For six years, Debora Iyall fronted the San Francisco New Wave band Romeo Void. Known for upfront lyrics (Iyall coined the famous line "I might like you better if we slept together"), the band scored two hits with the singles "A Girl in Trouble" and "Never Say Never" in the early Eighties. But the band was dropped from its label because of Iyall's weight, according to a VH1 episode of Bands Reunited, and Romeo Void eventually disbanded. Iyall not only left music, but California, too. Now, after a long hiatus, the singer has returned to her roots. A gig in September led to writing new songs with guitarist Peter Dunne, and her new band (also featuring bassist Karl Sevareid and drummer Dawn Richardson) will headline a show at Slim's this weekend.
"I still like to sing and I still like to perform," said Iyall, adding that the knowledge that there are still Romeo Void fans out there helps keep her encouraged. At the Slim's show last year, whole families showed up with kids raised on Romeo Void. She's hoping both to reconnect with old fans and find new ones.
Appropriately, the new music Iyall and Dunne have been creating is reminiscent of Romeo Void in some ways, but not in others. One of the first songs, "Bring It," was inspired by a quote from Precious actress Gabourey Sidibe: "When people see me they don't expect much, but I do." Iyall took the sentiment and reworked it: You may not think too much of me just to look at me/All I can say is just you wait, just you wait and see. As heard in demos available on ReverbNation.com, and another on Slim's' web site, Iyall's new songs are part-New Wave and part-mellow singer-songwriter, allowing her distinctive voice to shine.
Iyall got back into music almost by accident. She lost her apartment in San Francisco in 2000 and had to move out of the Bay Area. "I was one of the forced relocations," she said. She ended up in Southern California, where she did some artist residencies, but decided to go back to college and get her master's degree so that she could get her teaching credentials. From there she moved to Portland, ending up in a program for tribal educators at Lewis & Clark College. A grant paid for her tuition, and she decided to pay back the grant by going to the Navajo nation for a few years to teach. The theme of giving back to the community seems to be an ongoing one for Iyall, who's Native American. She's now teaching special ed kids and youth in the Native-American community around Sacramento. She also took a detour through Arizona, but bailed when her husband, an audio engineer, couldn't find a job and had to relocate to LA.
Arriving back in California, Iyall was quickly exposed to the realities of the ongoing recession. There were no full-time teaching jobs to be found, so she ended up freelancing. Always an optimist, Iyall decided that she might as well take the opportunity to make some music. That's when she was invited to share the stage with Wire Train and Translator at a show at Slim's in September. "I had so much fun doing that and organizing it and working with Peter [Dunne] again, so then I decided, let's just start writing songs," Iyall recalled. "And then after we wrote a few songs, I was like, let's write an album! Let's just go for it, because I had time." Iyall's positive attitude flows through everything she does. "I'm one of those people that if something isn't flourishing, I'll just change my direction. I'm like a plant, I move towards the light."
Her outspokenness was an integral part of her lyrics in Romeo Void. "My approach was always that I had something to say, I had a point of view," she said. "I remember seeing Penelope from the Avengers at the Mabuhay Gardens and thinking, I can do that. I have something to say."
Indie labels "promoted the hell out of us," said Iyall, and the band went on several US tours. After the success of the Never Say Never EP in 1982, Romeo Void signed to a major label. The band was already playing to fairly big crowds, so "the daily look of things didn't really change that much, but the pressures were more significant." When the band went into the studio, Iyall says (with audible scorn) that there was pressure to come up with "more sex lyrics." "I do like to be provocative, and I definitely have access to my sexuality, and as a topic I find it ripe, but I wasn't ever going to be a sex-pot diva, so that was kind of odd," she said. There was also the pressure to give the record company a single, and sometimes even that wasn't enough. "Sometimes you give them a single and they still dump you."
Romeo Void had just cracked the Top 40 with "Girl in Trouble" and done American Bandstand when its label decided to pull promotional support in the middle of a national tour. "The very next town we got to after they made that decision, there wasn't an A&R person there, there was no local person there, there were no interviews and in-stores arranged as they had been. All that just ground to a halt."
Iyall says the increased touring also led to the band's disintegration. "I think touring is what eventually tore us apart, because it's a grind," she said. "You get tired of each other, and you get intolerant of being uncomfortable and away from your family and your friends."
Iyall said she didn't know why the label eventually dropped the band, and she declined to discuss the reason reported on VH1. But she said she may not be taking full responsibility for her part in it. "I called this art and I called this my life," she said. "Those are big words to me."
Now back in the scene, Iyall says she's resigned to the fact that the music business is a business. But she remains stubbornly insistent that creativity is the most important part of the equation.
And in keeping with her unapologetic, optimistic attitude, Iyall says she doesn't have anything to prove. "All I'm doing is offering the most unique thing that I have and hoping that I can connect with people this way who want to hear it," she said. "Who hasn't been judged unfairly and who doesn't have gifts to give that are unseen? I think there's a real universality to me being who I am and when people come to see me they're like, hey, she's a real person."