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Singer/songwriter Danielle LoPresti waited as the man behind the desk listened to her demo CD. When the last song came to an end, the man leaned forward, looked Danielle in the eye, and said he would sign her in return for sex. "You're kidding, right?" Danielle gave an unsure smile. She brushed off the comment as humor. "You're married," she said.

"I'm as serious as a heart attack," the man said. "My wife does what she wants and I don't ask her any questions. I do what I want and she doesn't ask me any questions. She showers before she comes home. I shower before I go home. Now, what's your answer to my question?"

Disgusted, Danielle left the man's office, never to return.

Four years later, Danielle, whisked away to solve one crisis or another, left me to stand alone behind the black curtain that separated the main floor from the backstage of the San Diego Independent Music Festival. It was November 5, 2005. I was two hours into a six-hour gig as emcee.

I abandoned the stacked chairs and stashed purses, went upstairs to where the alcohol was kept, and ordered vanilla vodka with a splash of something carbonated. Plastic cup in hand, I checked out the vendors hawking original clothing designs and accessories on both floors of the Abbey, a historic church-turned-rentable-venue on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Outside, the sun had set. Inside, sections of stained glass artificially lit from behind cast yellow and blue patches from opposite sides of the church.

Hornswaggled, a heavy-metal punk band from Poway, performed energetically for the growing crowd. The lead singer, backed by a drummer and flanked by two long-haired, head-banging guitarists, toggled between harmonies and roars, reminding me of Tool's Maynard James Keenan.

In about five minutes, just before the band finished their set, I would make my way downstairs through the crowd and grab a microphone from the sound booth. In my black rubber corset cinched tight with red laces, and with black-and-red plumage crowning my head, I'd lead the audience's attention from the main stage to the acoustic stage, where the next performer was ready to go.

The Women

Behind the Curtain

Danielle tried to break into the music industry in Los Angeles, but her obstacles began long before she got there. In 1991, prior to moving to L.A., she joined the Mar Dels in San Diego. "They weren't paying the two female lead vocalists what they were paying all the guys," Danielle says. "We were being paid between $150 and $200, and the guys were getting between $200 and $300."

After discovering the discrepancy, Danielle got together with the other female vocalist in the band. At the next band meeting, they brought it up. "We said, 'Hey, we feel we're valuable enough to make as much as everybody else who is essentially our equal,' like the drummer, bass player, and sax player. Who would be in front for everybody there to look at? The two pretty girls. So it was ridiculous." The bandleaders "growled and grumbled," but in the end, they gave in, and the female band members saw their paychecks increase.

Alicia Champion, Danielle's business partner and fellow band member, had also attempted to make her name in the L.A. music scene. Born in Singapore in 1981, Alicia moved to San Francisco with her mother and younger sister in 1991. "My parents brought me to Disneyland when I was eight years old, and it was, like, 'Wow! This is like nothing we have in Singapore!' And when we were going to move to the States, I thought, 'I get to live in Disneyland!' " But, Alicia remembers, "People were so much harder, almost the exact opposite of the whole fantasy I had."

Alicia learned to play guitar freshman year of high school. On a visit to her musical mentor's office, Alicia first heard the Indigo Girls. "I heard Amy Ray's voice, and I was, like, this is amazing. I always thought a woman had to sound like Whitney Houston; I'd never heard a woman with a low, husky, rich voice like this. Then I discovered Ani DiFranco, another woman singing about dirty, real truth, and I thought, 'Oh! I can write this!' "

Alicia performed her first gig at the Sacred Grounds Café in San Francisco in 1997, when she was 15. The open-mike manager, who had seen her perform on amateur nights, booked her show. For nine months following her professional debut, while she was still in high school, Alicia was courted by an artist and repertoire representative from Capitol Records' San Francisco office who was interested in signing her. She soon discovered two things that worked against her. "They didn't like my hairstyle, which was short in front, shaved in the back." According to the representative, Alicia's look, in line with the grunge era, with loose-fitting, hole-ridden jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket, was too masculine. "They also wanted me to narrow down the genre of music. They said, 'What are you? You need to be either rock, folk, or pop. Right now you're all three of these things.'" Meanwhile, Alicia was accepted to Boston's Berklee College of Music, and she moved to the opposite end of the country.

Alicia graduated from Berklee in 2003, at the top of her class after being hand-picked by the school's "elite production team" to perform at the two biggest concerts of the year, one for the convocation in fall of 2002 (for which she played guitar and sang "The Book I'm Not Reading" for honored guest Patty Larkin) and the other for commencement in May 2003 (for which she sang "Jaded" and "Livin' on the Edge" for honored guests Steven Tyler and Dianne Reeves). Professors recommended Alicia go to either New York or Los Angeles to pursue her music career. She decided on the latter and secured a job as a scout at a talent agency in L.A. "I had a few companies headhunting me, and this one had the highest pay at 90 grand a year," she recalls. "I was supposed to be scouting for new musical talent, but I ended up working as a stylist -- not hair or makeup, but dressing people. I'm talking about 15-year-olds with straws way too big up their noses and 14-year-olds who take too many trips to the bathroom to throw up. These little trays of coke were kept in the receptionist's desk. No one was eating -- not the 40-year-olds, not the 12-year-olds. Everyone knows what's going on, but no one's going to say anything about it." She quit after three and a half weeks.

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