With her vintage dresses and cat-eye glasses, it’s easy to believe Sallie Ford when she says she wants to live in the ’50s. “Technology would not exist, and I would have a clean slate,” she sings to a lover on “Roll Around,” the subtlest song on “Untamed Beast,” her rowdy new album with her band, the Sound Outside.
Yet the 25-year-old hellion readily admits she’s a product of her plugged-in generation. “I’m a hypocrite in some ways,” Ford says with a laugh. “I have an iPhone and I use Spotify. I’m not completely anti-technology.”
That’s how she approaches her music, too. Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside, who share the stage with Thao and the Get Down Stay Down at the Sinclair on Sunday, make a timeless kind of rock ’n’ roll that spans the bandleader’s love of saucy 1930s blues mamas all the way up to the Pixies and Cat Power. The connective tissue is Ford’s deep belief in gender equality: If the boys in rock ’n’ roll can be blunt about sex, then so can the girls.
“You may think of me as just a little girl, but I am here to prove you wrong,” she rasps on “Bad Boys.”
“It’s just easier to go ahead and say it,” said Ford on the phone recently, as her band was traveling between gigs on their way to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. “It wasn’t really on my mind when I was writing the record, but moving forward, I do want to make a point as, like, a feminist. Which, anyone can be a feminist — even boys.”
Her band has opened for and earned the praise of the Avett Brothers and Deer Tick, and they made a notable appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” Largely because of the frontwoman’s anachronistic style, the Sound Outside is often tagged as “rockabilly,” an irksome shorthand Ford addresses on the new song “Rockability”: “Can’t wait to see the day / when all the genres melt away,” she sings. “So sick of being in the box / Won’t you unlock me?”
Part of her frank attitude comes from touring with a van full of guys, she says. (The Sound Outside is guitarist Jeffrey Munger, bassist Tyler Tornfelt, and drummer Ford Tennis.) Girlish in conversation, even a little awkward, Ford is anything but shy or retiring in her lyrics.
“In general, with my friends, I like to be honest and open,” she says. “We talk about our personal lives, our sex lives. I’m definitely not a person to sit next to in a restaurant with your kids. I've been scolded.”
In fact, she met her bandmates five years ago or so in a restaurant, in their native Portland, Ore. Ford had started appearing at open mikes and other low-key gigs as a guitar-playing solo act. Tornfelt and Tennis were playing as the rhythm section for Tornfelt’s sister, a singer-songwriter.
“I got them like a package deal. Pretty sweet,” says Ford, who was working as a waitress in a Vietnamese restaurant. (Portland doesn’t have many Art Deco diners, where you might expect her to work, she reports: “It’s mostly fancy brunch places.”)
Munger, who joined a bit later, was initially “really modest about showing off his guitar skills,” says Ford. “But when he started playing more electric, you could see he could really rock out.” On the band's two records (including their 2011 debut, “Dirty Radio”), he plays a slashing, vibrato-rich style that owes a debt to the hardest edges of surf guitar. Paired with Tennis’s go-to beat — the familiar floor-tom rumble once known as the “jungle” beat — the band’s songs have a swing and swagger that are well suited to Ford’s exuberant melodies and occasional scat singing.
“Yip a dip a dee, yip a dee dee dee,” she gushes on that first album’s two-stepping “This Crew.” As in all of the band’s music, the singer’s joy invades like a snootful of nitrous oxide.
Two of Ford's favorite singers are masters of vocal improvisation: Ella Fitzgerald and Tom Waits.
“I feel like I could be better at it,” she says of her own scatting. “But sometimes there’s not words that can fit the melody.”
Ford could always sing, but after moving to Portland from her native North Carolina, she decided to experiment with her voice, “to try to teach myself to sing so I would like it. Part of playing music is you have to love whatever you play, and my instrument of choice is my voice.”
As a kid, she says, she “got pushed into” musical theater after her sister took it up. Since she could belt, she earned the lead role in a show when she was 11 — not that she can remember which show it was.
“Never have I had a rational mind,” Ford barks on “They Told Me,” the menacing, Link Wray-ish opening track on the new album, which concerns one of her favorite subjects: flouting what’s expected. “Never gonna ’pologize for being so intense,” she sings with force. “How the hell would that make any sense?”
For Sallie Ford and her grin-inducing music, it clearly would not.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @sullivanjames.