When resentment over a young heartbreak consumed her, Bridge City Sinners vocalist Libby Lux began writing music, purely out of spite. But although Libby grew up in the Portland punk scene, when she began to channel her emotions through songwriting, street punk wasn’t where she found her voice. Since her band’s first release in 2016, the Bridge City Sinners have meshed punk rock with jazzy folk songs, Appalachian bluegrass, and the Golden Age of country western music, all lead by Libby’s dramatic vocals.
Ahead of their Saturday set at Riot Fest, we chatted with Libby about the band’s newest album, Unholy Hymns, which explores the darker side of string music with a folk punk twist, and how her stint as a Hot Topic employee converted her to a My Chemical Romance fan.
The Bridge City Sinners have ascended playing sidewalks to the international festival circuit. Where did your music journey begin?
I dated a boy from when I was 15 until I was about 20, and when I was 18 he broke up with me for a moment to go travel, hitchhike, hop trains, and play music. He left me and I was heartbroken, but out of absolute vengeance and resentment I decided I was going to start playing music, too.
I was raised in the punk scene and always wanted to be in a punk band, but when I picked up a guitar, that is not what came out. I started playing my own kind of singer-songwriter stuff, but I still had this huge love for punk rock. I was actually like a super-elitist punk rocker when I was younger. I did not want to listen to any other music. One day, my mom came home with the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? She put it on and I remember bopping my head and being like, “This shit slaps.” I really started falling in love with old country music, artists like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, and it became intertwined with my love for punk rock.
How did you make the transition from singer-songwriter to playing with four other people?
My bass player, Scott, actually used to play bass with that same ex who started my vengeful journey, but I met everyone else through Craigslist. I was in a really unfulfilling relationship, working a really unfulfilling job, and I was pretty much ready to call it quits. I was horribly depressed and didn’t know which way to turn, so I tried to think about the things that used to make me happy, and music was something that made me happy. It made me feel like me again.
I asked myself, “How can I get back to that?” I started looking on Craigslist and found an ad put out by a girl who used to play washboard with us at the very beginning when we were just a busking band. The ad said that they were in their 20s, they liked this kind of music, and that they wanted to look for more people to play music with them.
They were playing an open mic, and I had been talking to them via email, so they didn’t know what I looked like. I showed up to the open mic and hid in the back and watched them play at first because I didn’t want to be obligated to play in case they weren’t great, but they were excellent! I introduced myself afterwards and said, “Hey, I’m from the internet. Can I play with you guys sometime?” And the rest is history. I called up Scott, and said, “Hey, come play music in the backyard with us.” He had a friend who had a little YouTube music channel. It was small and didn’t have very many subscribers or anything. We did a video with them and all of a sudden it just popped off. We had no idea what we were in for.
It’s been almost a year since you independently released Unholy Hymns through Flail Records. Can you tell me a bit about that DIY process?
Flail Records is all run out of our bass player’s home. It started with our first little album. I wouldn’t even call it an album. It’s a bunch of cover songs that we could sell when we were busking so we could make more beer money. It wasn’t anything serious. I think there’s two original songs that I wrote when I was 19 on there, and that’s about it. But we signed up with someone else to help us distribute that. They really made it seem like they were there for us and that they were our friends and had our best interests in mind, but colors tend to show themselves and we learned that wasn’t something that we wanted to do again. We didn’t want to trust people outside of our circle.
We released Unholy Hymns all by ourselves and it made it onto the Billboard charts, right above NOW That’s What I Call Country, Vol. 14. Our friend Jesse recorded it with Low Shelf Recording in Portland. He actually used to play guitar for us in the band when we were more of a busking band. When things got serious, we had to buckle down. It wasn’t practical to travel with nine people, and musically, the band didn’t need it. Everyone was really understanding, so he helped us record our album and we released it through our own bass player. He’s got a couple other great bands that he’s helping out, mostly doing distribution for and helping them be their own bosses, like Days N’ Daze, Tejon Street Corner Thieves, and Holy Locust, which are incredible.
It’s not the usual route for an independent album to place on the Billboard charts. Besides writing strong songs, are there any other factors you feel influenced how well the album was received?
