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Standing out among the hundreds of bands that perform during Austin’s South by Southwest music festival is clearly a challenge. But Heloise Williams, lead singer of Heloise & The Savoir Faire, was up to the task. She had to be. She had three days to promote her album, “Trash, Rats and Microphones,” which drops April 29.
But first she had to think wardrobe. Typically the group goes with a theme — in the past, band members have donned geisha costumes and gold lamé bikinis with burkas. “We’re playing this barbecue, and we were thinking of dressing up like characters from ‘Hee Haw,’ but we don’t want people to think we’re making fun of them,” Williams says, two days before leaving her Brooklyn home for Texas. “My mother was like, ‘You have to be really careful of your misappropriation of culture.'”
But it’s from her mother that Williams got her fashion cues. Growing up in Minnesota, “I was changing into my mom’s clothing in the bathroom before class,” Williams, 34, remembers. “I would be in silk blouses worn with giant red legwarmers. I looked older than my 11 years.”
Now Williams says her style can go from “dirt ball” to glamorous depending on her mood, looking to iconoclasts like Vivienne Westwood, Zandra Rhodes and Bette Davis for inspiration. Williams also adds a personal touch to her outfits. “I like ice-skating costumes, so I make a lot of little brightly colored numbers,” says the singer, who also acts as a buyer for New York vintage clothing dealer Passement Ltd.
Until three years ago, Williams’ act was mainly her singing to a backtrack while dancing in sync with accomplished choreographer Sara Sweet Rabidoux and Joe Shepard. “It was mostly kind of a weird art project,” Williams explains. In 2005, she added live music to the lineup. Now Williams’ fiancé, James Bellizia, plays guitar, Luke Hughett is on drums and Jason Diamond plays the bass. Together Heloise & The Savoir Faire has developed a sound they dubbed “electrock” (think a cross between Goldfrapp and the Scissor Sisters).
Early last year, actor Elijah Wood, whose girlfriend is a longtime friend of Williams, signed the band to his two-year-old label Simian Records. A month later, the quirky blonde singer found herself on the premiere episode of the comedy talk show “The Graham Norton Show” in the U.K. alongside guests like Kim Cattrall (the rest of the band stayed Stateside due to the indie label budget).
The band’s also had some help from Debbie Harry, who was introduced to Williams by a mutual friend at one of their early shows. After running into Harry later at a Calvin Klein fragrance launch party where Heloise & The Savoir Faire was performing, Williams realized it was meant to be that the two collaborate on the new album. “I told her I was writing a song called ‘Ambergris,’ and she said, ‘That’s the name of my first boyfriend’s band,'” Williams says. “Once again, we were psychically connected.”
Williams recalls that when it came time to record the album, “I said, ‘Would you ever imagine yourself singing on my album with me?’ She was like, ‘Say no more, I would love to.'”