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Musical Mockingbird

Inspired by a Southern heroine, England's Scout Niblett moves to America and finds a good life.

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Armed with playwright Tennessee Williams' flair for the dramatic, singer Polly Jean Harvey's earnestly pure voice, and author Harper Lee's gentle shyness, musician Scout Niblett casts herself as a real Southern ingénue. Never mind that she comes from Staffordshire, England. Niblett found her true identity in a book about the American South.

"We read the book at school," she says of Lee's sole novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. "I found the setting [small-town Alabama, circa the Great Depression] quite intriguing - being from England, I had a romantic vision of another place. But it was the character of Scout Finch that I really liked. Yeah, I was a tomboy."

Niblett acts on impulses that most young girls just dream about: rechristening herself after a favorite literary heroine, donning a platinum hairdo for her onstage persona, and recording albums about boredom, melancholy, and astrology. Considering her off-kilter musical sensibilities and her penchant for hiding behind a facade, it's tempting to write Niblett off as a Cat Power or Holly Golightly wannabe. But her latest album, Kidnapped by Neptune, proves her singular talent as a singer-songwriter.

Take the song "Relax," which is based around the chorus "I smell fear cooking somewhere 'round here/C'mon, Scout, relax - nothing's yours anyway." Repeated over a forlorn guitar line, the self-admonishment is half-breathed, half-roared. Later, on "Safety Pants," Niblett's crooning of "C'mon, honey/What are you doin' to me?" are punctuated with handclaps and beats on a bass drum. The song pokes and plods before steadily gaining steam, Niblett emphasizing the eight words with an aching sentimentality that translates far beyond this recording.

For the bluesy "Where Are You?" Niblett travels Kurt Cobain territory, rasping the question "Where were you, my love, tonight?" like a grunge goddess. On "Valvoline," she hollers "I am the driver" like any little sister who's aching to take charge, while "Lullaby for Scout in Ten Years" evokes a fragile earnestness not often heard in modern music.

"I don't know who or where I'll be," she admits, "and that's what the song is about. I really have no concept if I'm even gonna be alive or if I'll be married or have kids. I feel like I'll probably be making music, but everything else seems to be up in the air. I'm so fascinated by the future. You just don't know what the hell is gonna happen to you, even if you think you have plans. You have no idea, which is the fun of it, although it's also rather scary. "I'm an astrologist," Niblett says. "That's the irony - I spend time trying to predict things."

Interestingly, these feelings of powerlessness are occurring at the same time that Niblett's career is really taking off. Earlier this year, she relocated from the U.K. to northern California, after inking a record deal with the Too Pure label. Last month, she finished a 60-day tour with the Kills. She's got the Pixies-esque Kidnapped by Neptune, produced by celebrated indie producer Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio, under her belt, and now she and drummer Jason Kourkounis are hitting the road again.

"It is sunny and warm here," she says, "and I am happy about the Too Pure deal. They'd been distributing my early records [released on the independent Secretly Canadian label], and I've been working with them a few years now. The Kills were great. They're nice people, and it turned out to be the perfect tour for us. Shows were bigger than normal, but the audiences were receptive, and we crossed over quite well."

For Niblett, bigger audiences seem to be a result of a record that aims for more than her previous indie releases. "For Kidnapped by Neptune, I had a bigger budget," Niblett says. "And Steve was really good to work with. I can't imagine recording with anyone else now. We both wanted the songs to be how we play them live. We had to rehearse until we were shit-hot before we went into the studio, and then he just recorded what we were doing."

The "we" in question is guitarist Chris Saligoe and tourmate Kourkounis. "The beauty of working with Jason is that I really trust him," Niblett says of her drummer. "I have a few initial ideas for his drumming parts, but in the end I let him work stuff out. Sometimes I might be set on something, but usually, whatever he does is gonna be awesome, so it isn't an issue.

"Life right now is really pretty good," Niblett muses.

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