Americana

RENEE WAHL & THE SWORN SECRETS

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Renee Wahl is a teacher; she’s a physicist; she’s a former member of the Air Force, and she’s a damn good musician.

The singer-songwriter began playing and writing music at the age of six, and that passion only grew with age. After attending one semester of college as a music/theatre major she thought it fruitless—why pay for an education in something you can do without a degree? Then her trajectory made a seemingly 180. She ended up going back to school and graduating with a physics degree, which turned into a 12-year career in the Air Force and stint of teaching math and physics to aspiring audio engineers. But at the core, it was always about the music.

Wahl attributes an affinity for the Beatles as her reason for going back to school with a new major. Her admiration of the band’s diversity and ageless sound inspired her to research time travel and ultimately study physics.

“Since music is physics, I see things from another perspective—from songwriting, composition and even how my instruments and equipment works,” she explains. “People think of science as very straight and narrow, but Einstein said ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge,’ and I find that to be so very important, to be creative in science. If you’re just following a blueprint, how do you create something new?”

That philosophy is at the root of Wahl’s music. Her brand of Americana is sharp as a tack. It’s precise and carefully thought out, yet wrought with an emotional rawness that cannot be taught. Her soulful voice has a grit that’ll give you goosebumps, and her innate gift of storytelling will make you feel like you’ve lived through every song lyric she sings.

Perhaps that connection stems from the Nashville-based musician’s unconventional way of songwriting. Very rarely will she go into the studio before playing the songs live first. To her, it’s imperative to flesh out ideas onstage, watch them evolve and take their true forms before committing them to tape. It’s part audience response and part band chemistry, two aspects that are of the utmost importance to her.

Wahl’s latest collection of songs was crafted in this manner, and its authenticity shows. Cut To The Bone is a self-exploration of discovery, awareness, and finding the beauty in spite of something painful. She writes from her heart, occasionally changing names “to protect the innocent.” The nine songs that comprise her latest effort are her darkest, rawest yet, as Wahl opens herself up more than ever before. She recalls a chance meeting that had a lasting impact on “Cold Day in Memphis,” connects to her late mother in “Me Before You” and discusses mental health in “Meds,” a song she admits was hard to share with the world.

“‘Meds’ took me a while to want to perform live, because it’s like, ‘Oh my god, I’m telling all these people what medications I’ve been on, and now they’re going to think I’m completely crazy,’” she divulges. “But that’s okay. Nobody gets help, nobody gets better unless you’re open about it.”

Her confidence was also mirrored in the studio. Recording with Stuart Mathis (The Wallflowers, Lucinda Williams) gave Wahl an opportunity to make the album she wanted the way that she wanted for the first time in her career. She recruited Ron Eoff on bass, Billy Livsey on keys, and her longtime friend and bandmate David Strayer on drums. The recording process was bound by mutual respect and honest feedback. When recording her debut LP Cumberland Moonshine, she felt sheepish giving her input. With her follow-up EP, Sworn Secrets, she began to step out of her shell, and this time around she went with her gut and gave the final say on every song that made it on the album. “This is the first record I’ve made that I find myself listening, too,” she admits. “And it’s not that I’m listening to me, it’s the entire sound of it—the sonics, the playing, the way it makes you feel. I really like listening to it, which is surprising to me.”

Like her songs, Wahl is evolving as an artist. In 2011, she was an up-and-coming voice aspiring to make a name for herself the same way most musicians do—through festival slots and record deals and other forms of “validation.” With time, she’s learned that while those accolades may help enhance the experience, they’re not the end game. The music is. With a refreshed mindset, she’s making her most genuine music yet.

‘I’m not chasing anything anymore,” she declares. “Period.”

THE SMOKING FLOWERS

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Pyramids are some of the most mystical, powerful and protective structures in the history of the earth. For The Smoking Flowers, made of East Nashville-based artists Kim and Scott Collins, writing, recording and producing 2018’s rock-oriented Let's Die Together and their forthcoming acoustic album Snowball Out of Hell was like erecting a personal pyramid for the band. Both albums were conceived during Kim's battle with and triumph over an aggressive form of breast cancer. Snowball Out Of Hell showcases the softer side of the band’s sound, and is an ode to standing united against life’s toughest challenges.

