TORONTO – When Canadian fiddle trio Stephanie Cadman, Kendel Carson and Miranda Mulholland were deciding on a name for their rising band, they flipped through a book on women of the Wild West.
As they came upon the profile of notorious American outlaw Belle Starr, the knew they had found their musical moniker.
“She rode a horse, she drank whisky, she shot guns, she got divorced — there were a lot of things that she did kind of before her time that men were allowed to do and she wasn’t, and I think that was certainly the sort of spirit of why we wanted to choose that name,” Mulholland, 32, said in a recent interview.
Such fortitude also flies in the face of stereotypes some have prematurely put on the fetching Belle Starr members, who released their first full-length, self-titled album this week.
“We wanted to incorporate a certain level of rebel or outlaw only because … three fiddles and three voices coming together in this kind of way isn’t really a run-of-the-mill everyday kind of band, and also we didn’t want to sound just all very pretty, we wanted to have some sort of strength,” said Mulholland, who hails from Guelph, Ont.
“It’s a very funny thing. People immediately, when I was telling them about Belle Starr, when we first became this group, (said) ‘Oh, that’s a marketing thing: three hair colours, three girls,’ we’re exactly the same size.
“There are so many things you would immediately spring to and we almost had to run very fast in the other direction.”
“I remember someone wanted to call us The Charmers,” added Cadman, 31, noting the group was not impressed with the name suggestion.
“That’s the thing, you look at us and we’ve got a blond, a brunette and a redhead and it’s so easy to come up with names like that.”
Belle Starr also bring a sense of strength to their newly released disc through several cover tunes by male artists, including John Hiatt’s “Cry Love,” Jack Marks’ “New Girl Now,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” and Justin Rutledge’s “Be A Man.”
Other tracks on the album include Neil Young’s “Love is a Rose,” “Pull Me Down” by the Skydiggers (Skydiggers lead guitarist Josh Finlayson also produced the record), and the Belle Starr originals “Arthur’s Air,” “Charity Kiss” and “Plough the Sea.”
The three share singing duties on the songs and are backed by a band on the Toronto-made album.
Ottawa-raised Cadman, who wrote two of the originals (“Arthur’s Air,” “Plough the Sea”), is also the percussionist of the group — but in a unique way.
The champion step-dancer records tap beats for the band to write tunes around, and provides their rhythm section during live performances by tapping on a plywood board, often while playing the fiddle at the same time.
“I grew up playing Celtic fiddling and Acadian fiddling and they always accompany themselves with their feet, so this is very similar to that but in the modern age,” she said.
Belle Starr first came together about three years ago through Mulholland, who is also a member of Juno-nominated folk-rockers Great Lake Swimmers.
After subbing in for Cadman in her string-instrument group Bowfire, and for Victoria-raised Carson in her folk group The Paperboys, Mulholland thought it would be a fun idea if they all played together in a violin project.
“Violins are so versatile, you can use them in lots of different ways — sort of more orchestrally or rhythmic soloistic — so I thought it would be really neat to be able to experiment with that and also three different voices,” she said.
“I had no idea how well they would go together but the first time we sang together I think immediately it was pretty magic and we all kind of felt it. But … we didn’t want to force anything to happen.”
They decided to start off doing covers of songs that meant something to them so they could get a sense of how well their voices meshed and figure out their own sound.
With their full-length album, a major goal was to highlight works by more niche Canadian artists in the hopes it “might be a platform for different people to hear their songs,” said Mulholland.
They also didn’t want their looks to be the primary focus.
Hence the cover, which depicts the backs of the trio as they walk toward the sunset in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, their figures tiny against the dusty landscape.
“Even our first EP, it’s all of us but we’re quite small and really we wanted to get more about the feeling,” said the redheaded Mulholland, (Cadman is brunette and Carson is blond).
“We feel so lucky to have this amazing experience but we didn’t want to just have our face plastered all over the front, or our hair colours.”