On her first two albums, with songs like ‘Johnny Cash’ and ‘Sparrow,’ Kelley McRae made a name for herself as a songwriter who was not afraid to wear her broken heart on her sleeve. “I’ve always been able to draw from that well of loneliness and longing really easily” she says. “I’m a sucker for a sad song, cause I think if you can take pain and turn it into something beautiful, there’s redemption there. But this time around, I went looking for a new well.” On her third album, BRIGHTER THAN THE BLUES, McRae documents the lengths she was willing to go to find this new inspiration.
In 2011, Kelley sold everything, let go of her Brooklyn apartment and spent the entire year touring America, traveling coast to coast with her husband and guitarist, Matt Castelein. The duo has since played over 200 shows and put 50,000 miles on their VW camper van. Along the way, Kelley encountered the people and places that inspired the songs on BRIGHTER THAN THE BLUES. And although the album retains more than a hint of the sense of loneliness and longing that will be familiar to fans of McRae’s previous albums, NEVER BE (★★★★, Paste Magazine) and HIGHRISES IN BROOKLYN (“Brilliant,” Bob Harris BBC Radio), these songs carry a new sense of hope and light.
BRIGHTER THAN THE BLUES details a life on the road, from a glorious meal in New Orleans to a drive through the yellow hills of California, but musically, the album draws from McRae’s Mississippi roots. The album was recorded in Knoxville, TN in an old stone house dubbed “The Castle,” where Kelley and Matt spent the winter after their trek across America. With microphones rigged from a chandelier in the Castle’s great room, the duo recorded and engineered the entire project themselves. The result is an album that delivers 11 stripped down tracks of heartfelt Americana in the vein of Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams. McRae says the album sounds a whole lot like her live show. “We tried to keep it simple. Live, we have two guitars, two voices and some stomping, and that’s about it. I really wanted to capture the spirit of the live show.”
Beau Jennings & the Tigers
After spending several years in Brooklyn fronting the americana rock band Cheyenne, singer and songwriter Beau Jennings was in search of a new backing band upon returning to his home in Oklahoma. The Tigers – based out of Norman and a wrecking crew of some of the best musicians in the state – were already known as the go-to backing band for songwriters from the area and were a perfect match for Jennings’ new songs. After one rehearsal and several beers, Beau Jennings & The Tigers performed a hastily assembled set at the Okie Noodling Tournament and soon realized they were a match for each other. At times channeling the energy of early Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, other times the more modern Wilco, Beau Jennings & The Tigers set out to begin work on their debut recording, the Sweet Action EP.
Initial tracking began at The Honey Jar Studios in Brooklyn, NY with Devin Greenwood (Norah Jones, Amos Lee) at the helm. On songs like ‘Readin’ To My Baby’, ‘A Full Moon’, and ‘Song for Wynn’, a bigger, broader sound for Jennings’ songs began to emerge, contrasting with the more intensely personal nature of the lyrics. There were no fictional storytelling songs this time around, only reflections on real life situations: “I guess it’s a funny way to go about it, pairing these big sounding songs with lyrics that are probably better suited for quiet acoustic stuff, but I try not fight what seems to be coming in” says Jennings. Rounding out the Tigers’ debut recording were ‘Sweet Action’ and ‘Quicktrip’, balancing the rock n’ roll with lush, acoustic keyboard driven instrumentation reminiscent of Jennings’ early recordings with Cheyenne. Tracking later moved back to the familiar Blackwatch Studios in Norman with both Jarod Evans and Chad Copelin handling final tracking and mixing duties.
The songs on ‘Sweet Action’ were written in between periods of writing songs for Jennings’ other ongoing project, The Verdigris: In Search of Will Rogers. “I’ve written all the songs I can about Will Rogers at this point, and it was time to focus a little bit on some of the others songs I’d been writing on the side.” With The Verdigris album and documentary film not scheduled for release until sometime late in 2013, Jennings is happy to focus on working with the Tigers until then. “All these different projects seem to inform each other I think. The Verdigris has been a tedious and painstaking process and I know the results will show it was all worth the effort, but I also have a musical side that needs to turn it up and make a lot of noise with the band.”