astmountainsouth's self-titled debut release is a singer/songwriter album, incorporating touches of folk, country and bluegrass along the way.
But it's the culmination of a musical journey that could hardly have been predicted when you stop to consider the unique artistic paths of its two members. After tracing these roots, you may find yourself saying something like, 'They couldn't have gotten there from here,' but somehow they still arrived at this mystical region they call Eastmountainsouth anyhow.
Prior to meeting Kat Maslich, the female half of the duo, Peter Adams earned a bachelor in music from the University of the South in Tennessee before taking home a master's degree from the University Of Alabama School Of Music in Tuscaloosa.
After that, the Alabama native spent the later part of '90s in Los Angeles studying film scoring at USC. It was during one of his professional scoring sessions that he first met Maslich, who had already traveled extensively from her Roanoke, Va. roots in search of her musical calling and even spent time as a member of various punk bands.
This sure doesn't sound like the makings of an Americana outfit, does it?
"I was always a songwriter, even as a kid," Adams explains, "even when I was studying classical piano as a young kid. I was most immediately drawn to songs. I think my growing into classical composition was just sort of exploring some stuff. It was good that I did, but I have mixed feelings about having spent that time getting those degrees. In one sense, it opened my ears to a lot of music and enabled me to write for a lot of instruments. When I was doing film scoring out here (in LA), it allowed me to do that. But I also wasted a lot of time because I don't think of music the same way people in the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts) think about music. I was always writing songs the whole time, but it took me going through all that to really embrace myself as a songwriter."
Adams thinks about music in very literate and emotional terms, which quickly excludes much of it from usage in, say, this week's latest TV cop show. "I've always been drawn to the power of the simplicity of music," Adams states. "And in a way, it's the hardest music to write successfully."
What he creates now may be more challenging and less secure - career-wise - but in his mind, it sure beats what he was doing previously for the TV and film industry.
"I had to write a lot of bad music - music I didn't like. And eventually, I couldn't do it anymore, so I bailed and took a gamble to totally do my own thing."
So far, Adams' gamble has paid off mightily.
Eastmountainsouth's early demos were championed by Nic Harcourt of Santa Monica, CA's public radio station KCRW, which is where former The Band leader, Robbie Robertson, a DreamWorks exec, first heard the duo's music. To Robertson's ears, the harmonies of Maslich and Adams sounded a whole lot like the familial singing usually only found with brother acts, like The Stanley Brothers or The Everly Brothers.
"When we were just sort of figuring out our sound, we went through a few incarnations of the demos - sort of how to best present the songs," says Adams of these demos that Robertson first heard. "It was the third try that I think I sort of got it. One batch we sent over there, they didn't play. But the next one we sent, which I think was my third try, they started to play it."
The group's debut was produced by Adams and Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Crowded House). Some of Eastmountainsouth's original demo tracks, which were recorded in Adams' apartment home studio, made the cut and remain on the disc. Nevertheless, Froom brought a world of experience and a boatload of keyboards and exotic instruments to help spice up the stew.
For example, "The Ballad of Young Alban and Amandy" features Froom's dolceola, an instrument something like a hammer dulcimer that sounds like a harp. According to Adams, this instrument is especially rare and has not often been heard on recorded albums.
Both "The Ballad of Young Alban and Amandy" and "Rain Came Down" feature elements of traditional folk songs, and the album opens with Stephen Foster's Civil War-era ballad, "Hard Times." When the songs on the album head in this traditional direction, Maslich and Adams can sound like a sweeter version of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. But in other places, words to their songs are as current as the headlines from the daily newspaper.
For instance, "Mark's Song," reads like the eulogy of a loved one who has passed on, and it plays out like a graveside meditation. "That's a song Kat wrote for a friend of hers that passed away," Adams explains. "She wrote if very quickly, shortly after she'd found out this guy had died. It was a help for her to write it. Her friend's family was also deeply touched by it."