Rachel Bissex Kicks Ass!
Vermont's most prolific singer-songwriter ain't your everyday folkie, not that there's anything wrong with that. Her last album, I Used to Be Nice, has shown just how far Rachel has come from her early days as a Johnson scenester. Our editing egomaniac Andrew Smith finds out that despite her album title, Rachel Bissex is still as nice as they come.
Ask any Burling-tonian who's been around for a few years to name their favorite local folk singers, and I'll bet the farm that they'll mention Rachel Bissex. Ask Rachel Bissex the same question, and she'll probably name anyone but Rachel Bissex. You see, Rachel Bissex knows that Rachel Bissex ain't no folkie. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but just because she's a singer-songwriter who writes lyrics for Martin Luther King and covers the occasional Jackson Browne tune doesn't mean she's one of, uh, y'know, them. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Even though her new album is called I Used to Be Nice, we'll let you in on a little secret...Rachel Bissex is as nice as they come.
Rachel Bissex is a thirty-something native of Newton, Massachusetts who landed in Vermont at the age of twenty-one. She spent five years at Johnson State College, and eventually settled in Burlington after the birth of her first child Matt. She worked for the Mayor's Arts Council, programming the art gallery and various festivals in the city. Rachel had a second child, Emma, and in 1989 she started the nomadic Burlington Coffeehouse.
The acoustic music forum was created to showcase singer-songwriters like herself and it was around this time that Rachel made the big plunge, with the urging of her husband, musician and playwright Steve Goldberg, and became a full-time musician. Her first album, the self-released fourteen song Light in Dark Places, was released soon after, in 1990, to local accolades and national attention.
Rachel spent most of the nineties making music and trying to make enough money to make more music. She fears that she oversaturated the Burlington area with her frequent performances and claims that to this day she still can't get booked for First Night because of it. Quick to admit mistakes, she says that she "...pretty much spent nine years learning the music business."
In 1993, Rachel turned over the keys to the Coffeehouse to Jeff Miller (who continues his stewardship to this day) and developed a touring regimen that she eventually turned into a successful route of performances at clubs and festivals up and down the east coast, from southern Florida to northern Maine. Rachel appeared at local festivals like the Ben and Jerry's One World One Heart concert and the Champlain Valley Festival, and she shared the stage with a varied roster of major headliners including Ray Charles, Shawn Colvin and Joan Armatrading.
Worn down by the years of do-it-yourself booking and promotion, in late 1994 Rachel signed a record contract with Waterbury-based Alcazar Records. Alcazar promised tour support, promotion and distribution, and Rachel was happy for the help. Alcazar was a small Vermont label, homegrown out of Joan Pelton's Silo Distribution, and that year the company ambitiously signed Rachel, Gordon Stone and George Pettit to long-term record contracts. In 1995, the company released Rachel's second album, the thirteen song Don't Look Down. Featuring an all-star cast of Vermont's finest musicians including Stone, Martin Guigui and Chad Hollister, the album included the song "Dancing With My Mother," which had drawn much attention to Rachel when it was included on the Acoustic Alliance compilation CD in 1994.
Alcazar promoted the album as zealously as they could, and Rachel credits the label with helping her expand her audience and grow her art. Her third album, the 1997 release I Used to Be Nice, demonstrated a growth and maturity in her work that was almost dramatic to witness. Including guest stars Dar Williams, Stacy Starkweather and Gabe Jarrett, the album showcased a seasoned depth in her songwriting and some truly world-class performances. I Used to Be Nice should have been Rachel's big break, but unfortunately by the time of the album's release, corporate support at Alcazar had dwindled to such a point that she now considers the album unpromoted. Alcazar dropped all of their artist roster in early 1998 and has devoted themselves solely to the creation of "concept" albums, leaving Rachel to find a new home for her music.
If you're gonna keep climbing, you might as well find some new roads to explore, and this year Rachel will continue to travel, singing her songs. Next month she'll play her way down to Texas, do the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas, and then she'll play her way back. Next fall she'll be in the bay area of California for three weeks, performing with her friend Annie Wenz from Northampton, Massachusetts. And locally, Rachel has started playing with a band (including her husband, Rachael Beddoe and occasionally Stacy Starkweather or Billy Patton on bass) at the new Red Square on Church Street in Burlington. ~GC~
Andrew Smith was in a Johnson Players production of a John Ford Noonan play with Rachel Bissex a few years back. She didn't remember him, though.