With the creation of a pyramid, three cornerstones are required. The songs “(Still) Here For You Now” (a love letter from Scott to Kim), “Let's Die Together” (a love letter to each other) and “One Friend” (a love letter to a friend) were those cornerstones. "Those songs gave us immense strength, purpose and protection during a rough time in our lives,” the band explains. “Every time we play any of those songs in our live shows, we keep adding stones ... building that pyramid higher." Kim's breast cancer is in remission today due to only using holistic and alternative methods and a raw food diet (no chemotherapy, no radiation, no hormones). In the wake of this experience, Kim and Scott took life by the reins and hit the road in their vintage Volvo 240 station wagon, touring across America and Canada for three years. With this life-altering experience to draw upon and years of intense touring under their belt, the couple then tapped even deeper into their raw rock, punk and folk roots in the composition of their companion albums Let's Die Together and Snowball Out of Hell. The urgency present in these recordings is undeniable, a true story of love and triumph.       

 With influences that range from Led Zeppelin to Gillian Welch, and The Ramones to Neil Young, The Smoking Flowers' chemistry is palpable as Kim dances between strings and percussion while Scott plays electric and acoustic guitar, and harmonica--she delivers her own sensual, simmering vocals, while his is the voice of a feisty, gin-battered, heart-on-sleeve, hardscrabble troubadour. The Collinses, who founded charitable organization The Treasure Chest, continue to be activists and advocates for holistic and alternative medicine and healing. Their music and lives have been an influence on many East Nashville artists, being early pioneers of the now popular underground scene. With their passion, determination, and undeniable talent, The Smoking Flowers are, and continue to be, a formidable force.

DAMN TALL BUILDINGS

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In their early days, Damn Tall Buildings didn’t rehearse – they busked. Now, whether live or on record, the band still radiates the energy of a ragtag crew of music students playing bluegrass on the street. But, that energy is anchored by their instrumental chops, their strong songwriting, and their varied influences that stretch beyond bluegrass, even beyond American roots music altogether. Whether sharing lead vocals and instrumental solos or blending their voices into high-spirited harmony, Damn Tall Buildings are a tight unit that contains more than the sum of its parts.

Primary vocalist and lyricist Max Capistran’s singing recalls old blues and The Band-style roots-rock, whereas Sasha Dubyk’s time studying musical theater is evident in her rich vocal tone and soulful flair. The interplay between Avery Ballotta’s fiddle and Jordan Alleman’s banjo brings stratospheric dimension to the churning rhythm section of Capistran’s guitar and Dubyk’s bass. The band’s harmony singing is tight without being too slick – they sound like four individual voices joined together in celebration, not a perfectly polished machine. Their choruses are the kind you sing along to with a glass raised into the air. Their lyrics find beauty and glory in the mundane, workaday struggle of everyday life: time keeps passing, you don’t like your job, you drink too much, you laugh with your friends, you search for a home, and you dream about what else might be out there. You carry on. This is what Damn Tall Buildings sings about, what they seek to share with their audience.

This has long been the case, even when their audience was simply whoever happened to be passing by. In 2013, then students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the band took their instruments to nearby street corners and jammed for hours on old bluegrass and blues songs, traditional fiddle tunes, and eventually their own original music. They had become fast friends: Ballotta and Alleman met playing frisbee on Boston’s Revere Beach, while Capistran and Dubyk met in class, when they were wrongfully accused of cheating off each other on a test because they had put down the exact same incorrect answer. Busking, a continuous test of one’s ability to command an audience’s attention, cemented their closeness and fostered their infectious, captivating performance style. It’s how they learned half of their repertoire, and it’s where Dubyk first picked up the bass. Since then, they’ve made three albums: 2014’s Cure-All, 2015’s self-titled, and their forthcoming third album, Don’t Look Down. The band has also relocated to Brooklyn, NY and toured widely, sharing stages with Sierra Hull and the California Honeydrops and appearing at festivals like Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Freshgrass Festival, where they took second place in the 2016 band competition. 

After several years of living in different places and trying to make things work, the band sees Don’t Look Down as a reconnection, a leap forward, a simultaneous arrival and takeoff. Having self-produced their first two albums, the band enlisted Dan Cardinal (Darlingside, Lula Wiles, Josh Ritter) to produce Don’t Look Down, which captures Damn Tall Buildings’ lightning-in-a-bottle live energy while also showcasing a broader sonic finesse. The atmospheric violin intro to album opener “Late July” evokes Ballotta’s time playing in an experimental string quartet with the Boston Ballet, but the song soon gives way to a hard-driving, lighthearted meditation on loss and tough times. Standout track “Evan” (as in Williams) brandishes Dubyk’s fiery vocal and Alleman’s ferocious, guttural low-tuned banjo over a bed of clattering percussion and rock-solid bass. “Words to the Song,” an ode to faking it until you make it, recalls John Hartford with a healthy dash of vintage soul.

