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Teenage Bentmen goes pop

Halfway through my conversation with 19-year-old singer Casey Desmond, a pigeon craps in my lap.

We’re sitting outside Harvard Square’s Au Bon Pain, under what we’ll soon realize is a wild-bird-infested tree when. . . splat. "It’s just water," says Desmond reassuringly, even though we both know it’s not. Then she gets hit too, on the hem of her sleeveless black dress. You’d expect a female folk/pop songstress who openly talks about trying to "make it" and "perfecting my image" to freak out when a flying rat mistakes her for a toilet. But the freckle-faced sandy-blonde is laid-back about it, even laughing after we return from the bathroom: good thing we had the photographer shoot the pics before we talked, right?

Perhaps Desmond’s ease with the mess has to do with her unusual background: she is the oldest daughter of Bill and Kathy Desmond, a/k/a the frontman and keyboardist/guitarist from Bentmen. If you know anything about the Bentmen, it’s slightly scary to imagine them reproducing. They’re like a low-rent Blue Man Group on a bad-peyote jag who are famous for ambushing audiences with prankster props like pillow feathers, water sprays, silly string, shaving cream, and crimson paint. They have songs with titles like "Bloody Benders" and "Ulcer Gulch." The cover art of their second album, Patient Zero (1996), features a crying newborn still slick with placenta. So if Desmond’s unfazed by a little "bird poop," as she calls it, it’s not surprising. "Unfortunately," she says, "some weird things never really weirded me out because of [the Bentmen]."

But the Bentmen begetting Casey Desmond is kind of like Gwar giving birth to Kelly Clarkson. An Art Institute of Boston sophomore studying illustration and fashion, Desmond writes radio-friendly tunes that draw from emotive-stock subjects like "I’ve met somebody amazing" and "the weird communication between couples or friends." She cites Jewel as an inspiration; her songs bear titles like "Two Girls" and "Did We Make It?" Live, she’s mostly played at cafés — though last night she played her biggest venue ever, headlining the Paradise. She admits, "The Bentmen and me? We could never play a show together."

Growing up in Weymouth, Desmond was, naturally, always around music. As a toddler, her parents sampled her laughing for a Bentmen recording. At 10, she performed a live duet with Tiny Tim. The oldest of three (younger sister Mary is a bassist in an emo band; younger brother Bill has "a really nice voice"), she wrote her first song at 12. Meanwhile, Desmond’s suburban peers couldn’t understand how her mom could be in a Pope outfit one minute, then driving her to Girl Scouts the next. "It was just as hard for people who weren’t into that to meet my family as it was for me to be with people whose parents are, say, lawyers. It would always be a culture shock for both of us." Other people’s families, she recalls, "Were so uptight. I’d swear once and they’d never let me over again."

In high school, Desmond fronted an alt-rock four-piece called Adore. When the band broke up, her father encouraged her to pursue a solo folk/pop career — apparently, when he’s not dressed up in pink Spandex, he listens to Sheryl Crow. Since then, Casey’s parents have become her tagteam managers. Although she’s admittedly driven by the prospect of success — which she defines as "getting signed" and "making music my career" — Desmond insists she has standards for how far she’ll go. "I don’t want to, like, rip my clothes off and lick people’s feet. That is not what I’m here for: I really write music to tell people something," she says earnestly. "Commercial-wise, I don’t mind being a sell-out. But I don’t want to be a gross sell-out, if that makes any sense." The daughter of the Bentmen having qualms about being gross? Strange.

Issue Date: September 16 - 22, 2005
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