One recent Sunday morning, singer Carrie Akre arrived at Uptone Recorders in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood to meet with a group of local musicians and record an album.
Akre wasn’t some aspiring American Idol also-ran chasing a dream that had slipped out of her grasp. Writing and recording music is something she has done for 30 years, and with much success.
If you lived in Seattle during the grunge era of the early to mid 1990s, it’s possible you dropped in on a show at a popular club — The Crocodile Café in Belltown, Moe’s on Capitol Hill, OK Hotel in Pioneer Square, or RKCNDY downtown — and pushed your way through a broiling, sweaty, noisy, and smoke-glazed mosh pit to hear Hammerbox, Goodness, or one-offs The Rockfords. Akre (pronounced AH-CREE) was the frontwoman for all those bands, creating music that filled the airwaves of KCMU (now KEXP) and The End and albums that lined the shelves at record stores like Easy Street, Orpheum, and Sonic Boom.
Hammerbox made news in the early 1990s, when the band signed a deal with a major record label. Similarly, The Rockfords, which included Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready, released an album on Epic Records.
But it was Goodness that garnered the most fan interest. Rolling Stone described the rocking, power-pop quintet as “the antithesis of their angst-driving peers . . . a summons to those who remember what rock ’n’ roll was supposed to be about: mindless fun.”
“Carrie has that sort of warm, captivating, and powerful voice,” Peter Greenberg, the former booking agent at The Crocodile Café and Chop Suey, said. “Hammerbox was a little more raw, and it had that sort of youthful angst of pushing it out there and wanting to take over the world. (With Goodness), Carrie was focused on more introspection, putting some kind of a positive spin out there, and just sort of taking control more on her own terms. I mean, the band was called Goodness for a reason.”
Her voice was an inspired and crafted alternative to more famous bands like Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden — heavy, growling, and noisy groups that sang about addiction, ennui, family dysfunction, and suicide. Akre’s departure from all that gloom was part of what defined her voice and style, and it built a loyal fan base that still exists today.
All of that was a generation ago, a window of time in which a sea change befell the music industry. Record label scouts that once descended on Seattle are long gone, replaced by self-funded Kickstarter and crowdfunding campaigns.
Still, that hasn’t stopped Akre, 52, from pursuing music. That’s why she found herself spending many recent weekends at Uptone Recorders, working on her first studio album in more than a decade.
From the outside, the studio appeared frowzy and rundown, a brick building with all the cloistered mystery of a clandestine fight club. Posted atop a pole outside the building, a weathered, red-and-white sign advertised, “Upton Electric Inc. / Rent with option to buy / 90 days same as cash,” and seemed intentioned to throw off curious passersby. If so, it was the perfect feign for bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Seaweed, and Zeke to book studio time there (which they did) and record music without much distraction.
Inside, the low-lit and slightly shabby studio was a maze of narrow halls covered in vintage, framed, and faded concert posters for The Fabulous Wailers and The Sonics that led toward the back of the building, where musicians — Joel Trueblood, a drummer who has recorded albums with Neko Case; pianist James Costello; bassist George Reed Harmon; and guitarist Rafe Wadleigh, choral music director at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma — were setting up.
In the control booth, producer Steve Fisk — who worked with Nirvana and Soundgarden, and is an elder statesman of sorts in the annals of Pacific Northwest music — stood behind a retro and canary-yellow Motown-era console studded and pocked with switches and toggles; it illuminated like the control center on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Tall, balding, and bespectacled, Fisk was a quiet, panda-like presence who rubbed his powder-white beard like a sage and occasionally offered commentary and advice to two engineers who seemed young enough to be his grandsons.
“I want this record to be everything Tacoma,” said Akre, who moved to Tacoma in 2016 and has since become a big Tacoma promoter, during a recording break. “It’s being recorded in Tacoma. Everybody playing on it is from Tacoma. There are a ton of musicians in this town, a ton of creatives in general. It’s how Seattle used to be — super comfy, affordable, not crowded yet. There’s room to do things affordably, comfortably, and fun — as opposed to being expensive or competitive.”
Rock Star Recollections
Growing up in Kennewick, Akre had singing talent, but her exposure to music was limited to choir in grade school, singing along to records at home, and half-hearted piano lessons as a kid.
That would change after she moved to Seattle in 1985 to attend the University of Washington. By the time she graduated, the city’s music scene was still lean, but it had good bones. Sub Pop Records was a year old by then, and the city’s homegrown, DIY environment abounded with almost as many recording studios as live music clubs.
Akre — who was in her early 20s and living in a Pioneer Square loft building populated with artists, musicians, and photographers — started to think about singing in a rock band. She combed The Rocket’s classified ads for bands to join, found one, and hopped on a public bus for a trip across town to audition in the basement of two musicians’ rented home to be the lead singer of a rock band that would become Hammerbox.