The album cover for Don’t Look Down, by artist Scott McCormick, is a reference to the old Chinese story of Wan Hu, a man who strapped forty-seven rockets to a chair in order to launch himself into space. When the smoke cleared, he was gone, and never seen again. For Damn Tall Buildings, this story resonates. They are a band of unlikely astronauts, of rocket launchers, of dreamers. Who knows if they’ll reach outer space, but they’re certainly going to spark something.

NELS ANDREWS

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Although he was born by the sea, it wasn’t until he moved to the desert that Nels  Andrews began writing songs. He sang them alone in a house constructed of mud and tires on the sage-brushed mesas of Taos, New Mexico where he spent his 20’s, airing them occasionally around campfires. It wasn't until a move 90 miles south to the dusty yet curiously eccentric city of Albuquerque that he began to play them in front of strangers, and from there, to start collaborating. Andrews enlisted the talents of some inventive indie musicians he met at the Red Door, a creaky second-floor respite and practice space (and former railroad brothel) on historic Route 66 in the center of downtown. That initial collaboration began to shape his desert-infused folk/rock sound, pairing literary narratives of curious high desert outsiders with the psych-rock palate and electro-fuzz of his then band, The El Paso Eyepatch, and resulted in his debut album Sunday Shoes.

After his band dissolved, Andrews and his new wife moved back to her native east coast to set up a home in the freshly-blossoming bohemian enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There he crossed paths with bass virtuoso/composer Todd Sickafoose (Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco, Anaïs Mitchell) who offered to produce Andrews’ sophomore record, Off Track Betting (Reveal Records UK/Lucky dice NL). Sickafoose brought with him a whole new palette of musicians from NYC’s downtown experimental/new music scene, which lent new textures and shapes to Andrews’ increasingly impressionistic story songs. Third album Scrimshaw was gleaned from his time working as a chauffeur in Manhattan; he followed his literary heroes Melville and Yeats, as the songs drew on an earthy mysticism and a romantic look to the past.

Now, happily stationed near the sea again in Santa Cruz, Andrews has gracefully woven the morning fog, redwoods, and oceanside into his forthcoming record Pigeon and The Crow, produced by traditional Irish flutist Nuala Kennedy (Gerry O’Conner, Will

Oldham). A songwriter’s record in the spirit of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece with a breath of the texture, rhythm, and longing of Milton Nascimento’s Club De Esquina 1Pigeon and The Crow brims with literary wordplay, mixed with some sway, some shimmer, and some sand between your toes.

The bones of this soon-to-be-released fourth studio record was tracked live over three days at Whispering Pines Studio in Los Angeles.The studio was originally built for Sam Cooke in the 60s, turned into a funk/soul palace in the 70s, abandoned when the owner found religion in the 80s, and later rehabilitated by Indie rock outfit Lord Huron.

While recording, Andrews slept on the tracking room floor every night and dreamt in technicolor born of the vibes steeped into that well-worn musical space. Andrews, along with Kennedy, Sebastian Steinberg (Iron and Wine, Fiona Apple , Soul Coughing) on bass, and Quinn on drums/percussion (T-Bone Burnett, Eastmountainsouth), breathed life into the songs together in that one room—and then the international collaboration began. Producer Kennedy headed back to Ireland with the tracks in tow, and beamed them across the globe to the rest of the players—from the UK to the Azores. The album boasts a mix of traditional players from Kennedy’s past to some of Andrews’ newest old friends like Stelth Ulvang of The Lumineers, as well as some older old friends and collaborators from New York, including guest appearances by fellow songsmiths Anaïs Mitchell, AJ Roach, and Anthony Da Costa.

The result is 10 ethereal yet substantial tracks that assess life “mid-game,” a time that is less straightforward than youth imagined, where our strategies and gambits are yet unresolved—stories from a place past innocence but perhaps still before wisdom. These are songs written about that place: an actress in her sunset, a husband folding now-soft wedding sheets, a father meditating on love and selfishness, and the ghosts of former relationships. Pigeon and The Crow contains wistful resolve, a steady backbone, and a late afternoon light reflected off the sea.

