A small turquoise car pulled up to the intersection at Hayes and Divisadero Streets, right outside the Bean Bag Café. Usher's newest Top 40 dance hit, "More," was blasting through the stereo speakers at an obnoxious volume — loud enough to make the hood and the windows rattle. The driver tapped his steering wheel, while three passengers danced awkwardly in their seats. Kelly McFarling watched with mild amusement. "That's awesome," she said.
McFarling isn't partial to Usher, but she loves random, extravagant displays of joie de vivre. It's a major selling point of her new Haight district stomping ground. McFarling moved here in 2007 with vague aspirations to audition for the San Francisco Opera. Instead, she became one of the Bay Area's most promising singer-songwriters.
That might sound like a bold statement, but it's no overreach. Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, McFarling grew up playing guitar and singing in school choirs. She consumed Lilith Fair-ish female folk rock with no sense of irony. "I was a big choir geek," she confessed. "In high school we would have these parties where we would all just sit in the basement, eat chips, and sing along to Indigo Girls albums." Later, she got heavy into Gillian Welch and San Francisco-based singer Sean Hayes (who provided part of the impetus for moving out west). She studied music and literature at Wesleyan College, worked at a cafe for one year after graduation, and used her meager earnings to buy a $150 banjo from a pawn shop.
But it took a move to San Francisco to start her career in earnest. Unfortunately, the opera didn't pan out. McFarling apparently had the pipes for it, but gave up after a voice teacher told her how hard she'd have to work just to get an audition. (Part of her vocal "muscle" had apparently atrophied in the interim during the post-Wesleyan cafe days.) Instead, she took a job at a local climbing gym and started attending the open mics at Hotel Utah, if only to satiate her need to sing.
"It was the first time I'd performed onstage with my banjo," recalled the slender, brown-eyed, oddly softspoken vocalist. She tried a Welch cover, which went over well with the folkie audience. So she came back the next week. And the next. Pretty soon, she'd rejiggered her work schedule to have Mondays off, so she could spend the afternoon writing a song to perform that night. She eventually hooked up with upright bassist Jonathan Kirchner (who also plays in the band Con Brio) and drummer Andrew Laubacher, who form the core of her current band (they normally tour as a trio, occasionally adding guitar or background vocals). Last year the group cut McFarling's debut album, Distractible Child. In March, the three band mates launched a Kickstarter campaign for a national road tour in May. In April, McFarling quit her job at the gym, in order to pursue music full time.
She has reason to be optimistic. While the Bay Area singer-songwriter scene doesn't quite match up to the one in McFarling's hometown, it's still got a strong enough lineage to attract refugees from the Midwest and the southeast, many of whom get their start at the Hotel Utah open mics. McFarling stands out in particular, with her understated dynamics and endlessly agile vocals. Surprisingly deep-voiced for an opera singer — even a reformed opera singer — she sings with an almost world-weary quality that belies her 27 years. That sophistication is reflected in her lyrics, too. Take the love song "Hammer," which is as much about the insufficiencies of language, as it is about ironing out difficulties in a relationship. Or "FNYC," about her ambivalent relationship with New York City, where most of her friends resettled to start their artistic pursuits. Or the nostalgia track "Atlanta," which is really a series of images strung together (It's Friday night, and we're skipping stones in the sewer pipes, she sings, setting a scene with the opening verse). McFarling said she wrote the song in an afternoon, and taught it to Kirchner in the alleyway outside Hotel Utah. They performed it that night.
Whether Kelly McFarling's career will really blossom in San Francisco is still open for speculation. She says the area is rife with home concerts and listening spaces that help singer-songwriters cultivate a fan base, even if the gigs aren't particularly lucrative. And many talented musicians are coming up here, among them Hayes, Sonya Cotton, Megan Keely, and Wolf Larsen. The latter two perform with McFarling in an old-timey girl group called Glittersnatch.
Still, a lot of local singer-songwriters complain about their scene being too insular, McFarling said, especially since it's constantly overshadowed by indie rock and dance music. "I've heard disgruntled musicians joke about how the Burning Man scene has negatively affected the live music scene here," she recounted, in a follow-up e-mail. "I'm not sure about that since I wasn't here 'back in the day' but I do know that there aren't a ton of venues in the city that are geared towards quieter folk music."
Perhaps she should have been concerned that the preferred form of aural assault — on Divisadero Street, at least — is Usher, rather than Welch. But McFarling won't begrudge San Franciscans their preferences. As of now, at least, she has no plans to move to New York City. Or back to Atlanta, for that matter.