“I think about it now, as a mom, and I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing? You are going to two guys’ house? Nobody knows where you are, and you are going to go inside and talk to these dudes?’” Akre recalled during one of several weekend interviews, first over coffee, tea, and pastries at Corina Bakery in Tacoma, then at the recording studio. “But it didn’t feel unsafe. It just didn’t.”
It was around that time that the success of grunge music had created a seismic shift in popular music, and major record labels sent their A&R representatives to Seattle to find the next Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden.
“Everybody in Seattle was getting signed,” Hammerbox guitarist Harris Thurmond said from his home in Austin, Texas. “We used to joke that the A&R guys would hang around outside American Music waiting for you to buy your first guitar.”
It wasn’t long before members of Hammerbox — which included Akre, Thurmond, bassist James Atkins, and drummer Dave Bosch — were being wooed themselves.
“They are taking you out to dinner, putting you up in hotels, sometimes they get you a limo,” Akre said. “They are basically courting you.”
A&M Records won the “date” with Hammerbox, signing the band to a six-figure contract to record the album Numb, which was released in 1993. The band toured the United States and Europe, but by the time the band was ready to record another album with A&M, the A&R representative who had courted the band had left the company, and infighting had developed within the band over songwriting duties.
According to Akre, the band had all the qualities of a dysfunctional family — uptight, noncommunicative, and combative — and she was miserable.
In 1994, after one especially contentious rehearsal, Akre was leaving when Thurmond approached her and asked, “You are going to quit, aren’t you?”
Akre replied, “Yep. I’m done.”
Hammerbox disbanded, but Akre wasn’t done with music.
She soon connected with guitarists Danny Newcomb and Garth Reeves, bassist Fiia McGann, and drummer Chris Friel to form Goodness, a band that came to be known for the call-and-response combo of Newcomb’s screaming, catchy guitar riffs and Akre’s vocals, which music critics described as emotive and iron-like.
In 1995, the band recorded a self-titled album released by the indie label Y Records. It included a suite of radio-friendly songs: “Labor Day,” “Runaround,” “Sincerely Yours,” “Superwise,” and “Wicked Eye.” The album sold more than 15,000 copies in its first year on record store shelves, an excellent showing even today for an indie band. Once again, Akre found herself fronting a rock band that Seattle’s most popular clubs were eager to book, and major record labels were again starting to notice.
Lava Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, re-released the album that spring, opening the doors to wider distribution, a U.S. tour, and a larger audience.
Goodness’ biggest shows came in the summer of 1998, when the band was invited to open for Pearl Jam during two shows in Missoula, Montana, and Park City, Utah, during the band’s often-sold-out North American tour.
“Large shows with 30,000 people are like an airplane ride,” Akre explained. “I’m on this big box (of a stage), I’m singing out to these people, and it becomes kind of like a blob. It’s overwhelming. It’s just mass adrenaline. And it is over like that!”
At the show in Missoula, Akre recalled being backstage when one of Pearl Jam’s staffers announced it was Goodness’ time to perform. The band was ushered from a dressing room, up a small ramp toward the stage, and asked to wait a few minutes while the stage was prepped. The only thing separating Goodness from a throng of 33,000 fans was a black curtain.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to pass out,’” Akre said. “It’s sort of a do-or-die situation. You have to go out there and do your thing. You can’t think about it.” Early into the band’s 30-minute set, Akre was relieved to see the crowd was having a good time. “We had a really good response. People were really positive, and that was great.”
A Musical Fermata
By the late 1990s, the record industry was much different than it was at the decade’s beginning. The musical tide that lifted Hammerbox and Goodness to major record deals had flattened. When Goodness recorded its third album, These Days, in 1999, it was self-financed and released on Good Ink Records, a label Akre created herself.
In the decade that followed, she recorded and self-produced three solo albums. She also supported herself with day jobs — first as a project manager at Nordstrom, then as the manager of instructional programs at EMP (now the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle.
She met Marty Lund, her now husband, in 2006, and the couple married the following year. Their son, Orion, was born in 2008.
Motherhood became more of a priority for her than being a musician. “I was just in ‘mother mode,’ and I just decided to kind of surrender to that,” she said. “I would just miss my kid. Any time I would get to a practice space, I would think, ‘Why am I missing my kid for this dirty room?’”
Still, working office day jobs to help support her family was a strange experience. “It was really rough on my self-esteem,” she said. “There would be days where I would be at my desk thinking, ‘I used to be a rock star!’”
At EMP, where many of the people she interacted with were already familiar with Akre’s music, the experience was especially surreal.
