Since the days when the rock star's uniform was a flannel shirt and baggy jeans with the knees blown out, we have looked to Seattle's music scene to see what trickles down from the Sound and into our ears. If Seattle's the Starlings catch on--and there's a good chance they will--we're going to be loading our iPods with Americana/folk/country.
With their third full-length, Bright Light (self-produced, July 2010), in their denim pockets, the energetic foursome is set to tour for a month in the short, yellow bus they have affectionately dubbed Saunders. While this tour will take them through Utah, Colorado, parts of the Southwest, California and here to Boise on Thursday, Sept. 9, a larger tour in 2008 took them to the other side of country where they stayed for a while.
Vocalist and band co-leader Joy Mills explained that she and her partner (both in music and life) Tom Parker spent an extended period of time in Gloucester, Mass., in 2008. That seems such a strange place to find inspiration for her twang-tinged, banjo-bounced lyrics and the mostly uptempo mandolin, violin, accordion, piano and harmonica that accompany them.
In "Flotsam & Jetsam" she sings, "I was sitting down on Main Street pickin' in the local fair / When I met a man from Tucson with burdens to unbear / Said, 'My head's on fire from the ghosts I've met. Oh my darlin' don't look now, they ain't gone nowhere yet.'"
She tries to pack up and head out of town, but the flotsam and jetsam of her life keep her pinned in place.
"A friend from Seattle had bought a church [in Gloucester] that was no longer a church," Mills said. "He and Tom used to be colleagues in a contracting business, so we would go out there and work on the church. That's partly what we were doing that summer to supplement the tour."
Mills said they are entertaining another trek east in 2011 but that she's not cut out for East Coast living. While it's easier to tour out there where cities are much closer and populations are denser (thereby guaranteeing a larger concentration of venues), there is also a lot more going on at any given time, more entertainment options vying for people's time. It's something that works both for and against a band.
"It feels more congested," Mills said. "But at the same time, I did feel that people go out to live music more often on every night of the week as opposed to Seattle where it's so hard to get people to get out of the house."
It's a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation. The band loves to play in front of larger audiences, but Mills finds that her creative juices actually flow more freely when she's alone.
"I require a lot of solitude to write," Mills said.
Other than the constant presence of Mills, Parker and drummer Aimee Zoe Tubbs, the band had seen a few lineup changes since its 2005 inception. And that may be part of the reason Mills keeps songs kind of close to the chest as she writes. But with bassist and mandolinist Moe Provencher establishing roots in the band and the quartet solidifying (Provencher produced the album), Mills has opened up that part of the creative process a little. Mills is a song-crafter but definitely has more of a poet's sensibility. And poets don't usually collaborate.
"I'm a little protective of that solitude," Mills said. "But as the band has played together longer, especially on this last album, we tweaked a lot more of the songs than before."
While objectively this album could easily be classified as country (iTunes even thinks so), that term carries such weight that people are often turned off before they even turn on the CD player. But the Starlings are finding acceptance--and accolades--everywhere they go.
They have performed with Americana stars the Avett Brothers ("We played with them right before they blew up," Mills admitted, laughing), Todd Snider and Eilen Jewell. Seattle tastemaker KEXP 90.3, a college radio station broadcast from the University of Washington, described the band blithely: "The Starlings' vocal harmonies, acoustic goodness and sweet blend of folk and country set the stage for the band's storied original songwriting and the compelling presence of vocalist Joy Mills."
Even British fans are drawn to the harmoniously told tales. Americana UK wrote, "Driven along by songwriter-in-chief Joy Mills' regretful vocals (with guitarist Tom Parker taking the odd song for variety), all the band harmonise and swing with effortless ease and grace and create a beautiful blend of folk and classic rural country."
So, yes, this is a country album. And, yes, in some circles, the Starlings could be considered a country band. But they are so much more than that. They serve up a big ol' cup of bittersweet country, honey it up with a dollop of Americana and stir in the soft vibrations of folk. They might just be a recipe of things to come.