Melissa Bryan is a survivor.
At age 7, she had a dream: she wanted to be Little Orphan Annie. So she saved her pennies and bought a bright red wig. She perfected the blank stare. She sang fervently at the top of her lungs. But a chronic case of head lice forced her mother to throw away the wig and along with it went her dream.
By age 10, Melissa had new dreams: rock ‘n’ roll, and Leif Garrett. She convinced her parents to take her to the mall where she took guitar lessons from a kind white-haired gentleman named Mr. Aldowino, who subsequently crushed her rock ‘n’ roll dreams with Mel Bay books and “Greensleaves.” Not even a teenager, she stormed the mall’s exit and found solace in the small 45 section of the local stereo equipment store.
(Fortunately, the Garrett thing didn’t work out).
By high school, Melissa was back in the mall – this time, in the space directly across from her beloved records – for dreaded visits to a Rheumatologist’s office. Sweet sixteen was suddenly hot, swollen sixteen. In the mornings Melissa would pry her fingers open from the clenched fists that formed into concrete over night.
The guitar went in the closet.
By the time college was over, Melissa was accustomed to swollen knees, throbbing feet, and ridiculous assertions about her condition. So, ever the adventurer, she filled a backpack with pills and spent 4 solitary months wandering the streets of Europe, living on bread, water, and Hit Biscuits. Even before the life-changing discovery of pain-relieving opiates, she was able to thrive off the kindness of strangers, sleeping in grimy hostels, parks, and train stations.
Somewhere on the concrete floor of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie museum, Bryan found herself. So overwhelmed by the East Berliner’s determination to escape the confines of that Wall, she made a decision. To become untrapped by physical limitations. To do what she wanted to do. To find freedom at any expense.
She took her clenched fists and moved North – an activist year in Boston, where an unusually mild winter convinced her of her True Southern Girlness. After more roaming, she landed in Austin, Texas in the early 90’s where she picked up the guitar again and formed kinetic power-poppers The Shindigs. Once described by a fellow tunesmith as “songwriter-punk,” The Shindigs flayed furiously, all power chords (by this time, the arthritis rendered her fingers not so bendable) and screaming (came naturally), and the band, a vital part of Austin’s underground scene, spent the mid to latter half of the decade gracing the stages of famed punk clubs like the Blue Flamingo and the Bates Motel. She got a real job as an advocate for victims and survivors of domestic violence. But soon the Rheumatoid Arthritis sharpened its vicious shiv and poked her in places she needed to be well. When her legs couldn’t bear to stand for a 30 minute set, she disbanded The Shindigs and stopped performing, but kept writing and stuck to her goal of releasing a solo album.
Where the aughts lacked in live performances, was made up for in physical therapy. Hard work and perseverance paid off, despite new injuries. And still, the songs remained essential, contentment was elusive and her guts? Splayed all over the concrete floor.
Now, after visits to a suspect South Florida doctor who has treated both Michael Jackson (RIP) and Mike Tyson, Melissa is making a vengeful comeback. She’s spent the last four summers coaching bands at Girls Rock Camp Austin, where she also serves on the Board of Directors. And after a somewhat thwarted attempt to busk on the streets of Sarajevo, she’s playing out – usually sticking to a primitive two-piece lineup with tenured Austin punk drummer Terri Lord.
Most importantly, more than three years after beginning work on her debut solo album (and probably her strongest testament to survival) we have Return of the Woman — an artful expression in an era where artful expressions are rare. Backed by some of Austin’s indie superstars – drummer Cully Symington (Okkervil River), bassist Joshua Zarbo (ex-Spoon, Monahans), guitarist Dan Hoekstra (ex-Songs of Hercules), producer Darwin Smith, and including guest appearances as diverse as Goner Records’ John Wesley Coleman III, songwriter Trish Murphy and local punk icon Dotty Ferrell, these thirteen songs make you want to grab the moment, clench your fists, and sing fervently enough to flush the demons out through your eye sockets.
“Return of the Woman” is triumphant, defiant, alluring and somehow hopefully nihilistic. It’s fully realized, but still fun. With a punk rock attitude and passion and a brazen respect for the song, Melissa is ready to take on the world. The question is, is the world ready for her?