WIFEE and THE HUZz BAND is a happy musical marriage of luck and love
In music and in love, one needs a little dash of luck and maybe a helpful push from fate. At least, that's exactly the case with singer Ruby James and saxophonist Stephen "Coopy" Cooper – the WIFEE and the HUZz of WIFEE and THE HUZz BAND, a 10-piece old soul, funk and Motown-infused music group complete with a trumpet section born up in Door County and now coming to Linneman's Riverwest Inn Saturday night at 9 p.m.
Before they came together, James – an L.A. native turned Austinite – was struggling with continuing on as a singer and musician.
"Coming from L.A. originally, there was a lot of pressure," James said. "I had a lot of really close calls with famous people and producers, and then when I turned 21, they would start telling me I was too old to be in music, which was a joke. Austin helped out, but there was so many ups and downs and close calls and close breaks and never feeling like you could make it."
Then, in 2011, the seemingly final blow came when Ruby's grandfather died around the same time as she put together a new solo rock album – one she still considers one of her best solo works. She originally thought it would be the breakthrough her grandfather always wanted for her, but instead she found herself turning away from music.
"I was heartbroken," James recalled. "That was my first big death, and I loved him so much. It just totally shut me down. I used to write a lot of sad songs, and I didn't want to write anymore."
Ruby ended up traveling around the region, landing in New Orleans for a spell and giving Austin another go. Eventually, in 2012, she wound up at the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay, a special motel dedicated to songwriting festivals – most famously the Steel Bridge Songfest – where musicians come and stay for a long weekend, write music and record it. It was while Ruby was up north that she met Stephen Cooper, a Wisconsin native who was apparently fated to meet the singer.
"I had played in New Mexico two days beforehand," Cooper said, "and I was getting back to my car when a very close friend of mine – he's a clairvoyant – stopped me and said, 'Hold on. I have to tell you something. You're going to meet a girl from Texas in two days and she's going to turn your world upside down, but it's gonna be great. She's the one.'"
While fate predicted their meeting, it also seemed to do everything in its power to stop it as well. Cooper's journey from New Mexico back home to Wisconsin came with long drives, delayed flights, close-call gigs and 36 hours of no sleep all before a quick gig in Door County that he wasn't keen in attending.
"I woke up late that Sunday and called the leader of the band, asking if they still wanted me to come since I was so wiped out," Cooper said. "They said, 'Yeah, yeah, we still want you to come!' So I drove two hours up north to Gordon Lodge, and I march across the grass right as the band is starting."
Spent from the long weekend – and from performing in all black in July without anything to drink – Cooper went to the bar to ask for a drink when he found Ruby, a girl from Texas who would, just as predicted, end up turning his world upside down.
"I see this girl bartending with this red hair piled up and a Dia de los Muertos bandana tying her hair up," Cooper recalled. "I walked up and asked, 'So does the band get Coke?' She turns around and says hello, and I'm like, 'Hello! I like your Dia de los Muertos headwrap.' She's like, 'Who up here knows about that?!' We kind of went from there. She came to see my band play in Green Bay a few days after that, and we were engaged three weeks later."
At first, the idea of the two of them forming a band as well seemed out of the question. He was a saxophone player; she was a dirty rocker. James' first goal, in fact, wasn't her own musical career, but rather getting Cooper down to Austin to help grow his name and brand. It wouldn't be until February of 2013, at another songwriting festival – "Love On Holiday," dedicated to love songs – at the Holiday Music Motel, when the idea of making a band became just too perfect to ignore.
"We wrote our first song, 'Forever My Dear,' and we wrote it in like 30 minutes," James said. "Then we wrote 'I Knew' at the same event. I remember driving home five miles per hour in a blizzard – I'm from California, and he just finally got out of the cold for the first time in Texas – and I was like, 'Coopy! Look what we just did! Don't you get it!? We need to move back to Wisconsin!'"
Perhaps in the middle of a terrifying and tedious blizzard wasn't the best time to recommend leaving the sun of Texas to return to Wisconsin, but Ruby's idea took. The couple moved back to the Midwest, gathered up a bunch of their musical friends and formed a group, WIFEE and THE HUZz BAND, inspired by the likes of Motown, early rock 'n' roll, R&B and Amy Winehouse to dish out "new vintage" tunes.
"It's been really fun to do this band, not only writing songs that we both love and are from our hearts, but also seeing how much people are really taken in by it," Cooper said. "It's all new songs, but it's got that familiar sound that everybody's comfortable with and everybody loves."
Part of that classic old school sound is WIFEE and THE HUZz BAND's size, a 10-part group including a horn section – a for sure rarity amongst most young and upcoming bands. Considering Cooper's work with big bands previously and the couple's big hotrod style, it's a good fit.
"I think there's nothing subtle about us, from the way we look to the cars (Cooper) drives to the hairdos," James joked. "We put this band together from both of our worlds. I came from this Holiday Music Motel world of songwriters. Most of our rhythm section is pulled from that. Then he came from a big band and a jazz world, so he played with those before. What he's told me – and now I feel it – is once you do that, I don't know how you go back."
Mixed in with all of the band's 10-part retro rock 'n' roll vibe is something decidedly less of a throwback: a DJ. It's something Ruby always wanted for the band, and while she's not sure if they're currently making the most out of that element's potential in the group (a difficult task since the band is spread across Wisconsin and Illinois, making practice almost impossible), it fits with WIFEE and THE HUZz BAND's overall mission of mixing familiar old music with new sound.
"It's a fine line," James noted.
So far, however, even with barely a year under its belt, that mission has seemingly been a success. They draw significant crowds at their home base in Door County, and they've already recorded an album – "Songs of Eternal Love and Immediate Satisfaction" – down here with Steve Hamilton at Makin' Sausage Music. They're currently eyeing up an album release show up in Door County, along with a second album, which they're hoping to write and record in a way similar to the songwriting festivals that brought them together. They even opened for Morris Day and The Time back in late August last year.
"They throw down," Cooper said. "They know how to do it. It's some tough competition to be up against because they are cold as ice."
"We had a bunch of people come up and tell us they liked us better," James laughed. "I was like, 'Oh come on, people; you have no idea what you're talking about … but OK, thank you!'"
While the band continues to take off, its leading couple's love story continues on as well – though don't take the band's name too literally just yet. Ruby and Stephen may be WIFEE and THE HUZz on stage, but offstage they're engaged, not married.
"The day we got engaged – Aug. 6, 2012, at this little pub in Sturgeon Bay – that was a collaborative effort too," James said. "We were sitting there riffing on the name WIFEE and THE HUZz BAND – this was before we had written a song or even knew we would write songs. It already kind of had that old soul feeling. It was a brand and a concept before it was even a band and a reality.
"All of it seems like meant to be, looking back on the whole thing. All these little things were happening and in place before you even realized it."
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