Undercover Angel: Rebekah Pulley

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One of my few hard-and-fast rules regarding this column concerns original artists and bands that also work the cover circuit; to wit, I don't feature them. It may be seen as stupid or uppity or "punk rock" or whatever when viewed from a different perspective, but I have my reasons. I certainly don't think such people are less talented than anyone else. Having said that, however, I decided long ago that there were far too many noteworthy local outfits not getting seen (or paid well) on a semi-regular basis for me to use this space covering one that does.Of course, rules were made to be broken.

Pinellas singer/songwriter Rebekah Pulley can be seen plying cover tunes several nights a week on both sides of the Howard Frankland, from Ybor City's James Joyce Pub to Dunedin's Purple Moon to her regular Saturday night gig with Jerry Provost at Tampa's Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Aside from a few infrequent jobs doing in-home massage (she's a licensed therapist), it's how she makes her living — Pulley has an 8-year-old daughter named Jasmine, and hiring a nighttime sitter or tapping a friend to watch her is vastly more affordable than full-time day care.

She's good at covers, too, with a versatile, liquid voice and adept guitar skills. But when she works in one of her own songs, her presence is suddenly magnified exponentially, making it apparent where her true passion and talents lie.

"A lot of times when you do originals, you don't get paid, but you just feel good," she says. "You did something you wanted to do, as opposed to doing something for the money."

Pulley's been writing songs for far longer than the two years she's been playing covers. Raised in a musical household, she first picked up the guitar well over a decade ago, when she was 16. "My dad was a musician, so I grew up around it," she says. "You start playing chords, you start writing songs — it just kind of goes together."

Her first CD, 1999's Nowhere Fast, featured full band accompaniment, and was recorded in that scattered, pressured, catch-as-catch-can studio fashion that nearly every fledgling original band knows all too well. Pulley found the experience frustrating and disenchanting, and decided to take a purely opposite approach for her next release. The beautifully intimate Brand New Day, which brandishes original artwork by Jasmine, was recorded solo in her living room over a couple of hours in October of last year. The spare, evocative album ably showcases both Pulley's enviable vocal talent and her startlingly well-developed songwriting chops.

Between the two albums, Pulley augmented her coffee shop and open mic shows with regular cover gigs when she discovered it would enable her to quit her job as an exotic dancer. Born in remote, small-town Alaska, she'd never seen anything like the Bay area's obsession with the flesh until moving here seven years ago. She found in dancing a way to support herself and her daughter, and still have time for motherhood. She makes no apologies for her former career and figures she simply traded one middlebrow form of live spectacle for another. At the same time, however, it's not like she brings it up when you first shake hands with her.

"It's in my blood to be an entertainer of some sort," says the songwriter. "If I went to play at a party for a lot of college-educated older people ... they've never been in a situation like (mine), so I don't necessarily tell them about it."

Though grateful that she can make a living playing music of any sort, Pulley makes no bones about the fact that the cover circuit is less than satisfying, and that for her it's all about paying the rent.

"I started playing covers, and then horrible things started happening," she says with a laugh. "Sometimes it gives me the same feeling I had when I was dancing. It can leave a bad taste in your mouth, a discomfort in your gut. Sometimes you just don't feel good at the end of the night."

Pulley's experiences as a single mother have lent her original material a compelling, quiet strength, a moving sense of individuals unbowed by life's various trials. She says it's not a thought-out attribute, however, and whatever semblance of her own history finds its way in does so in a very stream-of-consciousness way.

"I don't sit and think "I want to write about this.' It's very unconscious, maybe just a way to release emotions," she muses. "It's just a way of getting it out."

Her emotional catharsis is beginning to connect with a larger audience. Pulley's repeat appearances at the State Theatre's In the Raw singer/songwriter series have made her a favorite with other original artists in the area. The peer exposure helped catalyze an agreement with The Gita's Mekka Records label to release and distribute her upcoming third disc. She's switched back to a full band sound for the record, currently in production, by working with some admiring peers, and is even considering booking some live sets as a complete outfit.

"It's a bigger sound, and there's more of a variety of places to play," she says.

What she really wants to do, though, is find an alternative to playing covers. It's a convenient and apt way for a musician to make a living, and it gives some of them all the fulfillment they need. But it just doesn't sit well with Pulley, for whom expression and communication are the foundation of meaningful music. And she's still finding new satisfaction in doing those things with her own material.

"I have a hard time relating to other people," she says. "You have to interact in some way, and I feel like I'm just learning to do that."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or e-mail him at [email protected].

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