Pigeon and The Crow is set to be released August 9, 2019.

JESSI MCNEAL

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Raised in rural Washington state in the log house built by her parents, Jessi McNeal has been singing and writing songs in some shape or form for most of her life. Simple hymns and old country tunes formed the soundtrack of her childhood, and her ear for melody and love of storytelling developed at an early age.

Americana, bluegrass and folk traditions are present and alive in her lyrics and music, as the imagery and landscapes of country life weave their way into her songs. Her sound is comforting and inviting, though she doesn’t shy away from the difficulties and struggles of life’s journey, instead using songwriting as a soothing balm for many wounds, creating songs rimmed in redemption.

Jessi’s previous album, 2015’s Promised Land, was produced by Ryan McAllister (Brian Doerksen, Tim Neufeld) at Five Acres Studio in B.C., Canada, and served as a reminder that the movement from one season to the next isn't always a clear cut path. In the four years since Promised Land, Jessi’s life has been marked by transition—some joy-filled and some heart-wrenching. Processing it all with guitar in hand, Jessi crafted the songs on her forthcoming album, The Driveway. When it was time to record, Jessi approached McAllister, who helped create a darker tonal palette with simple, un-fussy production. The songs swirl with pedal and lap steel, vibe-y electric guitar, and banjo and mandolin, providing well-placed levity in some of the album’s darker corners.

The Driveway is about the middle ground – the in-between, the waiting, the hope-not-yet seen. "I sometimes hear people refer to it as the ‘messy middle,’” she says. “But lately, I’ve been thinking of it as the ‘sacred middle.’” The album’s title track is her take on the story of the prodigal son; “I’ve come to see myself at times like the father and at times like the son,” she explains. “I want to be the one who comes running, and I also want to be the one who falls into forgiving arms. And here’s the real truth – sometimes those arms of forgiveness and grace need to be my very own.”

“The driveway on our property isn’t long, but it still feels like a sacred space between the world and home,” she continues. “I think we all need a bit of easement in our lives where we give ourselves permission to just be, without all of the pressure and demands that life can place on us – a place where we can have let ourselves have all those gut-level feelings about waiting and loss and transition. If we speed through those emotions, we’re going to miss a lot of things, mostly ourselves,” she adds. “Lately I’m savoring those slow walks to fetch the mail, and I’m feeling a whole lot of grace to just be right where I am in my own unfolding story.”

 

EDAN ARCHER

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Gainesville, Florida-based outlaw Americana artist Edan Archer has announced the upcoming release of her new album Journey Proud, set for release on August 2nd. Archer, who performed at this year’s Stagecoach Music Festival for the first time, has been praised by Rolling Stone Country, American Songwriter, Wide Open Country, and more. Recently, Parade Magazine premiered the video for album track “Six Wing Angel.” Filmed in Florida by director Ed Agudelo using only an iPhone and a drone, the video is a beautiful visualization for the Appalachian murder ballad-style tune. Parade commented that Archer used the iPhone and drone “to amazing effect. With beautifully shot Southern footage and a mournful story, the song and video take Archer’s swampy sensibilities and roll them into a fingerpicked fable.”

“The six-winged angel is, in this song, acting as the angel of death, who comes to visit the main character as his time to die comes upon him,” Archer explains. “It was inspired by a cousin who, after a hard life of drug and alcohol abuse, died alone on my dad’s front lawn one night. In this song, the character is asking for more time, reflecting on his life, and taking comfort in the last friend he has left, his whiskey bottle.” 

Journey Proud was recorded at Atomic Sound in Brooklyn, New York and Magnetic Sound in Nashville, Tennessee and co-produced by Archer and Shayni Rae. The album's ten tracks explore ideas of love, loss, rebellion, and hardship--from substance abuse to refusing to conform to someone's idea of what a woman "should" be--including the retelling of a bank robbery committed by a friend in the tongue-in-cheek "You Shoot I Drive." Archer's music showcases rock and country influences combined with Appalachian folk as she gets gritty with dulcimer magic and casts spells with intimate ballads, skillful fingerpicking, alternate tunings, and rich effects. The songs of Journey Proud showcase Archer's compelling vocals and stringed prowess, touching on something primal, those ancient foundations that lie deep with the soul.