I have a very brief memory of meeting Heather Newkirk about five years ago when I first started hanging out in Northside in Cincinnati. If my memory serves it was at the Northside Tavern for the Holly Golightly show. Other than that, she didn’t really become someone I knew until about a year ago. You may know Heather’s gorgeous smile, infectious laugh, insanely strong voice and peppy dance moves from DJing the best “danceroke” night in Northside. What you might not know is how legendary Heather’s music career is.
Heather Newkirk was born in Springfield, Ohio and grew up in Yellow Springs. “My mother is a painter. My father was a musician and a photographer and he played songs on his guitar and we would sing Donovan and he would give me solos and we would have these talent nights… my mom would put a robe on me and my hair in curlers and I would sing in front of all these people for their dinner parties. They wanted me to be opera or broadway singer so from 5 to 17 I was taking singing, dancing, acting classes… I was a decorated high school singer.” But Heather was drawn to something else… rock n’ roll.
Heather’s first band experience was with a neighbor down the street who asked her to sing backup for a Christian rock band. From there she began singing in a jazz band. “I moved to Dayton, Ohio (in 1995) when it was at a crazy pentacle for it’s music history… I was already in this band called 36 Red (that ended when her bandmates were too scared to go on tour) and I was 19 and a cocktail waitress at this bar called Hummer’s.” This bar was a place where Bob Pollard and Kim Deal would go to do interviews. Heather became close with a customer and told him she wanted to be a singer and was in a band 36 Red. He asked her to sing for him and word spread. “Next thing I knew I’m singing behind a dumpster to Jim McPherson and Kim Deal, ‘Over the Rainbow’.”
Heather got fired from Hummer’s and started hanging out at a bar called Walnut Hills which is where she met a young Erika Wennerstrom. Before Shesus formed, Heather was in The Indicators which morphed into RobtheBank. “Bob Pollard took Nate Farley so I didn’t have a band. I looked at Michelle Boidine (Braniac) who didn’t have a band at the time and I was so sick of being moved around… I looked Boidine and I said ‘fuck these guys, we’re going to have our own fucking band’.” They worked together at a magazine and on their lunch break they would sit in her car and write songs. Heather recruited Erika Wennerstrom for bass and Melissa Vakar for drums and Shesus began.
“We played our first show at Walnut Hills Bar and there was a line out the door. Bob Pollard had to wait to get in. It was packed. After that, I said I think we got something here so our third show was in New York City at Arlin’s Grocery.” Melissa quit the band and Dave Colvin took her place. When Erika left in 2003 to start Heartless Bastards, Dave Colvin was split between playing drums in Shesus and Heartless Bastards. Carrie Murphy replaced Erika on bass.
Shesus played with bands such as The Breeders, Guided By Voices, Enon and Metric. Craig Nichols replaced Dave Colvin and went on their European tour with Enon. When they were in Europe, they did a John Peel session. Shesus was getting great shows and tours but not breaking through.
“I think it ended because we knew all these people who were making it… and we could not make it. We were not marketable. When we did The Fall tour that was it for me. I was getting stage fright… it was brutal. Marky Smith was not nice.” After releasing three albums, Shesus broke up in 2006. “This is your dream and then it becomes a reality and you can’t control it. Maybe that’s why it’s so charming to be a big fish in a little pond, you can control it. When you put yourself out there, you can no longer control it.”
When Heather turned to rock n’ roll, her relationship with her parents became extremely strained. She had never had a good life in the academic world and was a self-proclaimed awful waitress. “I went to high school and my guidance counselor told me I’d be a really good waitress. I hated school, I loved music so that’s what got me through.” When Shesus ended, Heather had to figure out what she was going to do that wasn’t waitressing. “I started working at the Lloyd Library Museum Downtown… I started dating a guy that had a son and I was getting to know children so I started designing programs at the library and they kind of let me go wild. I designed all of these children’s programs. I started taking programs that we were doing in the library to schools and I was seeing things in these schools that I could not believe. You see poverty sometimes but when you are in schools you see it at an alarming rate… I got so much pleasure in going from something completely selfish (being a lead singer) to doing something completely selfless. I felt like I was destined to do that because it was so easy.”
Heather has created safe places and programs for underprivileged children at schools based on what they want and need. This is her last year with a federal grant creating programs all around the city. What is next for Heather is still undetermined. She is thinking about moving to somewhere quite a bit more scenic. Until then, you can catch Heather DJing danceroke at Junker’s on Fridays.