Deep within the Mojave Desert resides a rustic bar that services a unique collection of characters that unashamedly thrive in this inhospitable place. Its endless supply of cold beer no doubt helps to make life a little easier, but so too does the music. For within Pappy & Harriet’s hallowed surrounds, some of contemporary music’s greatest exponents have touted their wares. Bob Dylan has graced the bar’s stage with his presence. So too has Ricky Lee Jones. And Robert Plant has even stopped by to jam with its Sunday evening house band, the Thriftstore Allstars.
A weekly musical confessional conducted by some of the area’s more esteemed players, you never know who is going to join the Thriftstore Allstars at any given gathering. As the ensemble ambled onto the Pappy & Harriet stage one blistering Sunday evening this past summer, Victoria Williams leaned into the microphone and in her sublimely infectious Louisiana drawl, bellowed "tonight we have a friend all the way from Australia." And with that, Australia’s own priestess of alternative-country, Natalie D-Napoleon, took command of the night.
D-Napoleon’s passage onto the American stage has been far more adventurous than just negotiating the dusty back roads that delivered her to this musical haven in the desert. For 13 years, the singer-songwriter has been ploughing the rich yet much maligned musical terrain of roots music in Australia. Having initially risen to prominence in the realm of independent pop with Bloom, it wasn’t long before D-Napoleon was following her roots-laden heart as part of duo Flavour of the Month.
"I’ve been plugging away playing these alt-country tunes for 13 years now and waiting for Australians to get it," D-Napoleon says. "And it’s been a tough journey. When Flavour of the Month released #Fear of Falling# there was only one reviewer in the whole of Australia who could even name our influences. But what’s happened back there in the preceding years has been amazing. With people like John Butler and the Waifs gaining popularity, people seem to be finally hearing where I’m coming from musically."
With the demise of Flavour of the Month came a newfound sense of musical freedom, and D-Napoleon felt the time was right to head to her musical source. With a recently completed solo recording, After The Flood, in one hand and an acoustic guitar in the other, last May, the Perth-based musician headed to America. She craved the quintessential American experience, complete with greasy diners, sleazy saloons and moldy motels. But the experience quickly turned into something more than just a journey across America – it heralded an exploration of her own heart and soul.
"America has always been a kind of Mecca for me, offering all the music I love," she says. "So I wanted to go there to find the source, to go on my own sort of musical pilgrimage. A friend of mine organized a gig at this amazing old Spanish chapel in Santa Barbara and I lent a hand setting things up. And one of my heroes, Victoria Williams, played and we got to talking. A couple of weeks later my friend and I were on a road trip. One thing led to another, and I soon found myself in a bar out in the middle of the desert playing with her."
The experience not only afforded the roaming songstress the chance to share her music with America, but also the opportunity to let her songs breathe in the context of a band. For the past year, D-Napoleon has been playing in solo mode, so the chance to join Williams on stage and allow the Thriftstore Allstars to offer her compositions a different perspective was greatly appreciated, particularly given that is ultimately how she would like to be presenting her music.
"The musicians here are really welcoming and open-minded and really willing to collaborate," D-Napoleon says. "They’ll ask you to play straight away and I really loved that, especially being a solo artist. I jump at any opportunity to play with other people because that’s what I ultimately want to do. The Thriftstore Allstars had a different take on my music, and it was a buzz to play with people who are such incredible musicians. And, of course, having someone the caliber of [ex-Lone Justice drummer] Don Heffington come and tell me he really liked #After the Flood# just blew my mind."
With After The Flood currently gathering D-Napoleon some long overdue local attention, the rest of the year will see the singer-songwriter taking her musical ambitions to the road. Along with playing around Ventura County for the next months – she has shows lined up at the Experimental Café and Caffé Bella – D-Napoleon will be joining Devon Sproule on her forthcoming West Coast tour. D-Napoleon has spent a career ardently tending to her musical roots. It seems only fitting that such conviction now sees a career that is truly blossoming.
Feb. 16, 7 p.m. at the Experimental Café
401 S. A St., Oxnard, 385-3605