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Up from darkness 

Retro songstress Izzy Cox escapes her own past

Inspired by pre-war jump blues, dark cabaret roots and slow-burn torch songs, Izzy Cox's sultry vocals are shadowed by a sinister air. It's as evident in the bluesy western-swing of "Thorzine" and the menacing rockabilly of "Killing My Kind" as it is in her own backstory.

A runaway since she was 11, Cox worked and slept at horse tracks, joined traveling circuses, and at the age of 16 was sucked into the juvenile system in Montreal, where for the next five years she took advantage of their outreach programs.

"I was part of the Cirque du Soleil, their clown school," she recalls. "I went to dance school, I did acrobatics, I was painting. And then I went to college, and studied theater arts. I was heavily influenced by early film, vaudeville and theatrical stuff."

While fronting several bands in Montreal, she developed strong bonds with a number of well-known musicians, including Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Stars, and Arcade Fire. After moving to Los Angeles, she released her debut, Love Letters From the Electric Chair, in 2007. Her saucy jazz-blues style, powerful impassioned vocals and dramatic mien began to turn heads.

Cox was living in Austin, Texas when, in the summer of 2010, she landed an opening slot on Hank III's tour while supporting her album, Killing My Kind. A big fan of Hank's grandfather, she was thrilled to be on tour with him. Until years of self-abuse caught up with her. An undiagnosed manic-depressive with a predisposition toward alcoholism, her self-medication progressed to a stage of nightly blackouts and bizarre behavior that got her kicked off tour.

"I was on my knees barking at people and trying to bite their ankles," says Cox, who wasn't aware of the details until a friend recounted them to her months later. "I was really out to lunch. I can laugh about it now. But when I first heard about it ..."

Depressed and convinced she'd blown her big chance, Cox returned to her home in Austin and attempted to drink herself to death. Friends intervened and took her to rehab where, for the first time, she got proper medication to manage her illness and post-traumatic stress. It made all the difference. She used to think about suicide every day. Now she likes to think about the future. Not that she isn't still haunted.

"I lived a really hard life. I'm not saying I want people to feel sorry for me. It's just, I survived," she says. "All these years I was in these different [12-step] programs wishing to get better, only to find out what I needed was a couple pills. And now I'm a functioning human being."

The economics of touring, meanwhile, have forced Cox into one-woman-band mode. She plays an electric guitar and thumps a big bass drum — an approach she showcases on her double-album, Bars Brawls & Booze. Written over the last three years, the 28-track release is raw. Most songs were done in one take and only hint at Cox's stage magnetism.

"I don't mind playing dive bars and rec halls the rest of my life," she concludes. "I'm just fortunate to be able to do what I do. A lot of people care about me and cared about me all over the world. Having fans, promoters and friends encouraging me, that's why I keep doing it. It's like trying to give back what people have given me."

scene@csindy.com

  • Retro songstress Izzy Cox escapes her own past

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