This is how it works: in the same way corporations are compelled to grow or die and academics to publish or perish, bands must put out records. It’s not unheard-of for young bands to hit the studio before playing a single show–and if you’re looking to go on tour, another expected goal, it sure helps to have something on plastic. By those standards, Tallulah’s something of a nonentity. With the exception of a street fair near Kankakee, the quintet has never played out of town, and though the three women at its core (all in their mid- to late 30s) have been singing together since 1995, they’re only now releasing their first album, Step Into the Stars. And as of yet they have no plans to tour behind it.

Yet Step Into the Stars has a fully realized sound that a band with a deeper press kit might well envy. Tallulah specializes in three- and four-part harmonies that hark back to the 60s–to groups like the Mamas & the Papas or even the Fifth Dimension. But its approach is distinctly unkitschy; the lyrics are sometimes light but never winking. There’s nice rhythmic variation, from the stuttery two-beat accents on “Untied” to the bossa nova groove of the title track. Some of the songs on the second half are considerably darker and less resolved: the electronics-enhanced “Sophia” gets its moody feel from a muted trumpet line and a melody that seems to withhold the gratification of a true hook, and “Doce Lunas” is smothered by waves of distorted guitar riffing.

Founding members Amy Warren and Troy Morris first sang together in a cabaret project called Vulva Club, put together by performance artist Jenny Magnus in 1994. They liked it so much that when the group broke up they didn’t want to stop. So they formed an all-girl pop band called Sleeveless Lily; in 1995 Amalea Tshilds, a former member of local funk band Uptighty, joined on guitar and added her voice to the mix. “Singing with them fell right into place,” she says. “It was easy and it was fun to do harmonies well and in key.”

Before Tshilds showed up, Sleeveless Lily’s sound featured only minimal instrumentation–vocals, Morris on bass, some keyboards, and the drumming of first Kim Ambriz (the Bells, the Dishes, Rabbit Rabbit) and later Carrie Biolo (best known as an improvisational and contemporary-classical vibist). But the group expanded to include more percussionists and gradually, Warren says, “became something that we didn’t want.” So Warren, Morris, Tshilds, and Biolo started over as Tallulah, rebuilding around their distinctive, effortless harmony sound–brassy, sophisticated, and delicate in equal measure–but adding a stronger rock feel, driven by Tshilds on guitar. By the end of 1997 Biolo had left the band and was replaced by Jim Becker, who was then Tshilds’s boyfriend. All agree that Becker was crucial in helping Tallulah find its identity.

“He pushed us in a particular way that made us grow,” says Warren, who began playing rhythm guitar and expanding her role as percussionist due to his steady encouragement. “When he came aboard, that’s when it really jelled as Tallulah,” she says. “It’s hard to describe, but it just felt like, ‘OK, this is the band.'”

“I think he grounded us,” adds Tshilds, “and he got excited about writing songs with us, so that brought it to another level as well. He was also the first drummer that focused on getting us to play in time.” In addition to enthusiasm and a steadier pulse, he also brought his skills on keyboards and guitar, another singing voice, and an ear for arrangements.

Tallulah began work on its album in the fall of 1999 at Truckstop, where Becker had become a fixture as a session player. Eddie Carlson (bassist with Aluminum Group, Poi Dog Pondering, and Frisbie, among others) joined on keyboards the following spring, and before long he’d become a significant contributor to the group’s writing. They’d record for a few days, then play shows, usually about one a month, until they’d saved enough money to pay for more studio time. In the long gaps between sessions, the material they were working on would change through rehearsal and live performance. Some songs were recut entirely to reflect the way their arrangements had continued to evolve. And a couple of finished tunes were left off the final album; they’d simply vanished from Tallulah’s repertoire by the time the recording was done.

Becker, who joined Califone in late 2001, left Tallulah this spring. After several months of searching for a label to release the album, the group decided to do it themselves; they’ve yet to land distribution for the CD, but they’ve been able to get it into local record stores. They’re already eager to record another album’s worth of songs–they’ve had plenty of time to write–but the band members (including new drummer Ryan Rapsys) are pretty busy with other stuff. Warren, an actress, appeared in Mary Zimmerman’s Trojan Women at the Goodman a few months ago, and Tshilds is one of the chef-owners of Logan Square’s acclaimed Lula Cafe, where she routinely works six or seven days a week. (Even band practice, she says, is a nice break.) Carlson works as a bookkeeper in addition to playing with his other bands. Rapsys is also involved with other musical projects, including Euphone.

“None of us are singularly focused on this band,” says Warren, though she acknowledges that they’d all be thrilled if things somehow took off. “We’re all open to it, but no one is really striving for it. We all have aspirations in different directions, but no matter what happens in our lives nobody wants to give up the band.”

Tallulah plays a release show for Step Into the Stars next Friday at the Empty Bottle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.