If "A Coney Island of the Mind" had a house band, it might very well be the Starlight Girls. While their name is evocative of the group's sound — waves crashing under boardwalks, seedy '40s piano lounges, cheap thrills, film noir soundtracks and Hollywood cocktail parties all come to mind — it's also partially misleading. For starters, they are not a girl group, per se.
The band consists of singer and keyboardist Christina B, who also writes the songs and takes on additional instruments such as flute in the studio; her fellow "girl" Karys Rhea on backing vocals and drums; bassist Mark Brickman (who played on the self-titled EP, though he's no longer with the band) and guitarist Shaw Walters. Walters' East Williamsburg digs also serve as something of a headquarters, where the band rehearses and sometimes hosts shows with other local bands, including a series coyly titled "Live Girls," a nod to the proliferation of "girl"-titled bands.
Rhea and Walters, who both hail from the San Francisco Bay Area, have known each other since elementary school, and Christina B met them through the New York music scene, singing as a solo performer in clubs. She felt burnt out and had actually left New York more than a year ago to clear her head when Walters urged her to come back to Brooklyn offering to help her book shows and the like. "I more or less flipped a coin," Christina B says. "It came up "back to Brooklyn." And when she returned, the band just came together naturally.
Rhea had been in the process of teaching herself drums, and, she says, Walters suggested she play drums in the new band. "Actually, what I said was," corrects Walters, "If you practice like 20 hours a day, maybe it'll work." She did, and it has.
Christina B, who was born in Bermuda and has travelled extensively as, among other things, an airline stewardess, brought her songwriting chops and an affinity for an eclectic range of music, including '60s Cambodian pop, to the project.
The songs the band comes up with together sound as if they have always existed — which is not to say old, just weathered. "This project, more than others I've been a part of, has this romantic edge to the music that does recall a different era. Not in so much as a retro sound, but in the way we approach the music," says Walters. They are not mining the past, so much as reassembling it into something vibrant and immediate.
The hook of a song like "Flutter By," which opens with a Christina B flute riff over a loping drum beat, is undeniable. The clarinet and piano breaks could have come out of a supper club in the '40s. The reverbed vocal bridge and distorted guitar could not.
"That song's definitely kind of obsessive," says Christina B. "A lot of my songs are about my obsessions. Things get stuck in my head, and the songs are just a way to express what I'm thinking."
It, and other songs on the EP, create a mood and energy, and while the lyrics may seem obscure, they are never abstract. "I find that the more I get to know Christina, there's a lot there," says Walters, referring to the lyrics. But there are layers to be unraveled. He says, "She's very protective of her words in a funny way."
"Usually when I write a song I have some emotion stuck in my head and that's my way of getting it out," Christina explains. "The songs that take 20 minutes to write are the ones that end up on the album."
The band has been a fixture in NYC clubs for the past several months, playing, in Christina B's words, "compulsively" — up to seven shows a month, because they are asked to perform.
"I'd actually like to play fewer shows so we can focus on the new material and the live set," says Rhea. (The band has a full-length debut in the works.) "But it's been quite a ride, playing every weekend for the past few months, but we'd like to focus on getting our stuff really, really tight for the tour." The band will be hitting the road in December on only its second tour, but its first large-scale cross-country trek.
This go-round, Walters says the band has had an easier time booking gigs — based on the strength of the EP. "People have been really down for us," he says. For instance a promoter in Phoenix, knowing that realistically the band didn't have much of a following in the area yet, told him, "but we like your music, so we're going to make sure you're going to get a good spot."
The tour began when the band played a Prefix Free Fix show at Cameo in Brooklyn on Dec. 4 and goes through Texas to California, where The Starlight Girls will stop in January to work on the full-length LP, and then back again.
The band's sound is shape shifting even on the few songs its released so far, but it's got more in store. "The idea of what the band sounds like is just based on the five songs we decided to record at one moment," says Walters, referring to the EP. "If you think that's diverse," he promises, just wait until you hear what they've got going for the album.