What do Reality Something front woman Elena Franklin and GQ's 2010 “Babe of the Year” Scarlett Johansson have in common? Well, probably not much. They do, however, share enough similarities in their early careers that allow for some interesting juxtapositions.
Johansson, who appeared in her first film at the age of 10 and has gone on to win both a BAFTA and Tony Award along with four Golden Globe nominations, was just 23 years old when — fresh off starring in “The Other Boleyn Girl — she decided to venture into the realm of music. Two albums would follow: 2008's “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” and “Break Up” the following year.
Franklin, similarly, started her career as a child actor. She too appeared in her first film at the age of 10. Then, at just 23 and after roles in projects like “Osmosis Jones” and the “Bully” video game, Franklin decided it was time for a change of pace, and she moved to Nashville.
“When I got to Nashville, I was not a singer or musician,” the now-28 year old admits. “I was an actress. It was always a pipe dream in the back of my mind that I could learn guitar and have a band, but it was never serious.”
From there, the similarities become more and more strained. Johannson exhibited no clear talent for music, but had a bunch of money and a bunch of influential friends. “Anywhere I Lay My Head” features songs written by Tom Waits, and has David Bowie on two tracks. “Break Up” was recorded with Pete Yorn. Both were critically panned as unremarkable and flat.
Franklin, however, had always been a multi-talent. Even if she didn't move to Nashville counting music among her strengths, there was little doubt that she could take to it if she decided to: In 1999 an 11 year old Franklin and her tango partner won the Colors of the Rainbow dance competition for P.S. 11 in New York City, and she'd just walked away from what was a successful if non-headlining career as an actor in Hollywood.
So it was in Nashville, living with Turbo Fruits guitarist Kingsley Brock, where Franklin started self-learning the guitar. She was a quick study, and songwriting came easily to her. By 2014, Franklin had a handful of songs and the confidence to record them, but didn't yet have a band to play with. Brock was an easy enough recruit, since he was just down the hall. But Franklin needed one more person to round out the sound, as well as to provide help in the studio. Enter current Step Sisters guitarist, Adam Swafford.
“Basically, (Swafford) and I recorded the whole thing by ourselves,” Franklin says. “We just did it in our bedroom.”
That first, self-titled EP has a decidedly DIY aesthetic, and owes more than a little of its sound to the mid-'90s, garage band heyday. Swafford's hand at the controls give the album a bit of polish and control, but even in its proto-form, the groundwork for Reality Something was solid. Franklin's voice is strong, and inhabits the same, slightly breathy, mid-range realm as singers like Veruca Salt's Louise Post or The Muffs' Kim Shattuck.
With no high-profile friends to bring in as ringers, nor a ton of money to fall back on, Franklin was clearly approaching Reality Something as more than just a lark.
“I think making that EP with Adam, I sort of had to prove it to myself and to Kingsley and to everyone that I could actually do it and was serious about it,” Franklin says. “I didn’t know what would happen after that, but I hoped things would fall into place. And they did.”
The “Reality Something” EP was released on Aug 3, 2015. By the following spring, Franklin had added drummer Ethan Place and bassist Bill Grasley to go along with Brock's guitar, and Reality Something the band was off and running. They would release their first single, “Break It,” that June, with the single “Bail” coming in December. The fleshed out band built upon and intensified Franklin's original, '90s garage pop vibe, turning it into something that feels less like an homage, and more like a direct descendant. “Bail” in particular is just a bit of vocal doubling away from passing for a full-on Veruca Salt track.
“I had (that sound) in my mind from the beginning,” she says. “Even as I was writing these songs on a guitar, I knew what I wanted them to sound like as a full band. They never sounded quite right, just playing them by myself.”
“Kingsley is my musical Siamese twin,” she goes on. “He’s an incredible guitar player, and just psychically knows what I want next. I never thought of (Reality Something) as my band or a solo project at all. Its definitely a collaborative effort. I’m not a great guitar player, but I’ll write basic chords and a melody, and we’ll flesh them out together as a group.”
In terms of polish and manifestation of ability, “Bail” is Reality Something's strongest song to date. Sure to be included in the band's LP debut, the song is the closest recorded example of what the band can be when they are running in full stride.
Released shortly after the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, “Bail” came out at particularly contentious time for women's rights. States around the union were either passing or considering bills that severely limited the funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood, and the election of Trump—with his long-stated goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act—did nothing to bolster the hopes of people concerned with women's reproductive health and rights.
“A woman in Nashville wrote a comment on Facebook that made me physically sick,” Franklin recalls. “It was something like 'if you want to base your vote on abortion, go ahead.' It made me sick that she was boiling down the entirety of women’s issues to one word like that. I decided I wanted to make a statement about PP and women’s health. I wanted to talk about how women’s health was so much more than just abortions.”
So when “Bail” came out on December 6, the band announced that proceeds would go to Planned Parenthood.
“It wasn't much, maybe a couple hundred dollars,” she says now. “But usually when we put a song out, we make like $10. Most people who bought the song, wound up donating more than just the song cost, which was amazing.”
For 2017, Reality Something is looking to tour for part of this summer, and then put the finishing touches on their debut LP. They've essentially been playing the album live for the past year, so the band is ready to put their best possible sound in the can and move on to the next project.
And for Franklin, who now finds herself a world away from Hollywood's lights and a lifetime removed from the gym dance floor at P.S. 11, it finally feels like she's found the right path.
“I’ve always been a confident person, but there was always a part of me that didn’t know what I wanted,” she explains. “When I started writing these songs, I was a nervous wreck about playing them on stage. But the second I actually stepped on stage for the first time, it blew my mind how comfortable I was. It was no problem for me at all.”
“I feel completely at home. For the first time in my life actually.”
Reality Something plays Vaudeville Mews on Thursday, May 25.