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What inspires Vegas singer-songwriter and coffeehouse star Michelle Watts?

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Michelle Watts
Photo: Miranda Alam / Special to the Weekly

Get to know your neighbors. For years I’ve known Michelle Watts as one of my favorite baristas—first at the Beat and Vesta, and now at the Writer’s Block, where she runs the coffee program—but it was only last month that I learned she’s a soulful singer-songwriter whose band, Bad Girls’ Smoking Lounge, just released an EP (get it at badgirlssmokinglounge.bandcamp.com, or catch the group live at the Bunkhouse July 18 with Sonia Barcelona and Halsey Harkins). Here, Watts talks about inspirational biker bars and the fantasy books that fuel her reality.

Tell us about Bad Girls’ Smoking Lounge. That’s what I used to call the alley behind the Beat. All the girls that worked there would go back there and smoke during their breaks. … We’re a three-piece band. The style is pretty unique. A lot of the inspiration for the songs comes from personal experiences and literary works.

What are your biggest influences? Definitely books. A lot of my song lyrics and song ideas come from trying to tell the story of a character that really resonates with me … especially if they’re morally in the gray, but you still feel for them. I find that trope fascinating. Like, one of our songs is about Satan, telling from his perspective how he got to be where he is now. It’s a take on Milton’s Paradise Lost. So, lots of books, poetry … and musically old-school jazz and soul, and Jeff Buckley. He definitely shaped my style.

How about some local artists that you admire? Heidi Rider and Adriana Chavez. They’re just amazing. They’re incredibly dedicated and passionate. And not only do they perform amazingly and put a lot of passion into their performance, they’re also amazing at getting communities to come together.

Where do you go in town to get inspired? Blue Diamond. There are a couple little trails just right outside of Red Rock that are free. ... I also like going up to Mountain Springs Saloon. It’s a really cool old bar, kind of a dive. I like to go there to write lyrics. It’s about 10 miles out of town, and it’s about 10, 20 degrees cooler up there. It’s a biker bar, so I ride my motorcycle.

What do you ride? I have a Harley Davidson Dyna Low Rider. Though right now, it’s in the shop. I miss it.

What are you reading right now? I almost always read more than one book at a time. My ADD really shines through in that respect. But I’m reading this really great, modern fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson, called The Way of Kings. It’s a brick—Bible-sized (laughs). But it’s warming up and getting really good. I’m also reading this piece of historical fiction called The Mask of Apollo [by Mary Renault]. And I’m actually also reading books from [the Oxford University Press] Very Short Introductions series; Writer’s Block has a plethora of those books.

I’ve heard that all the Writer’s Block employees run book clubs. What’s yours? Big shocker: It’s a fantasy book club. I read all genres, but that’s definitely my favorite. It’s had a special place in my heart since I was a little kid. The first book that we’ll be reading is Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. I actually haven’t read that book yet, but I’m pretty stoked because it’ll be a first time for me and hopefully for a lot of other people in the club.

Let’s get back to music. Where do you like to go to enjoy it? I mean, obviously Bunkhouse and Sand Dollar have the best sound systems, and both of them have good billing. But one of my favorite spots is the Dispensary Lounge. They do jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. This guy from the jazz department at UNLV, [Uli Geissendoerfer], has this combo that he brings out, and they’re so fun to watch. These guys have so much experience. And Dispensary has a good burger! That makes it even easier to go there.

Also, Velveteen Rabbit has really cool sh*t going on. Their entertainment is so varied, and it’s a pretty awesome venue, especially if you get a really cool kind of event going on in there. The division between the outside and inside, it leads to a lot of really cool little environmental changes. You can have, like, two or three different environments going on and they can all be a part of one cohesive event. Pretty impressed with everything that they do there.

Finally: What does this town need, culturally, that it doesn’t yet have? An all-ages venue that is not a warehouse in North Las Vegas (laughs). That’s definitely what it needs right now, I would say, more than anything else. … We could really use a little bit more lenient entertainment laws. I think that if a little bit more were paid to it, we’d have a lot of musicians and artists coming here. I mean, the cost of living is pretty reasonable and there’s lots of part-time jobs to be had. I look at places like Austin and Marfa [Texas], these cities that are doing things really well right now culturally, and I think that Las Vegas could be even better. … I know a lot of people that want to move to Portland, move to Seattle. I’m like, “You should stay here and make it cool.” Stay here, keep doing your art and make it an art city. Don’t leave because you don’t have [a scene], and then get lost in a place that has too much of one.

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