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Singers take off with saucy telegrams
By ELIZABETH SHEPHERD
On an island where fleece and muck boots predominate as everyday apparel, it’s hard not to be startled when you first spot two women decked out in false eyelashes, corsets, taffeta skirts and cocktail hats adorned with ribbons and marabou.
And that’s before they turn around and you notice they are also sporting wings.
But over the course of the past few years, residents of Vashon have become accustomed to the outlandish costumes worn by Jennifer Sutherland and Tami Brockway Joyce, and to the cheerful music they seem to make everywhere they go.
Joyce and Sutherland — also known by their character names Klahowya and Kalakala — have a singing telegram company, the Washington State Fairies, that has been in business since 2010.
In a recent KOMO television interview, Sutherland called her act with Joyce “a little flash mob of two who delivers songs of love and devotion all over the Puget Sound.”
Together, they have serenaded customers at events ranging from bar mitzvahs to birthday parties to weddings, and even parlayed their local fame into a year-long stint as Vashon’s unofficial mayorettes in 2011, running on a platform of support for the Vashon Public Schools Foundation.
Now, the dynamic duo is gearing up for one of their busiest times of the year, Valentine’s Day, and both say they are ready to go door-to door to delight unsuspecting recipients with made-to-order musical messages. Joyce and Sutherland expect to make at least 20 surprise Valentine’s Day visits in all.
“It feels fearless,” said Joyce, describing her partnership with Sutherland as the two sipped tea and ate homemade cake in Joyce’s cozy kitchen. “I can do anything when I’m with her.”
The business is decidedly retro — singing telegrams were invented in 1933 by Western Union, the American telegraph company, and discontinued by the company in the early 1970s after decades of a long, hopeless competition with a more efficient communication device, the telephone.
But the venture perfectly suits Joyce and Sutherland, whose lives seem full of the best kind of old-fashioned values — devotion to family and friends and deep community-mindedness, all bound together by the grapevine connections of living in a small, tight-knit town.
Although Sutherland describes Joyce as “the twin sister I never had,” the two of them are anything but identical. Joyce is short and voluptuously full-figured, with a dark, unruly mop of curls. Sutherland is a delicately featured strawberry blond, taller and more willowy. But they share a wicked sense of humor as well as a love of music and a streak of exhibitionism, and they say they met each other at exactly the right moment in their lives.
Both had moved to Vashon in 2004, and within a few years were immersed in the exhausting days and nights of early motherhood. Performing — something both women had loved doing for many years — had suddenly taken a backseat to nursing babies, fixing meals and rushing to complete chores while their tiny children fitfully napped.
Brockway and Sutherland had each enrolled their 1-year-old children in a Swingset music class, and that’s when Joyce spotted her future best friend and fellow fairy’s footwear.
“I walked into the class and along the wall I saw this pair of black Fluevog boots,” she said. “I thought, who’s wearing my boots? I had the exact same pair. So I thought, I’m going to figure out who this is, and then I stalked her a little bit.”
Soon enough, a strong bond had formed between the two women, which has now evolved to the point where they can finish each other sentences.
“We have this chemistry you can’t create,” Sutherland said. “It’s kismet.”
Before having children and moving to Vashon, Sutherland had become well known as the frontwoman of several Seattle bands, including the Americana-tinged group Evangeline.
“It was Jennifer’s idea to start the singing telegram company,” Joyce said. “She had to talk me into it.”
Delivering singing telegrams wasn’t a line of work that was unfamiliar to Sutherland — in the early 1990s, she briefly dressed up as a bumblebee to deliver singing telegrams for a company based near Pike Place Market. She quit, she laughingly recalled, after realizing that some of her clients expected her to do more for them than sing.
“It turns out the company also delivered strip-o-grams,” she said.
On Vashon, Sutherland explained, the work is much more wholesome and life-affirming, with jobs that have included hospice visits and frequent calls to Vashon Community Care.
Still, the pair’s costumes are undeniably sexy, but with more the look of a “silly pin-up — a wink and a nod,” said Joyce. With their fluttery wings, the fairies are also fanciful enough to appeal to young children.
Joyce’s 4-year-old son particularly loves her fairy clothes, she said.
“He says, ‘You look like a princess, Mommy. It’s my favorite thing when you wear that,’” she said.
Recipients of Washington State Fairies’ singing telegrams also have high praise for the pair.
Rebekah Bevilacqua Kuzma, a mother of six who moved to the island in 2012, got a singing telegram from her husband as birthday gift, receiving it in her pajamas, during the magic morning hour when her 2-year-old twins were taking a nap.
“I highly recommend them,” Kuzma said. “I had no idea it was so much fun.”
Since receiving the telegram, Kuzma, who is also an accomplished singer, has gotten to know the pair better through their monthly “Fairyoke” nights. For the past year or so, Sullivan and Joyce have helmed a burgeoning karaoke scene at the Vashon Eagles.
Kuzma, who regularly attends, said the karaoke night has helped her redevelop her musical talents, which she had also set aside for years while raising children. Through karaoke, she has forged collaborations with several musical cohorts and now has regular gigs singing at venues around town.
“It’s just pure fun, and probably the most supportive karaoke crowd in the nation,” Kuzma said. “It’s been so inspiring — I met all the people I’m doing music with now at Fairyoke.”
How Joyce and Sutherland find the time to be fairies and host karoke nights isn’t, however, completely clear. Besides being hands-on mothers of small children, now ages 4, 5 and 7, they both serve on the board of Vashon Maury Cooperative Preschool and are in charge of planning the school’s next gala auction, “Prom-o-rama,” to be held in April at the Open Space for Arts & Community. As hosts of the auction, the pair will debut two new characters — the Prim Family Professional Prom Planners from Pecan Grove, Texas.
Sutherland also manages the Jesus Barn Farm event space on Vashon. She and her husband, Craig Sutherland, bought the iconic island property in 2004 and re-erected the long-gone island landmark barn. So far, eight weddings have been booked for the space this summer.
And if all this wasn’t enough, both Joyce and Sutherland also have regular jobs. Joyce handles sales and publicity for Seattle Distilling Company, which she and her husband, Paco Joyce, recently launched with two other families on Vashon.
Sutherland, in the meantime, has a rather surprising day job — the femme fatale fairy and powerhouse singer has also worked as a quiet, unassuming court reporter for the past 20 years.
“A lot of people don’t know that about me,” she said.
A more typical way for islanders to get to know Sutherland is to have her show up at their doors with Joyce shortly after they move to Vashon.
“One of our favorite songs is for new island residents — with references to septic issues and our non existent Vashon nightlife — and includes a bouquet of kale,” said Joyce.