"I don't understand the big deal about my age," she snaps. We're sitting in Geri X's favorite haunt, the Globe Coffee Lounge in downtown St. Pete, and our interview has started off a bit tense.
A petite woman who could pass for a teenager, Geri X is perhaps the most heavily buzzed performer of original music in Tampa Bay. She also might be the pluckiest. "People come up to me and say: 'There's all these rumors about how old you are,'" she says. "I just tell them that I'm 15 — this week."
Geri X's latest album, last year's Can't Make you Happy, helped win her Creative Loafing's Best of the Bay award for Singer/Songwriter. Its melancholy, minor chords complement moving, confessional tales. Take the leadoff track "Hothead": It finds the singer waking up with a sad young man in her room. She watches him wash his face with cold water and "paint [himself] back together."
"Take my hand," goes the hypnotic chorus. "Stay, I can make you happy, I can make you happy." Like many Geri X songs, it details a heavy-investment love affair. Deep subject matter — especially for someone who is age 17, according to her promotional materials. The issue shrouds the Bulgarian-born artist in mystery. She's reluctant to set the record straight.
"What's your birthday?" I press.
"May 6," she replies.
Awkward silence. Her nose wrinkles. "Yeah, I'm not 15 and I'm not 17 and I'm not 30," she quips. "Everybody puts whatever age they want on me because I won't tell anyone how old I am."
Geri X tells me she'd rather not have her age run in the story. "I don't understand the focus on it," she adds. Or does she? Like the lyrics of her songs, she is candid yet peculiar — and maybe not above letting the Lolita image linger in order to sell CDs or attract more attention from the national indie labels she says have contacted her. Regardless if she is 15 or 50, though, Geri X is an interesting artist, an expressive singer and an attentive scribe whose words worm their way under the listener's skin.
Her birth date out of the way, the subject switches to tattoos. She sports a striking design that sprawls from her left shoulder down to her chest and is usually visible when she performs. "My friend did it, I designed it," she says. "It was supposed to be a representation of the four seasons — minus the snowflake that was suppose to go right here, but I never drew it.
"This is spring," she continues, pointing with the index finger of her right hand. "And then autumn is the leaves and these are summer and then it goes into winter here."
We move from body art to bio. Geri X's family moved around Europe before landing in the Bay area about five years ago, when she was in high school. She currently lives on St. Pete Beach with her mom and sister, who is a painter.
"My mother is very creative," she says with affection. "She's out there."
Does Geri X consider herself "out there?"
"I hope I'm not as big a kook as [Mom] is," she says. "But I guess I am; we're all crazy — our whole household."
Geri X's dad is an artist. She has no kind words for him, hence her refusal to carry his surname (which she won't reveal to me). Track number eight on Can't Make You Happy is titled "Father's Stamps." Geri X's singing is characteristically cool and detached, but she sinks her teeth into the lines, "You know you're just a gaping hole, a selfless loon, a failing starlet in a minor role/ Your eyes are leaking kerosene/ Be diligent, don't catch fire."
The discussion turns to Geri's days spent at Tampa's Blake High School, where early on she could not understand a word being uttered by teachers or classmates. "It was very frustrating," she says. "I'm a very personable person. I can strike up a conversation with anybody. It was very hard not being able to speak with people."
Geri X picked up English in six months, and a couple years later began expressing herself through rhymes set to sad music. A pianist and guitar-player as a child, she began penning tunes "a couple years ago" and so far has written "probably 200," but only plays "maybe 20 of them." Her first forays into songwriting produced, she says, "some pretty depressing shit."
Geri X released several homemade CDs before Can't Make You Happy came out last year on the Tampa-based indie label Mekka Records. In addition to 10 originals, the disc includes an impassioned reading of Leonard Cohen's postmodern hymn "Hallelujah," which was most famously covered by the late Jeff Buckley. "I was watching the Jeff Buckley Live in Chicago DVD, and I was just awestruck," she says. "That song just rips you apart."
At first, Geri X revered "Hallelujah" too much to record it. "I didn't wanna fuck it up," she says. But then one night she was on stage at Sacred Grounds in Tampa and someone requested it. She punched the song up on her computer to get the lyrics and chords. "I just sat there with my computer and my guitar in my lap singing it," she says. "That was the first time I played it."
The song continues to kill when she plays it live, as do originals such as "Hothead" and "Fever," the latter a highlight of the local compilation Southeast Music Alliance presents Volume Two: Tampa Bay & Beyond.
But despite a MySpace page peppered with glowing comments, weekly applause, a nifty award from the Loaf and recently being selected by BAAMO (Bay Area Arts & Music Organization) to play the 5th Annual Florida Bandango in Austin, Texas (during South by Southwest), Geri X adamantly insists that she does not like her own music.
"I hate all of my music," she deadpans. "I keep playing shows and writing music just so one day I can have a good show or say 'This song's fantastic.'"
Before we part ways, two and a half hours after meeting at The Globe, Geri X decides to tell a pirate joke that ends with the punch line "arrgh." She lets out an infectious belly laugh. "I'm not funny," Geri says. "Just funny-looking, and when I laugh it makes other people laugh."
Postcript: Word's going around that Geri X may soon relocate with her boyfriend/bassist Greg Roteik to his previous home in Wisconsin. I tried to confirm the rumor, but she was in Austin, Texas, and didn't return my calls.