“I always wanted to make a band, even when I was in elementary school. I remember I tried to recruit band members on the playground, but nobody really had any musical skills back then, so that was a flop,” recalls Tigerlily Cooley, the lead singer and guitarist of Bleachbear.
Bleachbear is an indie-rock trio that was the youngest band to place in last year’s Sound Off!, EMP Museum’s annual competition for under-21 bands. Band members include 17-year-old Tigerlily, a senior at Ingraham High School; her 16-year-old sister, Annabella Bird, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School; and their 15-year-old cousin Emiko Gantt, a sophomore at Ingraham. The band, which was named Best Underage Band of 2014 by Seattle Weekly, placed fourth in Sound Off! and is set to release a much-anticipated second album in March.
The girls’ exposure to music started early. “We grew up with my dad showing us old concert videos,” Tigerlily remembers. “My mom would always get mad, because we’d be doing our homework and he’d say, ‘No — this is more important! Come look at this old concert!’
“I started taking guitar lessons in middle school,” she continues. “I started more seriously writing songs when I learned how to play guitar, and that coincided with my sister taking drum lessons.” When Bird’s drum teacher suggested they play some of their songs together at the University District Street Fair in 2012, the sisters asked Emiko if she would sing harmony. “We were both really shy and didn’t want to go up alone,” Tigerlily says. That was Bleachbear’s first show.
“After that, we started practicing together and getting serious, and Emiko started learning bass,” she says.
The band began playing more shows, which allowed the girls not only to hone their skills, but also to overcome their stage fright. Tigerlily bought an electric guitar and effects pedals, which brought about a change in the band’s sound from acoustic folk to more straight-ahead rock.
Bleachbear released its debut album, Lost Parade, in April 2014 to enthusiastic reviews from publications including Seattle Weekly, Eclectic Arts and IndieVerse. The album’s eight tracks juxtapose themes of teen love and heartbreak with a touch of grunge’s darkness, all against a glittery folk-pop backdrop.
Tigerlily is head songwriter. She says she was influenced early on by grunge (the “Bleach” in Bleachbear is a nod to Nirvana’s first album), and by the music of singer-songwriters such as Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson.
Working together isn’t always easy, even though they’re family. It “actually kind of makes it harder, because you’re so honest with each other,” says Tigerlily. “You have to learn how to get along, how to write songs together balancing each other’s ideas, making sure no one’s feelings get hurt.”
A second key turning point for the band was applying — and earning the chance — to compete in last year’s Sound Off!
As a result of placing in Sound Off!, Bleachbear has played high-profile gigs including a performance at EMP Museum’s birthday party in 2015 and an appearance on KEXP-FM’s Music That Matters podcast.
The band members continue to maintain other extracurricular commitments, from sports to serving on the board of youth music organizations. Balancing the demands of a working band with schoolwork and extracurricular activities can be challenging, but having a supportive family helps.
Tigerlily manages the band’s social media presence, and she and her mother work together to book shows and manage finances. How does she fit it all in? “I don’t really watch Netflix and TV,” she says. “If you cut out things like that, it’s actually not that hard to manage, because you’re not wasting your time. I’ll come home and go straight to my homework, and then I’ll have time for band practice.”
The group doesn’t have a fixed practice schedule, but when they have an upcoming show, they practice as much as three hours a day, four days a week.
Bleachbear has taken a break from shows to focus on recording its second album, Cowboy Movie Star, which, says Tigerlily, reflects the influence of bands like Radiohead and Best Coast.
Fans can look forward to shows promoting their new album in the near future. Looking ahead to summer, Tigerlily says she’d like to see the band play music festivals as well as shows in other cities in the Pacific Northwest. Check for updates at bleachbear.bandcamp.com.
Bleachbear’s tips for aspiring bands
Take the plunge. “I think the hardest thing is getting started. You need to recognize that, whatever’s holding you back — whether you’re too nervous to go on stage, or that you don’t think your songs are good enough — you just have to put that behind you and go for it,” says Tigerlily Cooley.
Perform, perform, perform. “Just get [your songs] out there, because as long as you’re playing, you’re going to improve. If you spend all of your time sitting at home and don’t actually go to play or try and release something, even if it’s bad, then you’re never going to progress.”
Connect. Tigerlily recommends several organizations that help young musicians, including the Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, which helps girls build self-esteem and foster self-expression through music; Seattle Teen Music, which finds performance opportunities for aspiring musicians between the ages of 9 and 25; Fremont Abbey; which offers classes, lessons and other opportunities; and School of Rock, a national chain that offers music lessons and organizes student bands.
Sound Off! turns 15
Sound Off!, an annual battle of the bands sponsored by EMP Museum for under-21 bands in the Pacific Northwest, turns 15 this year, a good time to appreciate its role in giving young bands a chance to perform, find an audience and shape their sound. In addition to Bleachbear, notable alumni include rapper Sol, Kithkin and The Lonely Forest (whose songs have appeared on the CW television network’s show The Vampire Diaries).
Young bands apply to enter Sound Off! by submitting four tracks of original music, which are judged on composition/arrangement, creativity/originality and technical ability/musicianship. Bands that advance to the semifinals play a 30-minute set; finalists play a 40-minute set. (An audience favorite award is also given each year.)
Bring your young rockers to one of the semifinal rounds (held Feb. 13, 20 and 27) to see four bands perform in a thrilling head-to-head music competition. The winners advance to the finals, which take place on March 5. All performances are open to all ages and take place at EMP’s Sky Church. Tickets are $10–$14 per show. Listen and watch the bands and buy tickets at empmuseum.org/soundoff.