MusicMusic Features

The Real Dolls Mix Glam and Goth with New Releases

New single precedes release of four-track EP 'See Through'

The Real Dolls frontwoman Tessa Harmon sings into the mic while holding a guitar in a dark venue
Tessa Harmon of The Real Dolls performing at Snug Harbor. (Photo by Mary Grace McKusick)

After listing guitar-strumming lyricists and troubadours like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Elliott Smith as musical influences, Tessa Harmon insists she’s also an unrepentant goth rocker.

“I was always on the periphery of that scene,” says the founder of the elegant goth-adjacent alternative band The Real Dolls. “I love post-punk [and] all the music from that era. I’m sure it comes through [in my music] on some level.”

The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist notes that her looks — dark hair, pale skin and blood red lipstick — often land her in the same category as such sinister sirens as Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees, the feminist goth-rock pioneer who regularly denied that she was in the same spooky charnel-house genre as musicians like AIDS activist Diamanda Galas and horror-punk powerhouse Dinah Cancer of 45 Grave. 

“I mean, isn’t it a classic goth thing to say, ‘I’m not goth’ when you clearly are?” Harmon asks.

Certainly, The Real Dolls’ latest single “Fossil” nods to the sonic signposts of goth. Amid springy reverberating bass, celestial synthesizer hits and bandmate Kevin Kinne’s motorik beats, Harmon’s meditative, slightly detached vocals skirl like a cold breeze sighing through a churchyard.

This kind of shivery pop soundscape could deliver a creepy set piece, like Bauhaus’ sepulchral yet silly “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Instead, Harmon shares a vulnerable confession, and acknowledges that aspects of modern life can grind us down:

I’m so tired/ of being disappointed/ but not surprised/ I’m running out/ of things I’m willing/ to sacrifice…

At the same time, Harmon says that together we can muster the strength to prevail and overcome.

I can see the future/ if you stay here with me/ ’Cause I don’t want no future/ if we’re not all free/ I feel just like a fossil/ underneath my skin/ Like something so eternal/ is ready to begin…

Here Harmon’s words hew closer to angry yet uplifting 1960s protest folk. Like the tuneful polemics of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, “Fossil” offers hope, yet it’s grounded in harsh reality.

‘Fossil’ and modern realities

Harmon says “Fossil” was inspired by her experiences working as an engineer for online music and audio distribution company Bandcamp. Two weeks prior to speaking with Queen City Nerve, Harmon was laid off. She was not the only employee who suddenly found themselves unemployed.

Video game website Kotaku notes that Epic Games, which acquired Bandcamp just a year ago, laid off half its staff after finalizing its recent sale to music licensing company Songtradr. Ostensibly, the layoffs were due to simple economics and market forces.

In a statement, Songtradr said, “Over the past few years the operating costs of Bandcamp have significantly increased. It required some adjustments to ensure a sustainable and healthy company that can serve its community of artists and fans.”

Tech journalism company 404 Media points out that the layoffs came shortly after Bandcamp workers voted to form a workers union, Bandcamp United. The company’s entire bargaining team, the eight democratically elected members chosen by workers to negotiate their first union contract with Bandcamp, were among the employees laid off.

I can only note that it’s suspicious that profitable players like Songtradr and Epic Games suddenly turned cost-conscious after a workers’ union was elected.

“[The song] is about … the feelings I had and still have, and wanting to have a song that was hopeful,” Harmon says. “There is a lot of fucked up stuff happening in the world now, where I think we feel disempowered. I just wanted to have this message of solidarity and hope.”

“Fossil” simultaneously serves as a wakeup call to Harmon’s fellow tech workers.

“My background is engineering. The attitude … among engineers is like, ‘We have it so good. Why would we unionize? Why rock the boat?’” Harmon says. “A lot of engineers … don’t have an understanding of what it’s like for other tech workers. Tech really needs to wake up and organize.”

There may be other examples of worldly, issue-driven darkwave tunes, but “Fossil” is the only goth or goth-adjacent song about union busting and late-stage capitalism’s exploitation of workers. There may be dark forces in the world, but they’re not spread by malevolent spirits. Instead, it’s due to the soulless greed of unfettered capitalism.

