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Must be something in the water: Camille West goofs off. Photo: Ellen Descisciolo

Shocker Mom
One of the Four Bitchin’ Babes, songwriter Camille West mines humor, housework and rolls in the hay to create a new breed of folksinger
By Kathryn Ceceri

What does a Suburban Mother From Hell do when her last child leaves the nest?

“I’m gonna walk around the house in the nude,” declares folksinger-comedian Camille West, “although it’s probably 20 years too late.”

Then, pausing for a beat, she adds, “I better not give them the keys.”

It’s been a long time since West got her start making up songs to help her sons Jason and Justin, now 22 and 18, learn their ABCs, and giving “the girls” in her Queensbury neighborhood a few laughs.

“My friends’ tastes ran on the bawdy side,” she says. “That’s what stuck, the funny stuff.”

West turned that talent for risqué lyrics into a career that has taken her from open-mike night at Caffe Lena in the late 1980s to performing with friend Eleanor Stanton as the Suburban Mothers From Hell—complete with poufy wigs, frilly aprons and big cleavers—to cross-country tours as one of the Four Bitchin’ Babes.

She’s written songs for the off-off-Broadway revue Sex: the Musical, and was included in the book Life’s a Stitch, an anthology of contemporary women’s humor.

But despite audience enthusiasm for songs like “Viagra in the Waters,” about an upstate town’s reaction to a drug-truck spill (“She knew something was up as he stood naked at the table/Holding two cups of coffee and half a dozen bagels/Oh, is that cinnamon raisin?”), which topped the charts on the Dr. Demento radio show in 2000, West still faces stereotypes about women songwriters—and housewives.

Critics have walked into shows expecting an evening of women’s issues—“That’s what housewives are like,” she says, trying to pin down their motivation—and been stopped short by a 40-something woman singing about sex.

“Sex is a big topic,” she muses. “Yeah, it is, and why shouldn’t it be? I’ve gotten more sexual, and I like my songs to project that. That’s who I am.”

In an interview by phone from her home, where she’s at work on a musical she hopes to have completed by next year, West does seem more matronly than she allows. She says she’s never led “the little June Cleaver existence,” yet spends as much time bragging about her “brilliant, creative” sons (Justin is an actor and painter, Jason a grad student at RPI) and the support she gets from husband Scott Wodicka, a sales manager for a flooring company, as she works on her latest contribution to Sex: the Musical, a song called “Orgasm Island.”

“It’s hard for housewives,” she says. “You need to express yourself creatively. My niche was always songwriting. It was never going to be my career or avocation. It was just something I did for a hobby.”

Given her insistence that she’s always been “a little bit out there”—in school, West claims, she was one you’d look at and say, “This person is either going to be successful, or a vagrant”—the folk-comedy connection was a natural for the acoustic guitarist.

“There’s a whole tradition of getting together with your friends that lends itself [to comedy],” she explains. “That’s how it really started, doing something for your friends. Sometimes it’s godawful, sometimes it’s dirty, but it’s your friends.”

And humor has the advantage of immediate feedback from the audience. She doesn’t tend to do serious songs anymore, West says. “Sometimes you don’t know if you’re reaching people or touching people,” she admits.

It helps that she’s never been one to shy away from being shocking. In the liner notes of her CD Diva’s Day Off, West responds to “the woman at the Festival of Funny Songwriters who heard ‘Rapture’ [in which she describes watching all her good Christian friends rising bodily up to heaven] and told me that my soul was consigned to hell. Your point?”

“When you’re doing comedy, you’re going to piss somebody off,” she comments. “And if you’re not, you’re not doing your job.” So will that job change now that her mothering duties are fading into the background? Well, West says she intends to keep touring with the Four Bitchin’ Babes, which has taken her and her husband to exotic locales like Hawaii and lent her a certain degree of fame.

“We sold out 2,100 seats in Madison [Wisc.],” she recalls. “People were coming up to us and asking for autographs! Alone, I guess I’m not special enough.”

West joined the Babes, now featuring Suzzy Roche, Sally Fingerett and Debi Smith, in 1998, replacing founding member Christine Lavin. She credits the group with teaching her a lot about being onstage.

“It’s changed everything,” she says. “My act has become more theatrical. It’s more about the performance. I’ve gone from being scared of performing to absolutely loving it. It’s quite a trip with these girls.”

Other plans include getting her play, which she won’t talk about in any detail, off the ground. And, West says, it would be nice to get some musicians playing behind her, so she wouldn’t have to accompany herself.

But mostly, with all that extra time to write, she hopes to turn out more new material. (The producers of Sex: the Musical have asked her for a song about fetishes.)

“I’m not that great a housekeeper, so I’ve got to do something,” West quips. “These songs make me happy. Who am I to complain?”

Camille West will perform at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) on Saturday (Aug. 16) at 8 PM. Admission is $15 and $18. For reservations and information, call 583-0022.

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