Local Current Blog

Prissy Clerks’ Clara Salyer on cuteness, death, and channeling the early ’90s

Credit: Nate Ryan/MPR

With 2012 nearing its end, a few artists in the Twin Cities are throwing a wrench in the year-end list-making by issuing finely crafted albums in the final weeks of the year. Two of those standout late releases don’t appear to have a lot in common at first glance—Rich Mattson’s Ol’ Yeller has reformed and recorded a stellar comeback LP, LEVELS, while Prissy Clerks’ Bruised or Be Bruised is a debut full-length from a band whose leader is an entire generation younger than Mattson’s crew. But I found myself returning to each and playing them side by side in the weeks leading up to their respective releases, my interest piqued by just how many sonic similarities there are between Ol’ Yeller and Prissy Clerks and the common threads that bind them together and stretch all the way back to the early ‘90s.

“The ‘90s—I wasn’t really alive for it,” laughs Salyer. “I mean, I was alive, but I wasn’t really conscious of it. So when people tell me that I sound like a band from the ‘90s, it’s kind of like, yes. That’s the ultimate goal.” 

Prissy Clerks is Salyer’s second band to achieve recognition locally, topping the Vita.mn Are You Local? best-new-band contest earlier this year and placing in City Pages’ Picked to Click poll. The band was formed in the ashes of Salyer’s Total Babe, which disintegrated when her guitarist, Jordan Gatesmith, suddenly found fame with his side project, Howler. But that sudden change ended up pointing her in a positive direction, as it gave her an excuse to team up with a pair of musicians she had long admired: Howard Hamilton of Red Pens, who plays bass in Prissy Clerks, and Dylan Ritchie of Teenage Strangler, who plays guitar.

“I think we’ve just always been each other’s number one fans,” Salyer says of Hamilton, who she’s grown especially close to in the past couple of years. When asked about the impact that Hamilton, a seasoned veteran of the local scene, has had on her creative process, she is quick to respond. “Probably like every important musical discovery I’ve had in the last three years, for sure. He introduced me to so much music,” she says. “Bands that I pretended to like and never owned an album from, he gave me, like Sonic Youth records, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh; everything that makes me want to play music right now, he’s pretty much shown to me.” 

Salyer spends most of our interview at Cafe Maude in Loring crouched over a plate of milk and cookies, a green knit cap pulled over her seemingly neverending blonde tresses, a flannel shirt and bulky sweater bundled around her small frame. She speaks quietly and quickly, almost as if to herself, and drops sarcastic jokes into the conversation frequently. She comes across as shy, smart, and sweet.

“With Total Babe, everything [written about the band] would just say twee, twee, twee,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I didn’t know the genre of twee at the time, and I thought it was an insult. I thought it was totally belittling and demeaning, and Howard was like, twee is a genre of music, Clara, and it’s really good. So I kind of backpedaled and I listened to all the twee bands and I was like, this rules. I don’t think it’s something that I’m really going to be able to escape, because my voice is stunted. It’s like a child. So I don’t really know if I can get away from it, totally, the cuteness. Vocally, at least.”

Despite the years she has now spent gigging around town, Salyer, 20, still seems to get pigeonholed as a young artist, having broken out with Total Babe while she was still in high school. In recent years, she’s found herself gravitating away from the cuteness and piling on layers of feedback, distortion, and fuzz; even the song lyrics (“Death Wish,” “No Sir,” “Bruise or Be Bruised”) speak to her gruffer approach. “Definitely, musically I wanted to do something totally different [with Prissy Clerks]. Some of the songwriting patterns are similar, but I got kind of into gear. Like, I want to get a sweet pedal board and I want to get a sweet guitar. I want to turn it up.”

She’s also discovered another useful side effect of turning up the scuzz: It disguises her lyrics, which she says are more transparent and personal in Prissy Clerks’ songs than ever before. “I’m terrified of people hearing my lyrics,” she admits. “Writing a song comes super naturally to me, lyrics are kind of a struggle. And I think it’s kind of a fun struggle, and it’s always worth it in the end, but I’m never as sure of my lyrics as I am of a chord progression. I can be pretty critical of listening to bands, and if there’s like a gong-er line in a song, I can’t listen to it. It’s just ruined for me. And I just don’t want to do that for someone else.”

On Bruise or Be Bruised, one theme carries through the album above all others: Death. Its inevitability, its cruelty, and the morbid curiosity it inspires. “My parents are horrified,” she smirks. “My mom came in the other day, and she was just like, ‘Clara, the death theme is so overwhelming. I am so concerned for you. You managed to sneak that into every single song.’”

She shrugs and lets out a small laugh. “You know, anxiety and depression is probably what it’s rooted in. In the process of forming Prissy Clerks over the past two years, I’ve kind of become a bit of a hermit. I haven’t talked to anyone, really. I was definitely pretty isolated when writing those songs—self-inflicted isolation, for sure. The mood of the songs reflect where I was at.”

Growing up in South Minneapolis, Salyers says she was inspired at a young age to turn to music to express herself. She studied guitar with Bill Mike and bass with Erik Fratzke, and cites them both as early influences and mentors. “I think my earliest obsession with music was seeing Happy Apple at the Artists’ Quarter and Fat Kid Wednesdays, and following those guys around. Mike Lewis would sneak me into the Clown Lounge, and that sort of stuff. I think that was where I got a taste of, like, this is what I want to do.”

And do it she has. Prissy Clerks’ debut, recorded partially in Cannon Falls with Brent Sigmeth and partially in Minneapolis with Hollow Boys’ Ali Jafaar, is just the latest in a long string of triumphs for Salyer, who speaks with great wonder about her future and her creative curiosities. Working with Hamilton, Ritchie, and bandmates Tim Leick Jr. and Emily Lazear has clearly helped Salyer reach a new highpoint in her creative process, and she seems content with the finished product they’ve recorded.

“This band, I like,” she concludes dryly, nodding her head. “I like this one.”

Prissy Clerks play a release show this Saturday, December 8, at the 7th St. Entry with the Jim Ruiz Set, Nallo, and Alpha Consumer.