Women on the Verge of a Breakthrough

On-stage and behind the scenes, a diverse and determined group is carving off a big piece of the local rock

Lydia Ojeda, former marketing and promotions director at Pandisc records, where for four years she handled national acts such as Young and Restless, was hired to push Hide to retail outlets nationally. Ojeda has been involved in the music business her entire life; her father owns a record company in Puerto Rico, and Lydia claims to have been "born on the floor of a recording studio." When she isn't working the phones on behalf of Hide, she's sharing her expertise with upstart bands that "have no clue how to make a flyer, much less cut a demo."

"We're doing it all ourselves," enthuses label honcho Ulloa. "This way we have complete control. It's exciting. It's challenging. It's rewarding. But the bottom line is getting Mary's music out there. She's a tremendous artist and she deserves to be successful."

It's almost biblical: The all-female band begat the female solo artist which begat the fledgling record label which begat the administrative assistant which begat the promoter...

Mary Karlzen is one of three female performers with local rock pedigrees who are on the cusp of breaking out of this market in a very big way. Another, Diane Ward, traversed an equally winding path to prominence.

For nearly a decade Ward's wrenching vocals have been provoking heart palpitations in local fans. A native Miamian, she started out as a drummer -- Dade County's best as a ninth grader -- and was good enough to intern with the Miami Beach Symphony Orchestra as a senior at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High.

"I started singing by accident," Ward admits. "I was in a cover band [Hemlock] and one night our regular vocalist didn't show up for a gig. She'd gone to Gainesville to be with some guy she fell in love with. She ended up marrying him."

Ward proved far too gifted a warbler to sequester behind a drum kit. She taught herself how to play keyboards at about the same time she and Hemlock bassist Louis Lowy (currently a member of the Bellefires) tired of playing covers. In 1985 they formed an original band, Bootleg, and began a seven-year collaboration; Ward sang and composed the music and Lowy played bass and wrote lyrics. Like Vesper Sparrow, Bootleg frequently performed at the Jockey Pub, Churchill's, and Club Beirut. Bootleg broke up, changed drummers, and reformed as the Wait. Ward made another instrument switch, from keyboards to guitar ("It was a mobility thing," she explains). While still part of that band, she began honing her songwriting and performing talents, lugging her jet-black Guild six-string to open-mike nights at venues like Churchill's, and Washington Square and Uncle Sam's on South Beach.

The solo performances were a revelation. An acoustic framework showcased the power and range of Ward's distinctive voice, as well as her burgeoning lyrical acumen, and soon established her as the reigning queen of local rock vocalists. When she formed Voidville with lead guitarist Sturgis Nikides last November, there was already a serious buzz on the street. Voidville's official live debut, on New Year's Eve at the Square, was one of the most eagerly anticipated coming-out parties an unsigned original rock band has ever received.

A scant five months later, Voidville (which, in addition to Ward and Nikides, includes drummer Randy Blitz and bassist Shane Soloski) was inking a management contract with Andrea Starr, formerly a vice president of Virgin Music and Records and an executive at Overland Management in New York. While at Overland she managed bands like the Talking Heads, the B-52's, the Ramones, the Thompson Twins, and Jane's Addiction. In January of this year Starr opened the Andrea Starr Management company, and Voidville is one of her first projects since hanging her own shingle.

"Things are happening so fast. The energy's enormous," says Starr of her new client's prospects. "I've signed many bands. Tom Petty. Dwight Twilly. Nothing's moved as quickly as this. I listen to this tape [Voidville's demo] constantly. I played it for Joey [Ramone] and he absolutely flipped. It's a unique sound A strong, focused, powerful. Diane is amazingly talented and versatile. I just found out she's a drummer. As far as Diane's concerned, there's no category yet. She's going to put Miami on the map."

Like Ward and Karlzen, Nicole Yarling is a local rock vocalist who is getting some serious national attention. But she, unlike the other two, is not a blonde. To be more specific, Nicole Yarling is black.

Yarling is not alone when she wonders aloud whether her race and sex have prevented her band, Little Nicky and the Slicks, from being taken seriously as a rock band rather than an R&B or straight blues act.

"You always have to prove yourself, especially when you go on the road. It's kind of a challenge," says Yarling, who is also an accomplished violinist. "But I chose to do this and I know what comes with it. I guess I kind of like the climb."

After a dozen years as one of the area's most respected musicians (Yarling and her drummer husband, John, are constantly in demand for their seemingly effortless ability to play jazz, blues, rock, and even country), Yarling caught a break when Jimmy Buffett heard the Slicks perform at his Margaritaville Cafe in Key West and signed up the singing violinist to go on tour with him. She's been a regular for two years now, and has become an integral part of the tropical troubador's stage show. Gigging with the Slicks when she's not touring with the head parrot leaves Yarling little time to reflect on her good fortune. And a recent CD released by Buffett's MCA-distributed Margaritaville Records label, Margaritaville Cafe Late Night Menu, features two Little Nicky and the Slicks songs and two other compositions she either co-wrote or played on.

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