The last time Knoxville saw Kym Hawkins on a stage, she was fronting Plainclothes Tracy, a local four-piece rock outfit that no one could ever seem to describe in one tidy sentence, theirs being a clever admixture of folk and prog and punk and pure unadulterated pop that defied easy categorization.
But Hawkins, an aspiring poetess, packed up and left town in the summer of 2012, bound for Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. Now she’s back—if only for a night or two—with an M.A. in Fine Arts and a new band in tow. And though her new five-piece unit Gillian doesn’t sound much like PCT, they’re just as hard to pin down.
It’s been an interesting two-and-half year odyssey for Hawkins. Besides picking up her advanced degree—with a focus on creative writing, and a concentration in poetry—she found work as a luthier’s apprentice. It was a good gig for an aspiring musician—Hawkins learned some of the trade, sharpened her own guitar chops, and made plentiful contacts with other New York artists.
That’s how she met singer/guitarist Geoff Bennington, delivering a finished guitar to the East Village music store where Bennington worked. Bennington was pulling together a new band with guitarist Paul Demyanovich, a childhood pal. They needed a singer; three months later, Hawkins was on board.
Hawkins says it was awkward, at first, like getting to know a new lover, or starting a new career. “It was weird,” she confesses. “I was in Plainclothes for seven years, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Early on, I found myself just writing a lot, scribbling away on a notepad at practices. Finally, I got confident enough to start singing along.
“I was always used to writing by myself. But Geoff likes to write his vocals right there in front of the band. So I started doing that, too. First just scatting along, then putting words to the melodies.”
Gillian have released a couple of EPs so far, a two-song effort in 2013 entitled “Freak Flag,” and a four-song release in 2014, “The Eyes in My Head.” The music calls to mind any number of ‘80s punk and post-punk influences, but it’s delivered with enough brash confidence and modernist flair, so as to never sound recombinant or self-consciously retro.
“The guys are all from Jersey, and they probably pull things more in a punk direction,” Hawkins says. “I probably pull it more in a bluesy, southern-rock direction.”
Bluesy and southern rock-ish? Maybe, but what Hawkins does more than anything is add a distinctly Kym Hawkins-esque touch to the music, so familiar to fans of Plainclothes Tracy. Which is to say, she brings her trademark style of chatty, literate verse and a playful, sensitive vocal delivery—a righteous understanding of when to emote, when to whisper and coo, and when to sit back altogether, let the ellipsis speak for itself…
Right now, Gillian is setting out on the first of what should be a couple of tours this year. Hawkins has big hopes for her current project—she actually turned down a slot as guitarist in another up-and-coming NYC band, she says, when she saw that “Gillian was starting to go places.”
For the moment, though, she’s looking forward to a stopover—however brief—in the city she called home for the better part of 10 years. “I’m so glad to see Knoxville again,” she says. “I miss Knoxville; I love that place.”
Gillian will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, April 17 at 10 p.m. along with Atlanta dream-pop outfit Powerkompany.