Deborah Vial comes home to Dallas for album release party, HRC event
Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
Before 2016, Deborah Vial said, “I was blissfully ignorant of American politics.” She was one of the people who believed “we paid the salaries of politicians and judges with our tax monies, and they were doing their jobs. They were working for all of us, so we should just let them do their jobs.”
But then Donald Trump was elected president, she said, “and my whole world was turned upside down. Suddenly, I felt like I could no longer just stand on the sidelines. Rome had been a republic until Julius Caesar decided he wanted to be an emperor, and we all know what happened after that: They got stuck with Caligula! Yikes!
“It’s scary,” Vial said of the political climate since the rise of Trump. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The day [Trump] said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose voters — I realized then we were all in trouble, because he was right. There is a huge population of people who love the idea of a bully/king being in charge. It makes them feel sale.”
Vial said she was torn by what she saw happening in the months leading up to and following the 2016 election because she had been raised to believe that bullies and criminals and “mean people” were the bad guys in society. But suddenly, those beliefs were being challenged because the so-called bad guys were taking over.
“Had I been completely wrong?” she asked. “Are the weak [just] meat? Do I need to change every fiber of who I am and become a ‘bad’ person, too?
“I tried that hat on for a day or two. It was not comfortable,” she declared. “I can’t sleep at night with my moral compass spinning.”
So she decided to take action. She and her wife, Caron Barrett, traveled from their home in Hawaii to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March in January 2017. They started having weekly “huddles” with like-minded people, and they sponsored screenings of movies like Equal Means Equal. They attended “all the sign-waving events.”
“It was exhausting,” Vial said of her new-found activism. “But I learned a lot. For example, did you know that women are still not protected by the Constitution? It’s crazy! Most people do not realize that the [Equal Rights Amendment] did not pass. … Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously stated that women were never meant to be protected by the Constitution, that the Constitution says all men are created equal. He believed in a literal translation of the Constitution, and I think we are going to run up against that issue with the now heavily-conservative Supreme Court.”
Vial said it was the new-found passion for activism that helped reignite her passion for music and that birthed “The Giant,” the first single of the new album from The Deborah Vial Band, also called The Giant.
“Life is cyclical,” Vial explained. “And I had kind of cycled out of music and on to other things. I was super burnt-out on music for a few years. I almost wanted to run away from being a singer and re-invent myself. I kept performing sporadically, for fundraiser, but it was limited to just a few times a year.”
After the shock of the 2016 election, she continued, “I had folded in on myself, in the darkest depression. I think the definition of depression is something about ‘anger turned inwards. But after attending ther Women’s March, I was able to push my anger outwards. What I saw in D.C., and globally, was truly giant and empowering.”
It was after that march, Vial said, that she and Barrett began writing “The Giant,” and the lyrics — warning the corrupt powers-that-be that “You’re gonna burn with the fire of fury; you’re gonna know what it means to worry; you woke the giant in me” — over a pounding beat turned into what can surely be called an anthem for the women’s rights movement (even though Vial herself is quick to stress that she would “never be so presumptuous as to label anything I write to be worthy of being anthemic.”)
Making the album
While it was the indignation and the power of the Women’s March that sparked the fire, the flame was fanned, Vial said, at her 50th birthday party last year on the island of Maui.
“Caron hired my all-time favorite musician, Beth Hart, to play [at the party]. Being around Beth again — I had opened for her in the past — re-ignited my passion for writing and performing. I had never lost my passion for singing; I sing all day around the house. But I just felt like I had nothing more to say, nothing to write about,” she said. “The last thing Beth said to me when we drove her to the airport was, ‘Girl, this is what we do. It’s never over.’
“That hit my reset button. This is IT. This is Life. No quitters allowed.”
So Vial and Barrett started writing. As Barrett explained, “A lot of times, I come up with the music, and I have this melody in my head. I sing the melody to Deborah, and I sound like a wounded seal. And she takes it and runs with it and turns it into magic.
“And sometimes, Deborah has lyrics, melodies or a chord structure, and we just sit down and figure out what she has come up with, and we put the puzzle together,” Barrett said.
“Doing a record is a giant endeavor — financially, emotionally and artistically,” Barrett added. “One of the most important things is to put your ego away and be open to the process. The people involved will have input, and sometimes that gets confused with criticism. It’s not; it’s aboput putting together a team that is all on the same page of crafting songs and getting the right sound for songs.”
Vial noted that they recorded The Giant entirely at their home, “aka Happy Wahine Studios,” with the help of Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer Eric Helmkamp, who is, Vial said, “pure magic in the studio.”
Vial said, “Caron has a ton of music, but I was really lost lyrically on a lot of the pieces she wanted me to write. Eric came in and took away the rub that can occur in coupledom. Eric and I would have writing sessions around the kitchen counter, so he really contributed heavily to the lyrics of many of the songs, which was really different for me. Previously, I coveted my lyrical contributions, but working with a co-writer was an awakening.”
The Giant includes 13 more original songs, including one called “Not Takin Your S#!t,” which Vial wrote especially for the Willie K Blues Festival on Maui. “I’m not a blues singer, but he invited us to perform [at the festival several years ago], so we decided to write our own idea of a blues song. Instead of ‘my man left me and took everything,’ we wrote a ‘I’m taking everything, including all your friends, the car AND the dog’ song,” she said.
Others — “Perfect World,” co-written with Kennedy Cantu, for example — are more emotional.
Bringing it back home
It was here in North Texas that Vial got her start as a singer, performing with the band Fatal Attraction, which turned into Blanche Fury, and Vial declared, “Dallas is home. I will never be from Maui; I will also be from Dallas. I come back at least twice a year to see family and friends, but I always stop by Sue Ellen’s.”
Vial performed at Sue Ellen’s for about seven years, and said it was the men and women who came out for her Friday night performances on the patio there that “propelled me forward through life.”
This weekend, The Deborah Vial Band returns to Sue Ellen’s — in the bar’s new location on Throckmorton on Friday night, and around the corner at the original location on Cedar Springs on Sunday — for an album release party and for the Human Rights Campaign’s Throwback Party, honoring local community leader and one of Vial’s longtime friends, Dee Pennington, on Sunday.
“Caron is a big HRC donor, so she is always up for anything HRC,” Vial said. “As for me, how could I miss a party on the old Sue’s patio? Are you kidding me? I practically grew up on that patio!
“I remember the first time [Sue Ellen’s manager] Kathy Jack told me I could start singing on the employee parking lot out in front of Sue’s. It was just an asphalt parking lot with mobile metal barricades around it,” she remembered. “Cameron, Darla and I set up our equipment, and the Sue’s staff put out a bunch of cheap tables and chairs, which were always uneven because they were sitting on top of 30-year-old, pockmarked asphalt. And Friday night on the Sue Ellen’s Patio was born, in all of its non-glory. And then we got real concrete, with fancy iron railings!”
Vial said it is also important to her to be in Dallas performing to honor Pennington, too. “HRC is giving Dee a Community Impact Award, and she could not be more deserving,” she said. “She has spent her lifetime promoting LGBT events and causes.”
The Giant, the new album from The Deborah Vial Band, is available on CD Baby, iTunes and other digital formats.