All Grown Up
In a South Austin coffeehouse, Patrice Pike locks eyes with her interviewer as she talks about herself and her career. It's a gaze that's direct but intense, with a warmth that feels almost seductive. It's similar to the way Pike, a seasoned performer at the age of 33, addresses an audience from the stage--as if she's singing individually to each person in the room. That need to make true contact is what also prompted her, years ago, to write record mogul and industry legend Clive Davis and request a meeting to discuss his plans for the band she fronted for a decade, Sister 7 (née Little Sister).
"It probably has to do with growing up necessarily independent and being on my own since I was 16," explains Pike, who grew up in the Dallas area. "So I need to look into somebody's eyes and know what their intentions are and what their plans are and how that is going to affect me."
At the time she contacted Davis, Sister 7 was eight years into its run and on its second major-label deal. After reaching the upper realms of the Billboard charts with its album This the Trip, the band had graduated from the Arista Austin experiment to Arista's New York pop operations. Most young artists would have been in awe of Davis, who helped launch artists from Janis Joplin to Whitney Houston. Not Pike.
The result was an airline ticket to fly to New York and meet with Davis. He subsequently put his support behind the band's next album, Wrestling Over Tiny Matters, and the single "Only Thing That's Real" reached the Top 20. Then Davis was forced out of the record company he founded, and Sister 7 was dropped. Later, they disbanded.
It was a monumental letdown, but Pike never gave up. "I still feel like the sky's the limit in what I'm capable of doing," she asserts. "I can't believe I am so lucky."
These days, Pike is releasing music on her own label, ZainWayne Records, which she started with her longtime musical partner and former lover, guitarist Wayne Sutton. Her most recent release, Fencing Under Fire, finds Pike expanding and maturing beyond the mix of funk, jam rock and metal that won Sister 7 slots on the H.O.R.D.E. tour and Lilith Fair. Her new music is more modern and adventurous, rich with the personal intimacy Pike can forge with strangers (including this writer, who panned her former band's debut release).
But Pike's survival skills in life and the music game were sharpened by her youth, when she grew up a self-described "latchkey kid" with a musician stepfather who played with such popular area acts as Bugs Henderson and Nitzinger. By 16, Pike was attending Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and had moved out of her mother's home. She was also the kid who hung around Club Dada and got onstage every once in a while to display her mighty set of pipes.
Then, after some early stabs at singing in bands, she met Sutton. "It turned out he was just a huge fan of Janis Joplin. I reminded him of her." Pike had spent years hanging around and working with older musicians, but Sutton was the first one who felt as passionate about music as she did. "He had this conviction that we were not going to have day jobs. We were going to write songs together and build a career."
After a gig at Trees, the duo formed Little Sister in 1991 (the name reflected Pike's status in the local scene) and immediately began opening shows at Dada for the top players in the burgeoning Deep Ellum scene--The New Bohemians, Ten Hands and Sara Hickman. The Austin group Soul Hat invited the band to play with them at Austin's Black Cat Lounge, where acts like Soul Hat, Joe Rockhead and The Ugly Americans packed in college students with party music that jammed all night.
Little Sister relocated to the capital city and soon made "mad cash." SBK/EMI Records caught them at Club Dada during the Dimensions of Dallas music convention and signed the band. SBK went south, and when another band called Little Sister threatened legal action, the group changed its name to Sister 7, releasing an indie CD amid the name shift. Arista launched an Austin operation and scooped up Sister 7, who were soon within sight of genuine rock stardom.
Then came the fall. "It took me a little bit of grieving to get over how close we were," Pike says, "and to step back and look at all the things we experienced that so many people don't get to experience. And look at what I had accomplished, what we as a group had accomplished. And look at the reputation I acquired through my work, the support I have from people who want me to continue, who are interested in me and the songs that I write."
She and Sutton formed Patrice Pike and Black Box Rebellion, which gave her a venue to perform and record the songs that didn't fit within the democratic structure of Sister 7. She even paid out of her own pocket to promote her CD Fencing Under Fire to Triple A radio (adult album alternative), where it became the most added record for four weeks. "It was just a little test for me to take all the tools that I had gained and see if, on a very small scale, I could break through to some of those places. It showed me there was a viability in what I am doing."
Now Pike is playing solo (as she does on Saturday at Poor David's Pub) and with Black Box Rebellion. Sutton has stepped back from their creative partnership to spend more time with his wife and family, though he will still record with her and gig on occasion with the band. ("I miss him, and I love it when he's still there," Pike says.) She has also formed Fairy Tree Education Advocates with her friend and fan, educator Keitha St. Claire. They instruct and perform for teachers working with at-risk students.
After all, Pike was "always at risk," she says. "Being one of those kids inspired me to want to be a rock star, because I saw it as an answer to all my problems and my family's problems--limited funds, growing up latchkey and how we were always moving to find a place we could afford to live.
"My core intention was to make music for people and to live my life doing something I loved. I really needed an outlet, some other way to connect with people," Pike says. "The Fairy Tree thing and the message I've been carrying in my music and the conversations I have with people who are interested in my music is always about one thing: What do you want to do with your life? Where are you not fulfilling that in your daily actions? How can you let go of the fear that is keeping you from doing that? That is the core of almost every song I write and almost every conversation I have at a venue after a show."
As for her own life, Pike feels secure in having forged her place. "I've been able to create a sustainable living for myself with music," she concludes. "And that was really everything that I wanted to do."
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