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Pepper McGowan

Originally performed as Pepper Acton

Country of origin:


Type of music generally:

Beautiful & fierce evocative/eclectic rock


Most recent release, marrow (2003, a longer re-release of her 1998 ep); most recent release of entirely new material, Bad Stars (2001)

See also:

Pepper McGowan's Facebook page

CDBaby's page for Pepper McGowan


A fierce Robin Holcomb, or the Tori Amos of "Icicle". (Neile)

Covers/own material:

Own, occasional covers

General comments:

Imagine if Robin Holcomb had continued with the style of her work from her first self-titled album, or if Tori Amos was working in the style of "Icicle" but more urgently than meditatively.... Wonderful stuff—at least I think so. Pepper's style is energetic and impressionistic, in her vocal style, her piano work, and her lyrics. Her voice is not syncopated with the piano and I find it effective in the same way that Robin Holcomb is—the varying over the piano line creates an intriguing movement for me and helps me find her work rich when it's just her and her piano. Like Tori Amos, it sounds as though the piano is an extension of her voice. Makes for powerful music. I can see not liking her music (well, I couldn't until Marion described her experience listening to her and now I think I understand but I still think Pepper's work is evocative and brilliant). Maybe it's her jazz/honkytonk timing that bugs people? I love it, and it has stood the test of time of for me. Emotionally evocative, this is delightfully stripped down as far as production goes (mostly just Pepper and her piano), but rich and full as far as sound and emotion goes. Highly recommended.
     I also have a live tape, which makes me to hear her live! Her voice sounds more strained/harsh on this than on her disc and the recording's not so great, but her renditions of the songs are good and I loved the new songs I heard. (Neile)

People like to make the comparison of Pepper to Tori Amos. I think this is unfair comparison. Pepper uses her strengths in a different way. Her songs tend to kick you in the head more like an Imogen Heap, than Tori Amos. Pepper's CD is not for everyone, and that is sad. She is an incredible artist, and I can't wait to see what she comes out with next. (

i listened to this album a few times and i was struck more by the differences between pepper and tori than by the similarities. pepper's a good pianist, but she doesn't have tori's glorious sense of musicality. on the other hand, pepper also has none of tori's breathy vocals and affections (however, that "feature" of tori's doesn't bother me much, if at all). pepper's voice is clear, less-nuanced, and direct.
     i didn't really care for the songs or her voice the first listen through, but i liked it more on the second and third listens. i haven't gone back to listen since then i guess you can consider this an encouraging pre-review. (

I'm a huge Pepper fan.... (

Comments about live performance:

I caught her act at the Indiegrrl show in Chicago a month or two ago. She plays piano, and both her songs, and her talk between songs, are marvelous. (

Recommended first album:

Any you can find—they're all good



Released under the name Pepper Acton

Release info:

1998—Sound of the Sea, P.O. Box 18078, Cleveland OH 44118, U.S.A.—SOS 13


Mail order from the above address or at her shows

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Pepper McGowan—vocals, piano

Guest artists:

Dick Acton and Uncle Feeney Acton—harmony
Galen Rose MacKay Bentoff—baby shriek

Produced by:

Pepper McGowan and Alan Grandy


Okay, don't look too hard at the cover, but do listen hard to the music. This is a girl and her piano, yes, but get past the superficial resemblance to Tori Amos (I mean it used to be that any woman with a piano seemed to sound like Kate Bush, now it's Tori). Anyway, this is a brief but individual, powerful, emotionally affecting collection of songs. This isn't an album that everyone will like—which is what always happens when an artist isn't catering to the popular taste—but those who like her will love her. I do. For me it's the combination of the interesting piano work, Pepper's direct voice, and the fascinating, evocative lyrics. Wow. Go to the website, listen up, and buy this. (Neile)

Pepper McGowan's Marrow is a different and exciting disk. Pepper has an subtly innocent voice with an edge. Her lyrics strike at you when you least expect them. Every time I listen to it, I pick out something new. My favorite songs on Marrow are "Brother Can You Spare A Dime", "Star", and "Marilyn's Son." (

The cd starts off very promising with "To Johnny", which is a beautiful song, very Tori-esque, especially the piano (think a fiercer "Icicle" indeed). But about halfway through this song comes the first moment when her words don't fit in the music. And that only gets worse. Most of the 7 songs on this ep start with this beautiful piano, and then when she sings the words don't fit in the melody at all. She's distributing her words a bit unevenly, trying to fit in far too many words in a songline and then staying quiet on the next line. Which could work in some cases, but doesn't work for me in Pepper McGowan's case. In fact, it irritates me. Also the music is not as 'structured' as I would like. And I have to admit that the cover DOES put me off a bit, even though it shouldn't. So, I don't think this is an album that I would listen to often. Though I do think she could grow, if she'd pay more attention to her songwriting, or maybe find a good producer? (Marion)

Wow...I just got this CD in the mail today, and it's inspiring one of those emotional epiphany moments that's more powerful than any other "first listens" moments from even my favorites (Ani Difranco, Tori Amos, Tracy Chapman, Sinéad, etc). I am just blown away. Listening to a few of the sound samples from her website, I was pretty excited to get the CD ("To Johnny" is one of the best songs I've ever heard). But after listening to some of the other songs—"Molly", "Star", even her cover of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"—I'm totally blown away. She's got great piano process, and her honey-like voice is really nice, but it's her lyrics that are really something else. Anyhow, back to listening, but I've got to highly recommend this; it's one of the best CDs I've heard in far too long (you can skip the hidden track, though). (

To me she's SO much like Tori Amos I'm having a hard time seeing past that to what she's really got to offer. I keep finding myself thinking, "Tori would do this better" or "what Tori song does this sound like". I enjoy the music, and her voice is interesting (kinda like Jewel without the baby-doll aspects), but I think it's going to take me a while to be able to see it for what it is, and not just a bunch of would-be Tori b-sides. (

Bad Stars

Release info:

2001—Inky Midnight Records, PO Box 43583, Cleveland, OH 44143, U.S.A—ink0000000001


CDBaby or see website for availability

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Pepper McGowan—piano, vocals


Bad Stars is a beautiful, bluesy, heartbreak of an album. Includes covers of the 19th century pop song "And the Band Played On" (the Casey song)", Prince's "When U Were Mine", Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising", Michael Penn's "Long Way Down", and U2's "All I Want is You". It's one of those albums that grows on you more the more you hear it, gentle barbs sinking under your skin so gently you don't feel it happening. It's sad, yearning, wounded but tough, and even with the nearly half the album consisting of covers it feels like a deeply personal album. (Neile)

bad stars is just Pepper sitting down with her piano, playing some new acoustic songs and some covers; it's worth picking up because it's beautiful. (

marrow re-release

Release info:

2003—Inky Midnight Music


CDBaby or see website

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Pepper McGowan—vocals, piano


This has all the tracks of the 1998 version (in a slightly different order), and adds three new songs before the final track. I won't repeat myself about the previous version as you can read my comments above; the new songs are equally strong, and make this an even fuller, deeper album. "Novocaine Moon" and "False Time" are perhaps a little quieter and more contemplative, adding that dimension to the collection, and "Burn" is another fierce song. In total, this expanded version of the album is even more powerful than the first, which is saying a lot indeed. (Neile)

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DISCLAIMER: Comments and reviews in the Ectophiles' Guide are excerpted from the ecto mailing list or volunteered by members of the list. They are the opinions of music enthusiasts, not professional music critics.

Entry last updated 2016-06-05 14:52:57.
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