“I just felt like everybody kept talking about me in the past,” she said. “That really got to me. It was complimentary, but it was, like, ‘I remember when you did this,’ or, ‘I remember seeing you perform back then.’ I was, like, ‘I’m not dead!’ I allowed it to mess with my head . . . I just felt like I couldn’t crawl out from under my history and be new.”
When a corporate recruiter contacted Akre in 2011 about a job opportunity working as a project manager at Target headquarters in Minneapolis, Akre and her husband moved there with Orion, then 3, and immediately fell in love with the city.
“It’s an incredible place to raise your kid,” she said. “There is a park every four blocks. There are good schools, music, bike paths, organic farming. It’s a lot like Portland. We met great friends. I miss it.”
A comfortable, quiet, middle-class life with her family in the Midwest was a much-needed mental and physical reprieve. Akre and her family lived in Minnesota for three years, returning to the Pacific Northwest occasionally to visit family in Eastern Washington.
It wasn’t until her mother’s death in 2013 that Akre began to think about moving back to Washington to be closer to her relatives. One year later, Akre and her husband rented a house in West Seattle. Two years later, the couple bought a home in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.
“What I like about Tacoma is that everything I need is here, there’s space, it’s not crowded, and there are a ton of creative people,” Akre said. “I feel like we can build a life here and afford it.”
Akre’s husband is a special education teacher at Mary Lyon Elementary School. And Akre found work as a project manager, performing occasionally and writing music in preparation for a new album.
In March, Akre was hired by the Gates Foundation in Seattle, where she works as an IT Project Manager. She also offers creative coaching and music mentorship to poets, sculptors, songwriters, and other artists through workshops and retreats.
“I coach for midlife, career changes, grief, and the courage to be authentic,” said Akre.
Ready for an Encore
In November 2017, Goodness reunited for a show at Easy Street Records, the 30-year-old independent record store in West Seattle. A crowd of fans stood shoulder to shoulder, filling every available space in the shop, and singing along with the band as it celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of its debut album.
“Twenty years later, there are people who tell us, ‘This record has never changed for me. I got married to this record. I marked time with this record.’ That’s the highest compliment that you could ever get,” Akre said. “The fact that we had a sold-out show with people who still have an affection for this music. When I was 16, did I think I would write music that people literally held to their hearts for 20 years? That they show up for you 20 years later and say, ‘Yeah, that’s right. I still love you.’ As a band, we all have so much appreciation and gratitude.”
Akre continued: “We are also older, more mature, more secure, and looser. Frankly, I think everybody plays better. Do I want to do another Goodness record? I don’t. But I love those people; I love playing our songs; and I love serving an audience that says, ‘Thank you. That meant a lot to me; I want to hear it again.’ That’s good enough.”
Back in the Tacoma recording studio, Akre and her supporting musicians were working through several takes of a song called “Righteous My Love.” It’s one of many new songs Akre wrote that are inspired by her relationship with her late mother. Akre described her mother’s death as the kind of massive event that, in a way, left her a different person. It’s reflected in her new album, which is more introspective and nuanced than the ones she recorded with her other bands. Her voice is richer and more confident.
After nearly two hours running through songs, Akre took a short break. I asked her whether she looked back at those heady years of touring and record deals with any regrets. What if Hammerbox didn’t disband? What if Seattle’s much-hyped 1990s music scene had lasted another decade or so, long enough for Goodness to record more albums and build a wider audience? Was all the hype she witnessed and experienced in such a short period of time worth it?
“I don’t regret any of it,” Akre told me. “How lucky am I to have gotten to do any of that? I definitely feel that because other people never, ever experience that.”
Akre will always make music — whether it’s on her own, or with bandmates old and new. And whether her new album, Passage, which she plans to release in July, draws the interest of major record labels once again is out of her hands.
“I make the choices I can control,” she explained. “I still write music, and that music comes out of me artistically, purposefully, and personally. That’s what being an artist is to me. I am that, regardless of who sees it or buys it. I am that, no matter what. That’s what I start with. ‘OK, I want to make a record.’ Because if I sit around getting sad or worried about who is going to pay for it, who is going to care, or hoping they sign me, I will die on the inside.”
And yet, like many musicians, Akre still daydreams.
When asked what she hoped would happen when her new album is released, Akre laughed out loud and facetiously announced a wish list: tour Europe again . . . open for Martha Wainwright.
Then she paused for a moment.
“I just want a modicum of a musical life,” she explained, all joking aside. “I want something comfy, a smart label with great distribution, where I can hunker down and make whatever I want. Singles. EPs. It doesn’t have to be full-length records. And let’s not make 8,000 of them that are now going to sit on a shelf. Let’s print 500 and get them off. Then print another 500. I feel like this is all manageable. I’m not looking to be Beyoncé . . . As long as it paid for itself, that’s good.”