend status, Gillon will be able to hold her head up high.
"I think success is being happy with who you are and with what you're doing and just enjoying life," she says. "I'm definitely not the type of person to just get by to do something that I don't love, so I feel like I've been really successful my entire life."