“Fossil” is the lead single off The Real Dolls’ four-track EP See Through, which gets a release party at Petra’s on Nov. 24. The Petra’s gig will also see the debut of the song’s accompanying and ambitious video.

The duo that stayed

The Real Dolls has experienced shifting lineups, at one point having a full-time synth player onboard, but the core of the self-styled “art rock from Planet Venus,” “apocalypse proof glam” and “the cowboy glam you didn’t know you needed” has been drummer/vocalist Kinne, alongsde Harmon on vocals, keyboards and baritone guitar.

“It’s always me and Kevin,” says Harmon. After some members moved away from Charlotte or dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, Harmon and Kinne have played several shows, including the upcoming Petra’s gig, as a two-piece.

“Kevin and I are both fluid in [that] we play a lot of different instruments,” Harmon offers. “We both sing. We have the skills to self-record. I do all the artwork for all of my stuff. It’s fun to have all these capabilities within the two of us.”

“If two elevator workers decided to form a band in an elevator, it would sound exactly like us,” says Kinne. “Or maybe it’s two lighthouse keepers.”

The future compatible band members did not come to music-making from similar paths.

Growing up in the Matthews/Indian Trail area, Harmon remembers singing for as long as she could talk. She started playing guitar at age 9, after her father took her to The Brian Setzer Orchestra in concert.

Harmon subsequently began writing songs in her teens and twenties, but didn’t share them. Playing by herself, she concentrated on music created just by guitar and voice. It wasn’t until Harmon was 29 that she drew from her writing to craft songs in her first band, Buried in Roses.

The Real Dolls sit on a ledge
Kevin Kinne (left) and Tessa Harmon of The Real Dolls. (Photo by M. Keith Fulghum)

Growing up in Huntersville, Kinne scammed his way into his first band at age 14, claiming he could play drums when he couldn’t. He faked it well enough and quickly grew more skilled.

“I haven’t stopped since,” Kinne says. At 16, he wrote songs and sang for a band called The Malcontents.

“In high school, everyone was going to Warped Tour and was into emo and metal,” Kinne says. “I was obsessed with Nirvana.”

Primus and The White Stripes also fueled his love for tuneful yet adventurous rock.

In 2019, Harmon formed Buried in Roses with guitarist/bassist/synth player Alex Hanifin and Takoda Hortenberry on drums. The lineup changed when COVID struck.

Hortenberry moved away, unable to find work in Charlotte. Co-songwriters Horton and Hanifin recorded the band’s self-titled debut album in lockdown.

The Real Dolls perform at Snug Harbor. (Photo by M. Keith Fulghum)

“Alex’s friend Logan [Jones] recorded drums because he had a home recording set up,” Harmon says.

The band drew attention beyond goth and dark-wave circles, in part due to its haunting cover of Angelo Badalamenti’s “I Float Alone,” originally sung by the late Julee Cruise on David Lynch’s cult television classic Twin Peaks.

“I’m a big Twin Peaks and David Lynch fan,” Harmon says. “Early on I learned how to play a few Badalamenti songs just to reverse engineer them a little bit.”

From Buried in Roses to The Real Dolls

Buried in Roses released its self-titled debut album on the revered goth rock label SwissDarkNights in August 2021. Except for “I Float Alone” and one song written by Hanifin, Harmon wrote all the lyrics on the LP.

“Alex would come to me with unfinished songs,” Harmon says. “He would already have a chord pattern [and] I would fill it in or figure out the vocal melody and the lyrics.”

Post-pandemic, Harmon and Hanifin filled out the band’s lineup and started to play out at venues, which is how Harmon and Kinne met. Buried in Roses was having trouble keeping a drummer on board, Harmon says, so Kinne offered to be a fill-in. He started rehearsing with Buried in Roses for a few years.

Last summer, Buried in Roses had to drop out of a Milestone show because some members had scheduling conflicts, Harmon remembers

“In my back pocket I had this concept for a solo project, Harmon says, “because I wanted to challenge myself to be the main songwriter.”

Instead of being part of Buried in Roses’ songwriting partnership, Harmon wanted to see what she was capable of producing by herself.

