Giselle Woo: “Music has always called on me. I started playing guitar when my daddy taught all of us..."
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
Giselle Woo is a sonic healer. Rhythm rattles through her bones like a lifeforce and radiates out with such intensity of passion that her performances have been known to move listeners to tears. “Or smiles,” the desert dweller points out.
It’s a breezy, early fall afternoon in Morongo Valley, one of those days that compels you to be outdoors because, after so many consecutive summer scorchers, you’ve forgotten how pleasant this arid sandscape can be. Woo kicks back in the fresh air. She’s reflecting on the decade of determined musical pursuit that led her to this phase in her artistic career. In January 2022, her band Giselle Woo & The Night Owls will release its first full-length album, Everything; they’ll mark the occasion with a performance at the newly resurrected Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs for Oasis Music Festival. “It means a lot to me to be performing in such an iconic and historical place,” she says. “My mom told me that used to be the hang out spot after school. She went to Palm Springs High School in the 1970s.”
Woo’s 10-year-old pit bull, Chino, basks in the noontime sun nearby as the Night Owls frontwoman describes the forthcoming album: “There’s some blues in there. There’s little bit of ska, punk stuff. There are Spanish ballads. So, we thought, ‘Let’s name it Everything, because there’s a little bit of everything in the album.’ It shows our versatility and the different genres we can touch.” Her favorite track is an up-tempo jam called “Bailar,” which means dance in Spanish; on it, Woo plays bass.
Chino was just a pup when this songstress, now 36, first ventured out to open mic nights as a solo performer. Truth be told, she was born into music. Her parents, who emigrated from Mexico in their youth, were harmonizing together in a worship band in Guadalajara long before she and her three siblings existed. “Mom and Dad met in a youth group for the church, where they learned to perform,” she shares. “They played instruments and fell in love.” Woo sang with them from a young age and set her sights on performing professionally.
“I’ve always imagined myself on the big stages. I always thought it would be so cool to be that person. Slowly but surely, that little dream is becoming more and more of a reality.”
“Music has always called on me,” says Woo, who was born in Palm Springs and raised in Cathedral City. “I started playing guitar when my daddy taught all of us; we were between 10 and 12 years old. He drew a makeshift guitar neck on paper. He would draw six strings and dots where our fingers had to go to make the chords. That’s how I learned; after that, I would watch his hands at church and premeditate his next move.”
Growing up at Saint Louis Catholic Church in Cathedral City (where her parents have served for 38 years and still sing every Sunday), her mother was lead vocalist, her father slid in with the harmonies, and young Giselle was “more of a backup.” In her mid-20s, she reached a fork in her personal journey — a moment most children eventually contend with, in which they’re ready to leave the nest and forge their own way forward.
“I’ve always imagined myself on the big stages,” she says. “I always thought it would be so cool to be that person. Slowly but surely, that little dream is becoming more and more of a reality.”
They call their sound Chicano desert rock. Spacey guitar riffs and raw vocals are informed, in some way, by the land and the intersection of people who call the Coachella Valley home. “All artists in the Coachella Valley and the High Desert [seem to] take something from the land, the desert, that inspires us to have this unique sound,” Woo says. “It’s very bluesy, psychedelic —and when I say psychedelic, I mean it’s something you can get lost in, something that takes you on a little trip.”
Woo swings between English and Spanish, both her native tongues, with such ease that to the listener it might as well be the same language. When she considers the importance of representing her cross-cultural experience as a Mexican American woman on stage, her voice begins to waver, and she pauses to blink back a few tears. If there is one underlying mission in her music, it is to show others like her — those in the Latinx community, local Coachella Valley musicians, women, young people in general — that, no matter your background, with passion and persistence, it truly is possible to reach those big stages, whatever that metaphorical “stage” might represent to them. She wants to show people that it’s cool to be Mexican and American, and that it’s OK to chase your passions with abandon; only then can we realize our dreams.
“Every day, I wake up grateful for another day of life and another chance to do what I love and another chance to bring people to tears or to smiles through my music,” Woo says. “When we perform, people will come up and say, ‘Thank you so much. I cried. I remembered my dad,’ or whatever it may be. That’s when I feel good about what I’m doing, because people can finally release old, trapped feelings and emotions. Sometimes you just need to hear that one chord or that one note [to find] that release.”
3 / Louis, Louis! Meet us in Versailles Desert Baroque presents music for viola da gamba (Marylin Winkle) and harpsichord (Margaret Irwin-Brandon) by Marin Maris, St. Colombe, d’Anglebert. 7 p.m., The Artists Center at the Galen, desertbaroque.com
7/ Johann Sebastian Bach and his Illustrious Sons Desert Baroque presents music for baroque violin (Ken Aiso) and harpsichord (Sonia Lee). 7 p.m., The Artists Center at the Galen, desertbaroque.com
27–30 / Oasis Music Festival This four-day, all-genre festival features The White Buffalo, Gand Band, Courtney Chambers, The Flusters, The Dip, Giselle Woo and the Night Owls, Shadow Mountain Band, Nutty, The Fabulous Yachtsmen, and others. Multiple venues. oasismusicfestival.com
4 / A Golden Trio: Telemann, Bach, Handel Desert Baroque presents music for baroque winds: Stephen Hammer (baroque oboe and recorder), Kenneth Munday (baroque bassoon), and harpsichord (Margaret Irwin-Brandon). 7 p.m., The Artists Center at the Galen, desertbaroque.com
4 / Italy and England: Renaissance Origins Desert Baroque presents music on a rare original 16th century virginal and a harpsichord in the 17th century style from the collection of Charles Metz, harpsichord. 7 p.m., The Artists Center at the Galen, desertbaroque.com
25 / Capturing the Clavisimbalum with Swiss harpsichordist Corina Marti This program includes pieces from the late 13th century Spain and France, the famous Codex Faenza and the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, Eastern European sources, and a touch of English music. 7 p.m., The Artists Center at the Galen, desertbaroque.com
15–17, 22–24 / Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival The lineup features Rage Against the Machine, Travis Scott, and Swedish House Mafia as headliners at the festival, which resumes following pandemic-related cancellations in 2020 and 2021. coachella.com
29–May 1 / Stagecoach Carrie Underwood, Luke Combs, Thomas Rhett, The Black Crowes, Maren Morris, Lee Brice, Smokey Robinson and many others converge on Indio for “California’s country music festival.” stagecoachfestival.com
12–15 / Joshua Tree Music Festival The family-friendly festival at the Joshua Tree Lake Campground offers nonstop music, with acts from near and far, as well as creation stations, yoga, and more. joshuatreemusicfestival.com