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Beauty and the butt crack 

Miranda Lee Richards is the folk to Nikka Costa's funk

It's sometimes hard to take models seriously when they branch out into more challenging endeavors. So the biggest surprise about ex-model Miranda Lee Richard's debut, The Herethereafter, stems from the fact that she isn't merely a pretty face who's in over her head. Perhaps in a bid for respectability, Richards' beauty is actually underutilized on the CD's cover, which features a rather unflattering photo of the singer, who looks like she has bad teeth and an overbite.

Musically, the Gram Parsons-influenced alt-country/psychedelic folk-pop on The Herethereafter recalls the Cowboy Junkies, though it's generally more upbeat. The centerpiece is clearly Richard's little-girl voice, which calls to mind both the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval. To the album's credit, the winsome melodies, simple song structures and hazy production recall the pre-"free love" rock era -- which came and went before Richards was born.

The 27-year-old daughter of underground comics book artists parents, Richards grew up around the likes of R. Crumb. She eventually took up modeling and attended a performing arts high school in San Francisco. Richards credits her unconventional upbringing with giving her the confidence to take the chances that have led to her uncommon adult life.

"Being exposed to alternative lifestyles is a good thing when you're making music," she says. " I don't feel like it's taking a risk when I'm doing something that other people might think is risky. It's just what I like and what I'm used to."

After graduation, Richards moved to Paris to model full time and discovered she hated the business. So it was back to San Francisco, where she went to college and took guitar lessons from Metallica's Kirk Hammett, her pal's boyfriend. Richards jammed with Hammett, he taught her Mazzy Star songs and she recorded for the first time in his basement. After those tapes reached notorious Brian Jonestown Massacre leader Anton Newcombe, Richards briefly joined the band, wisely opting out of their drug-fueled tours.

Following her six months in BJM, Richards moved to Los Angeles and lived in a tent in a friend's backyard. While in L.A., she met many of the people who would play on her debut: Matt Chamberlin, Joey Waronker, Jon Brion, David Campbell, members of the Beachwood Sparks. Despite the fact that Richards and producer/multi-instrumentalist Rick Parker are joined by no less than 22 musicians (including a string section), The Herethereafter has a lush, cohesive feel.

Taking a bit of risk, her record company, Virgin, has paired the folky, atmospheric Richards with label mate Nikka Costa, who was going to call her road show the "Funky White Bitch Tour."

"I'm not a funky white bitch," laughs Richards. "Even though it's a different vintage and our influences are different, we each have elements of classic rock involved. We share an appreciation for '60s rock and a mutual respect for each other's music."

Richards' tour mate says the now renamed "Everybody Got Their Something Tour" (in honor of Costa's latest release) is about "good music and good songs."

"And Miranda seems cool," she says.

The two share a non-traditional upbringing: Costa is the daughter of record producer/arranger Don Costa (Tony Bennett/Frank Sinatra) and the goddaughter of Sinatra. A performer since age 5, she's already a multi-platinum artist in Europe and Australia (a country she called home in the mid-'90s). Costa released her American debut, the genre-hopping, semi-neo-funk Everybody Got Their Something, back in May. The album shows an appreciation for vintage rock and soul, combining Sly and the Family Stone-influenced grooves with Costa's Janis Joplin-like pipes. Her live show extends the former, allowing Costa to showcase her over-the-top singing.

Unlike Richards, Costa doesn't downplay her sex appeal. And her preference for precariously low-slung jeans in promotional photos begs the question: What's up with the butt crack?

"I think it's funny that everyone is so interested in my butt crack," says Costa, laughing. "Women have been showing their breast cleavage for centuries, but the minute you show some butt crack, it's column worthy. Let's put it this way: I have the best-looking plumber's crack you've ever seen."

Nikka Costa and Miranda Lee Richards perform Thurs., Dec. 13, at EarthLink Live, 1374 W. Peachtree St. Doors open at 7 p.m. $11-$13. 404-885-1365. www.earthlinklive.com.

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