“That’s how The Real Dolls came about,” Harmon says.

She believes working with Kinne transformed her songwriting.

“The process has been more organic [with The Real Dolls],” Harmon says. “It’s different when someone comes to you with a mostly finished song and you help finish it versus starting from scratch.”

The result can be heard in The Real Dolls’ music. Buried in Roses is undoubtedly accomplished. The Real Dolls’ “Fossil” is also carefully crafted, but it also sounds fresh — goth crossed with pop, alternative rock and social consciousness.

Although Kinne claims he just throws drums on Harmon’s songs, Harmon says he’s being modest.

I love writing with you Kevin,” Harmon says to her musical partner. “When I’m writing by myself … and I’m not sure where to take it, you help me identify stronger directions to go in because you want to do something cool. You’re very affirming.”

Kinne also keeps busy with other projects. He has run sound at The Milestone Club for two years and he frequently books friends’ bands for shows around town.

“We love Snug [Harbor], Petra’s and Bart’s Mart, but The Milestone will always be my home,” Kinne says.

In addition to The Real Dolls, Kine plays drums in Pet Bug, Jackson Fig and Modern Everything. He released his debut solo album Medication Dreams in August 2023.

The meditative and eclectic 12-track album was inspired by two things, Kinne says.

“One is I got out of a tough relationship and needed to vent without … annoying my friends,” Kinne says. “[Then] I also started back up on [anti-depressant and anti-anxiety] meds. They were giving me insane dreams.”

The Real Dolls perform at Snug Harbor. (Photo by M. Keith Fulghum)

Kinne also sings, plays bass and is a co-songwriter with Harmon for The Mother Superior, a self styled “grunge gaze” band he founded in early 2022.

“It’s my main project,” Kinne says.” I started it out with the intent of it being a solo project, but … [I realized] I have too many talented friends to make this a solo project.”

Soon, The Mother Superior evolved into another collaborative endeavor with Harmon.

“It’s definitely heavy,” Harmon says. “I always wanted to play music like that.” The Mother Superior released its four-track EP Glass Hours on June 15.

Harmon adds that The Mother Superior could be called her main project if you base that description solely on the time she spends with each project.

“We gig more frequently with The Mother Superior,” she says.

“With The Real Dolls I like taking my time, doing fewer shows, making them special.”

’80-inspired music videos

One special aspect of the upcoming Petra’s gig is the debut of the video for “Fossil,” which The Real Dolls teased with an intriguing compilation of flash cuts on the band’s Instagram account. The video is produced, directed, edited and shot by Seyla Hossaini from spooky Richmond garage band Toward Space, which is also on Petra’s Nov. 24 bill.

“I wanted to work with Seyla because we’re both queer,” Harmon says. “I wanted to have someone who understood that I wanted to make something sexy and sensual but have it not be [from] the male gaze.”

“[The video] is me imagining a future that would be cool to have, like we’re in community with each other and enjoying ourselves,” Harmon continues.

The video’s look is inspired by a trend in ’80s music videos that turned the clock back to 1940s Hollywood glamour. Harmon cites the videos for Duran Duran’s “Chauffeur” and Ultravox’s “Vienna” as visual signposts.

“My mood board for the video was a lot of screen caps from those kinds of videos,” Harmon says.

Harmon hopes the entire package — music video, EP release and The Real Dolls’ setlist — will offer audiences an emotional connection.

“I want them to feel support, recognition or resonance,” she says. “A lot of these songs come from very dark places but I want people to feel that they’re able to get through whatever they’re going through.”

Kinne wants people to realize and accept that less is more.

“You don’t always need a gigantic band to get your message across,” he says.

The band’s songs hearken to Harmon’s early folk and acoustic influences — artists like Mitchell, Cohen and Elliott — stripped down to a foundation of just voice and guitar.

‘“Fossil,’ it’s very produced sounding and very polished, but people who have seen us live, when it’s just me and Kevin, [have heard it] a little more raw, and a little more organic.”

As long as you write a song that has integrity, you can always strip it back, she maintains.

“That’s the test for me,” Harmon says. “Is this song worth playing [or] worth recording? If I strip it back, is it still good?”

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