We have an amazing fan base: a truly dedicated, cult-like fan base. The people who love us, love us. I think [the album] was long awaited, too. This all came on really suddenly for us, so we weren’t prepared to release music in the quantity that people were hungry for it. We released our little busking album that we made just for shits and giggles, and then all of a sudden people were screaming “More, MORE!’ We put out Here’s To The Devil and then it just continued to grow, so by the time Unholy Hymns came to fruition, people were really hungry. And with COVID happening, I think that puts people into a very weird mental state of needing and wanting stimulation, searching for it in ways that they hadn’t before. People were digging into the internet, streams were skyrocketing because people were at home and they were bored, and people had money to spend on things that made them feel good because there was a lot of not feeling good during that time frame.
Unholy Hymns is split into two parts: autobiographical songs and a mini concept album. Do you have different approaches when writing different topics or for different genres?
Even though I’m the main lyricist, I’m not always the main writer, although around 75% of the writing is me. But there are a handful of songs that aren’t written by me, even though they’re performed by me. We all come from really different backgrounds. My fiddle player, Luke, was raised by musicians. His mother is a world renowned flute player. Luke was raised playing violin and piano, he played classical music, and went to school for music. Then Clyde, our banjo player, also has his own solo stuff that’s really focused on ragtime and blues. Then me and Michael, our guitarist, are more of that rough-edge punk. We don’t want to put a cap on it and say we can only make music that sounds like this, because that’s our genre. We’re trying to be, I don’t know, genre-fluid? I want to be able to play the Americana Music Festival, the Strings Music Festival, and I want to play Riot Fest. We don’t want to be put into a hole. I love being the weird band on the lineup. I love playing the punk festival and knowing this is the only banjo and the only violin you will see all week. I’m a big fan of the more obscure instruments; the weirder the better.
Have you been working on a follow up to Unholy Hymns, or is the festival circuit your primary focus right now?
The next album is in the forefront of our minds. We have a handful of songs already written, but they’re all in that stage of being on a cell phone. We all live in separate states, so it’s a lot of working together via our phones on a shared Google Doc, unfortunately. We’ll be together for probably three weeks to a month towards the end of the year, and then we’re gonna really hammer in things and get them all put together. I’m expecting that we’ll have another album in the works, if not completed, by the end of next year.
What’s it been like to make the transition from playing on sidewalks to being placed on larger festival lineups like Riot Fest?
My first concert that I ever went to was the Misfits when I was 12 years old, and they’re headlining Riot Fest. I’m literally playing alongside people that didn’t even seem real to me when I was a kid. I remember asking the merch person, “Did you get to meet the Misfits, yet?” and he said “Little girl. Meet them? I trip over them every morning.” He told me to pick out a sticker and he took me in the back and had them all autograph the sticker for me. I still have it. I remember this making my life, my 12-year-old dreams.
This will be your first Riot Fest as both a performer and an attendee. Who else are you excited to see?
Oh my God, My Chemical Romance. I can’t wait to scream “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” with my guitar player, because we both love early emo. It’s our guiltiest pleasure. We literally squealed and jumped up and down when we were told that we got the offer from Riot Fest. Also, Jimmy Eat World. I saw them play at Warped Tour in 2005, so I’m excited to see them again. I worked at a Hot Topic at one point in my life, and there’s so many bands on this lineup whose T-shirts I used to fold. I’m absolutely excited for Madball and FEAR. And I play the same day as Yellowcard and Bauhaus!
Did working at Hot Topic put you on to any music you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise?
All early emo. If you had come to me when I was 14 with a band like Brand New or even My Chemical Romance, I would’ve said “No! Only fast street punk!” It wasn’t until working at Hot Topic as an adult and hearing their playlist all the time that I realized I loved this genre of music I love Paramore! It’s funny because people have this nostalgia about the genre that I don’t.
As the Bridge City Sinners has played increasingly larger stages, have you adjusted how you approach live performance at all?
The part I enjoy most is the performance. That’s what gets me going. I’m not an excellent musician technically, when it comes to my instruments. My fiddle player is an incredible musician. My banjo player is an incredible musician. They are the heart and soul of the music. If the room becomes bigger and the crowds become bigger, I would also like the [performance] to grow. If I have the money, why not light some shit on fire? Where’s the confetti cannons?
One of the best performances I’ve ever seen in my whole life was The Addicts. Nothing has ever compared. When we did a little week-long run with them on the West Coast, watching them perform was just everything. Why don’t I have an entire crew of people who launch confetti? And a clean up crew? Why am I not allowed to dump beer on everybody’s head? I love to live by the phrase, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”