After five years, three labels, three EPs, countless collaborations and one aborted album, Juliet Simms qualifies for a doctorate in record-industry chaos.
"Why such drama? I'm a Pisces — hello?" she laughed during a recent Warped Tour stop in Indianapolis. "I'm very emotional, I'm very elaborate and big, and when I'm speaking to people, I use my hands. I'm a very dramatic person, to a T."
It shows on Truth or Dare, the long-awaited debut LP by Simms' band, Automatic Loveletter. The album, released in June, is a big, glammy glitterball of guitars, pianos and Simms' gritty, Joplinesque wail. It's a grand departure from the band's previous emo-heavy output, and it could be the album that finally pushes the Tampa Bay band to stardom.
"I'm not going to lie: I want to go to radio," said Simms, 24, who has traded her usual hoodies and skinny jeans for a flashier, sexier onstage look. "I want it to be a Top 40 record. But at the same time, I want to keep the integrity of the music, in that every song is its own entity, and the album itself is kind of a roller coaster."
Automatic Loveletter formed in Clearwater in 2005 with a teenage Simms on guitar and vocals; she's the only remaining member from the group's early days. Her brother Tommy, of the well-regarded local band Win Win Winter, now plays guitar. This is the band's third Warped Tour, but Friday's stop at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg will be their first Warped show in Tampa Bay.
Automatic Loveletter has been pegged as a band to watch on this year's tour, and so far, they're living up to expectations. We caught up with Simms by phone to talk about Truth or Dare, her drama-filled career and her evolving sense of style.
It feels like there's been this Next Big Thing buzz around Automatic Loveletter for the last three years. You recorded an album's worth of material in 2007, but it wasn't released. What happened?
What happened is bad management. We made the record, and our label told us to go out and tour, so we did for a few years. Then when we started getting a fan base, they were like, "Oh, maybe this band does have potential." I recorded half of another record, because half of the record we made was put out as an EP. A couple of years later, we wrote and recorded new songs, and we were getting ready to put the record out. The label was putting money behind us. And a new president comes in and cuts costs. She dropped like 60 bands, and I happened to be one of them.
Was there any point in the last four years where you thought, "Wow, this might not happen for me"?
I definitely had moments of discouragement. . . . I would see other girls getting signed right out of high school, and then the next year, they're, like, Paramore. I've definitely had those moments. But having to go through all of it definitely gave me that raw organic-ness in my voice and my performance, and it made me the musician I am today.
You've become this pop-punk sex symbol among the Warped Tour set. Your face is front and center on any Automatic Loveletter press. Are you comfortable with that?
Very comfortable. Obviously I'm a woman now, and I'm not a teenager. I work out every day, I eat right, I like showing off my legs, and I love the fact that it's summertime and I just have to put a bathing suit top on and a pair of shorts and I can go on stage and feel comfortable in what I'm wearing. I'm completely confident in my own skin.
Was there a point where you decided to start going on stage not wearing much?
I lived in L.A. last year while I was recording the record, and I really got into fashion, and I started really just coming up with my own style. I did an acoustic tour, and it was very easy — all I had to do was sit there with my guitar, my bassist and my other guitar player, and play music. I was like, "Okay, we're not standing, we're not rocking out . . . I gotta bring something else to the stage." So that's when I started wearing sequined hot pants with fishnets and thigh-high boots, or a T-shirt with underwear and heels. I just started feeling more comfortable as a woman.
Do you get a sense that people begrudge you for, I don't know, being hot and not wearing a lot of clothes?
No, because I didn't used to do this. It was my voice and my music that got me out there. I feel that I have the music and the voice to back up whatever I'm wearing. Maybe if no one had heard of me and I walked out on stage wearing something, they'd have been like, "Oh, great, some hot chick that thinks she can be a singer, because she's pretty." But then they'd change their mind after the set. (laughs)
This year's Warped Tour is headlined by names you may recognize: Andrew W.K., Sum 41, Reel Big Fish, Pennywise, We the Kings and Alkaline Trio. But every year, there's an artist who no one knows but who ends up making it big — i.e., Katy Perry, My Chemical Romance or Eminem. Here are some lesser-known artists with the potential to become household names.
Never Shout Never
Without much mainstream hype, Missouri singer-songwriter Christofer Drew Ingle of Never Shout Never has become this year's Hot Topic pinup du jour, blending emo style and sensitivity with an unabashedly upbeat pop vibe — think Jason Mraz covering Dashboard Confessional. Expect an adoring audience of teenage girls.
His blend of pop, electro and R&B seems more suited for the club than the pit, but no less an authority than Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman likes Posner's chances for success. "If he can pull it off live I think by the end of the summer you'll see that level of that groundswell that came in behind Katy Perry and a band like 3OH!3," Lyman told Rolling Stone.
The Pretty Reckless
Taylor Momsen got her start as Cindy Lou Who in Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and she plays Jenny Humphrey on the teen soap Gossip Girl. But at only 16, Momsen is becoming the latest poster child for girls going wild too fast. As the singer of the darkly melodic punk band the Pretty Reckless, Momsen has been photographed smoking onstage, flashing her underwear and howling lyrics like "I'm just 16 if you know what I mean / Do you mind if I take off my dress?" It's a little shock-rocky, but critics are starting to take her seriously.
Based in Austin, Riverboat Gamblers apply a Texas twang to classic, fist-pumping classic punk, with influences ranging from the Clash to Bad Religion to the Kinks. They've been around since the '90s, but they keep experimenting with their sound. Maybe if we're lucky, they'll play their mod-meets-rockabilly cover of Prince's Let's Go Crazy. Fans of Florida's own Against Me! will love it.
The Summer Set
Given their melodic style of tween-friendly power pop, it's no surprise the Summer Set has been sucked into the Radio Disney universe. The band's hit song Chelsea was written by singer Brian Dales for his girlfriend, Chelsea Staub, who co-stars with the Jonas Brothers on the Disney Channel show Jonas. "We're definitely not trying to market ourselves a certain way; we're just kind of going with it," said drummer Jess Bowen. "We're just saying, 'We're a band, we love playing music, we love having fun, come check us out.' "
BANDS WITH LOCAL TIES
One band getting lots of attention on this year's tour is this Port St. Lucie pop-punk band, featuring Redington Shores resident Sierra Kusterbeck on vocals. She and Juliet Simms have become good friends. "We actually hang out when we're in Florida, like, every day," Simms said.
Gardening, Not Architecture
This one-woman band stars singer-bassist Sarah Saturday, who grew up in St. Petersburg before moving to Wisconsin at age 6. A former Warped Tour employee, she plays "soundtracky stuff" — lightly electronic pop with a warm, atmospheric vibe, in the style of Death Cab for Cutie or the Album Leaf. Onstage, "it's just me and an iPod" and a few props, said Saturday, 30. "I'm relying on my sweet rock stances and hoping it's interesting," she laughs.