One-man bands typically come in two varieties: There's the guy with the slide-guitar who likes to stomp on suitcases and howl like Tom Waits. And then there's the other guy who uses live looping and effects pedals as a thin excuse for public self-gratification.
The one-woman band, on the other hand, is a rarer and less easily stereotyped phenomenon. It can be traced back at least a few decades to performance artist Laurie Anderson outfitting her violin's bridge with a magnetic tape head and replacing her bow's horse-hair with a strip of recording tape. More recently, Merrill Garbus began performing as Tune-Yards, creating drum loops onstage that she combines with layered ukulele and vocals to create other-worldly pop music.
Relative upstart Kristen Ford doesn't sound at all like Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson or Tune-Yards, but she's just as self-reliant. The Massachusetts-born indie-rocker's onstage set-up includes electric and acoustic guitars, effects boxes, a bass pedal, hi-hat, kick-drum, and two looping stations.
It all adds up to a sound that, when she wants it to, is big enough to rival the full band she performs with back in Boston. But it's also small enough to fit in the van she's been living in for the last year on her "never-ending tour."
Ford was playing in Moab, Utah, when she first realized the one-woman band approach would work for her. All it took was the performance of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, something you might not expect from an LGBT-identified artist who critics often compare to Kimya Dawson, Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman.
"It was a long show, so I did a cover of 'Sweet Home Alabama' as a mashup with the Kid Rock version," she recalls. "And I just had this moment where I realized it had really clicked. I could use my pedals and the limited set-up that I had to actually jam out and rock it like a band, rather than feeling this longing to have more musicians onstage."
Since then, Ford has been careful to avoid the self-indulgence that can come along with that. "Looping can be really fun, if you're just in your bedroom or your practice space, and it's like, 'Oh, wow, look at all the things I can do!' You can just stack up this big ridiculous thing that's truly interesting for you as you're making it, but it might not hold much weight for an audience."
Ford prefers a less showy approach. "I think you need really strong songs, or it's not going to work. Unless," she adds with a laugh, "you have a disco dance beat, a synth line and a drum track, and then you can get away with crap and it still feels good."
Which is not to say that Ford has anything against beat-driven arrangements. In fact, she invited musician friends to remix all the tracks from her Dinosaur album, which you can find as pay-what-you-will downloads on her website.
Still, she's just as inclined to play a stripped-down, acoustic guitar-and-vocal cover of "Rude" by reggae-pop band Magic! with its lyrics rewritten to address the Supreme Court's gay marriage rulings. That intersection between the personal and the political is a theme that runs throughout Ford's work, as evidenced by the footage of anti-gay protesters in her "Be Your Girl" video.
"I was just in Washington state, where it's very liberal and very gay-friendly," says Ford, "and now I've got a bunch of shows in Montana and Wyoming, where you sometimes feel more conscious of how you look, or who you're with, or just the way that you carry yourself. But what I love about traveling is that you meet so many amazing people. Whether you're in red states or blue states — or I guess Colorado is a purple state — it's not really that different. It's like people are chill everywhere."
The music and media industries, on the other hand, are a different story. "It's cool that Sam Smith is an openly gay man, but they're always looking for likeable white dudes like him and Hoosier to sing black people's music. Even the people in the lesbian community who are well-known, like Ellen or Tegan and Sara, are very femme — women who fit into this mode of skinny white people. You don't really see butch women represented."
Ford sees that same dynamic with transgender representation in the media. "If the transgender community were to vote for a spokesperson, they probably would not have chosen Bruce Jenner," she says. "But it's still good that there's increased awareness, so we can work toward the point where people can make the choices that are right for themselves."
In the meantime, Ford is letting her socially conscious songs speak for themselves.
"My banter onstage definitely varies," she admits. "If I look out and it's mostly a young queer audience, there's gonna be a lot more talk in that regard. And if it's a biker bar full of smokers who are also lifetime ranchers, it's like, maybe I don't need to talk about how this song is about an ex-girlfriend. It can be more like 'Winter sucks. I wrote this song in the winter.' It's about finding common ground."