With their acclaimed
new album, it’s truth-in-titling time for the country/folk duo.
BY NANCY DUNHAM
Think of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion as living in
something akin to a snow globe, where musical influences scatter down upon
As the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, Sarah
Lee has always embraced her royal folk heritage. After the two married, Johnny
– well known in rock notably for Queen Sarah Saturday – joined in the family’s
folk endeavors through such projects as “The Guthrie Family Rides
Again” tour and even riding with the family on a Thanksgiving Day float in
last year’s Macy’s Day Parade.
“I’ve played loud versions of rock and roll and put out
some solo records,” says Irion, “This was a turning point for Sarah
Lee and me.”
Irion is referring to Bright
Examples, the new album from the pair that some label as country rock,
others label as alt-country and still others just call indie. Whatever the
assigned musical genre, reviewers agree the songs – nine written by Irion, two
by Guthrie and one written as collaboration – charmingly swirl the duo’s many
musical influences. That’s just what the two were going for as they approached
the album as a way to set a musical soundscape for their work together.
In a way it was a move from South
Carolina to Massachusetts,
near where Guthrie grew up, that prompted the pair to write what they now call
the album they were always meant to record.
“We left South
Carolina and I just started maniacally writing,”
Irion says. “At the end we had about 50 songs.”
Some tunes, such as “Never Far From My Heart,” are
examples of Guthrie and Irion embracing a shared experience, while others (“Target
on My Heart”) are Irion’s more solitary musings. Suffice to say the songs
are richly textured, which is no doubt why U2 guitarist the Edge expressed
interest in producing the album.
“I was thinking that the Edge has worked with [great
producers and musicians] and learned from each of them,” says Irion.
“He was really interested but he’s crazy busy right now and we didn’t want
to wait. I’m so glad he didn’t [produce the album] because we ended up with all
kinds of great stuff on this album we might not have gotten.”
Although the stars didn’t align to work with the Edge, Irion
and Guthrie knew they wanted a producer who was also a player, not just a
technician. The duo’s creation process is quite organic, and producers who
aren’t players don’t add a lot to the mix.
Enter the production dream team of Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and
Thom Monahan (who in addition to Vetiver has worked with Devendra Banhart and
the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson), who had first introduced Sarah Lee and
Johnny. Almost from the first time, Cabic and Monahan heard the 50 odd songs
the duo sent them, the match seemed ideal.
“We sent [the songs] to Andy and Thom, and they wrote
back and says, ‘We have two records here. Here is the record we can make with
you guys,'” says Irion. “I’m still looking forward to making that
other record though.”
Perhaps now more than ever, because of the magical process
that surrounded the recording and production of Bright Examples.
“Thom is one of those guys, he is maniacal,” Irion
continues. “He is there and in the moment and if he thinks one way, you’re
going to have a hard time changing his mind. Thanks to him for that. We owe a
lot of the way the record turned out to that.”
Consider the track “Butterflies” that Irion and
Guthrie had envisioned as an ethereal, floating tune: Monahan heard the song as
something else and convinced them to record it with plenty of bluegrass sounds
that the duo is convinced ultimately brought it to life
“It’s one of those ‘clean your palate’ songs,” says
Irion. “It really works for the record.” Guthrie agrees, noting that
the entire process was an act of faith in many ways. “I am often of the
thinking if there are too many chefs in the kitchen, it might come out
fragmented,” she says. “In a way, you have to sacrifice and learn
from everything. That was the pool we were swimming in with Andy and Tom. We
loved the experience and we learned a lot from these guys who make great music.
That’s why it sounds complete and beautiful.”
Adding to the mix were flavors of several guests, including
Gary Louris and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks who brought their own style of harmonies
to the tune “Seven Sisters.”
“Without the Jayhawks we wouldn’t have Wilco,” says
Irion. “Those two, when you blend their vocals together it is like
blending Sarah Lee and me. It just worked on that song and that’s why you have
something of a Jayhawks’ feeling.”
In fact, the entire album has the laid-back Laurel Canyon
vibe of friends that are comfortable enough in their own musical skins to team
together with such disparate instrumentation as lap steel guitar and Hammond organ and
lovingly knit what seems to be a one-of-a-kind sound.
Irion says that it was the careful choosing of the
producers, the guests, and others involved in the album that made the songs
work. “It all harkens back to a great team. When you listen to all the
great records, obviously, Paul McCartney made great records [as solo albums]
but he also had to rely on a lot of other people to get there.”
Many songs on the album were recorded live, resulting in a
spine-tingling immediacy, such as when the vocals of Irion and Guthrie swirl together
on the aforementioned “Seven Sisters.” Take some Neil Young and a dab
of Tom Petty, mix in touches of Tori Amos and Stevie Nicks, put in a dash of
country – and you have Guthrie and Irion.
“This is a turning point, absolutely,” says
Guthrie, “We have been waiting for this for a long time, preparing for it.
It’s what we have always wanted to do. This has been the ultimate experience
for me and now we’ll take it from there.”