The first notes of The Greencards' "Fascination," the title track of their third CD, announce a new direction for the band formerly associated with the next wave of bluegrass. The song starts softly, almost imperceptibly before the mandolin strings are carefully plucked and the vocals of Carol Young soar in, smooth and confident.
Young, founding member, songwriter and primary vocalist for the Greencards, explains why the band wanted to change gears on their first CD on Sugar Hill Records.
"We've been playing together for a bit more than six years," says Young by phone while her tour bus is on the way to St. Louis. Her voice has the familiar Aussie cheerful lilt and bares little resemblance to the nuanced chanteuse on the albums. "There is a creative aspect that grows. You really have no power over that. It just happens. We love playing music, and we love playing live shows, and pushing ourselves every night is a big part of it. And while we love traditional music and that's where it all started for us - and we still love playing those songs - when we wrote for this album, we said 'Let's push ourselves as hard as we can.' When we play these songs live from 'Fascination,' we have to work hard every night, and it feels really good."
The Greencards play The Crystal Merchant in Champaign, Ill.
The Greencards are comprised of Young, Kym Warner, another Australian, on mandolin, and a British fiddler, Eamon McLoughlin. They all met up in Austin where, unlike in their home countries, playing traditional music is not unexpected.
Traditional music laid the foundation for the band. "Normally, when I'm playing a great traditional song, I can put myself in a relaxed, automatic pilot thing where great things happen as well because we're so relaxed," Young says. "We have both aspects now. We can cruise along and play a great Flatt and Scruggs song or a great Bill Monroe song and just put it in drive and go. But then we have that other aspect where we really have to put our thinking hats on."
One of the tracks on "Fascination" that requires the listener to also work is Into the Blue. Of the 12 songs, it's probably the most dramatic, atmospheric departure for the band.
But Young says it didn't start out that way. "Kym and I started out with just the mandolin and vocal and that riff. It just developed that way. When we were cutting the record, the producer, Jay Joyce, said to us, 'Wow this is a really dark sound.' So, it's not like we set out to do something crazy." But Young also points out it's very much a Greencards song. "It's just Eamon, Kym and myself on the recording. Just violin, a mandolin, bass, and vocals. We've never done that before."
Young, who lives in Nashville, identifies another difference - they set out to write a lot of music before recording, and Into the Blue is just one of several tunes the trio shares songwriting credit on. "We made a conscious effort before this album to spend a little bit more time songwriting."
Young notes it's hard for a performing act to find that time. "Well, I struggle myself being on the road and writing. We wrote way more songs than made the record. We wrote maybe 40 plus songs, so a lot of them are crap. That was the best part of having a producer. We trusted Jay, and he's just great to bounce off. We'd been in control of our previous recordings, and it was great to have someone to rely on, that outside voice."
Joyce in the producer role was also key in choosing which songs made the cut. "He was totally up for that. That's what we wanted him for too. We wanted to feel what it was like to not have that worry and just go into the studio and have that voice. He'd never worked acoustic before, but I think he had great insight into how mandolin and fiddle worked. But also in other ways, just plucking and strumming and not just picking a bunch of notes. It was amazing to hear that stuff amplified."
Young is also enthusiastic about the structure of the recording process imposed by Joyce as producer, and she says without hesitation that it was the band's best recording experience. "We'd go in the morning, record the song, put the track down. We'd keep going until the song was done that day; we tried not to overdub, but we had little tiny enhancements. Like Kym played xylophone. The next day, we'd come in, and he'd have the song completely mixed. We'd listen to it, say yea or nay, then move on to the next song. It was a great way to make a record. Very relaxed, very focused."
Although she's the front person, Young is modest about her own role in The Greencards. "I play the bass okay, and I write on the guitar but I don't play it very well. I play mandolin on a song here and there, but not great. For me, my voice would be probably be my number one choice of instrument. With playing the bass, I spend most of my time trying to keep up with the guys. They're such great musicians. The guys work hard with keeping up with their instruments. Even on the road, they find a few hours to practice; they're very dedicated. I admire that, but I find it hard to keep up. I'm glad when a slow song comes around and I can just chill out and sing a ballad because some of the tempos they play are just crazy, crazy good."
The Greencards are taking their songs on tour, and touring is a contrast to the focused work in the studio. Young explains, "We have to make an effort to keep it fresh, just every now and then throw something in that's not expected, that's not rehearsed, with a song that takes an unexpected turn, good or bad. And something magic happens. Other times it falls apart. But that's live music."
The Greencards' extensive tour schedule will give the band plenty of opportunities to experiment, includes several festival dates such as Telluride and Lollapalooza. Young notes that each show has its own vibe depending on the venue and the crowds, and she offers unique insight into the festival scene. "A whole wave comes over you. Everyone is there to have a good time. They've got their computer put away. It's just a whole different vibe that takes over. We tend to want to rise to the occasion or give in to the occasion."
"At festivals every night after the official show finishes, everybody is jamming, they just can't get enough. They'll just be jamming, and some of the best music comes out of the jams. There's combos that you've never seen before and will never see again. That's a pretty amazing thing to witness."
When asked if anyone attempts to capture that music magic on film, Young says, "It's happening a little more often than it used to, but sometimes that takes a little bit away from it. When people are running around with cameras, all (of a) sudden, it's a show again. So, I quite enjoy it when there are no cameras around, and there are just people hanging around listening to or participating in a jam. I can just feel it when we're around these jams that people really welcome the relaxed environment so people can stretch out." She pauses and adds with a laugh, "And it could have something to do with the amount of whiskey involved."