Hooking up with two key members of the Wilco braintrust led to the songwriting duo ultimately crafting their masterpiece.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
Poke and prod a bit at Wassaic Way and the juxtapositions start to reveal themselves.
The latest album from Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion is a balancing act of disparate elements set deliberately aside one another, the product of home and travel, folk and indie rock, harmony and individuality.
The songs on Wassaic Way exist in plenty of motion, referencing places like Koreatown in Los Angeles, Brooklyn’s Park Slop and New Orleans’ Frenchman Street, but come from the still and quiet moments off the road.
“A lot of the writing happens at home, but we do a whole lot of traveling. The juxtaposition of those scenarios when we get home to Washington, Mass., population 500, that just kind of pops out,” Irion says.
Similarly, the songs on Wassaic Way more fully present both sides of the Guthrie-Irion musical background, hers in the bloodline of America’s greatest folk icon and his influenced by the 1990s indie rock underground of Chapel Hill, N.C. The album came together with the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, who recorded and co-produced Guthrie and Irion at their Chicago loft. Before the duo signed on as producers, Guthrie and Irion had about 50 songs and a huge blank slate.
“There were three different records floating around in our heads before we got the green light that Jeff was into making a record,” he recalls. “There was an acoustic/Americana record and definitely a weirder pop record. When we found out that Jeff was into doing the record, we shifted all of our attention to what that would be.”
Guthrie and Irion laid down the roughly 50 demos and left it up to Tweedy and Sansone to cull the songs they wanted to record.
“We were surprised when some of the songs came back,” Irion says. “I kind of thought it would go in a different direction, but as soon as you start thinking about that with Jeff Tweedy, he’s coming from a different angle. About three or four songs, I was like ‘Really?’ I couldn’t believe they made the list.”
So while another collaboration in Wilco/Guthrie world could have ended up in the folkier realm of the Mermaid Avenue albums, Wassaic Way (without abandoning folk) more closely parallels Wilco’s more experimental side displayed on albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born.
“That comes from my love of Superchunk and the Ramones and Sonic Youth and Jeff and I seeing eye to eye on a lot of that weirder stuff,” Irion says.
Working in the gaps between everyone’s busy touring schedules, Guthrie, Irion, multi-instrumentalist Charlie Rose, drummer Otto Hauser and Tweedy and Sansone cut the bulk of Wassaic Way in one 13-day stretch at the Wilco loft. (Irion says Tweedy and Sansone showed up one day fresh from a run of European shows, skipping rest in favor of recording.)
“They’re so busy and our schedules are crazy and that was daunting. They said they wanted to start a record, they didn’t say finish a record,” Irion says. “But it felt like when we got to a certain height on the album all we had to do was finish. There’s not a lot of outtakes or b-sides.”
Wassaic Way, released Aug. 6 on the couple’s own Rte 8 Records, is the most fully realized artistic statement from Guthrie and Irion, who began playing together in the late 1990s and married in 1999.
“I grew up playing rock ‘n’ roll. I learned how to be a folkie through Sarah Lee and Pete and Arlo and I’m very blessed to have that. I grew up playing indie rock in Chapel Hill in the early 1990s and that scene was Polvo and Archers of Loaf and bands that were creating these sounds that I love,” Irion says. His band from that time period, Queen Sarah Saturday, notched a fair amount of critical acclaim and was a regional favorite.
After meeting Guthrie, Irion began his folk trajectory, focusing on songwriting and playing shows and proving themselves in front of audiences. “It came to a point that if I can’t walk into a venue and play a song and somebody doesn’t want to take that song home with them, I’m not doing my job. That’s been the criteria, it’s based on songs. Sometimes it’s hard to keep a rock ‘n’ roll band together and do that, but I didn’t want to forget that other side. That’s what made the combo of us working with Jeff so good.”
And while at its inception Wassaic Way could’ve gone in any number of different directions, the record came is the result of Guthrie and Irion trusting each other and their producers to make the right choices.
Notes Irion, “There’s been a lot that has gone into the album and we’re looking at it from all different kind of angles. The fact that it came out the way that it did is another level of positive reinforcement for Sarah Lee and I. At the end off the day, it’s the best record we’ve made and I didn’t know if we’d do that or not.”
They are currently in the middle of an extensive North American tour. Dates at their official website: http://www.sarahleeandjohnny.com/tour/