For love and music: Local couples brave the choppy waters of musical collaboration

Romance is complicated business, and business makes for complicated relationships. Combine the two and things can get even trickier.

Despite the pitfalls, popular music has a long history of couples blurring the line between personal life and the creative process, with the outcomes as varied as the music. On one hand, these projects can render the sort of honest, inspired songwriting that leaves a mark for generations to come. On the other, creative differences, long hours on the road and petty jealousy can be the death knell for an otherwise healthy relationship.

Fleetwood Mac and The Mamas and the Papas famously imploded under the pressures of their internal pairs, but John and Yoko, Sonic Youth, Blondie and Wings are shining examples of navigating the difficulties with grace. And, despite their tumultuous ends, would Fleetwood Mac or The Mamas and the Papas have produced enduring classics like "Go Your Own Way" and "Monday, Monday" without the intimacy and tensions of their underlying romances? It seems these partnerships simply work until they don't. But does the end justify the means? Or is the sacrifice too great?

Whatever the outcome, rock couples aren't going anywhere. So, in honor of Valentine's, we consulted with a handful of local artists braving the treacherous waters of musical relationships to get some perspective on the experience.

Christian Church and Alicia Torrealba are experimental pop duo Alligator Indian and founders of the Swamping Collective, which "seeks to unite Asheville’s underground musicians, artists, writers, filmmakers and designers in the hopes of creating a stronger and more vibrant scene and community in Western North Carolina.”

Did your relationship begin before or after the band?

Torrealba: We were together awhile before making music together.
Church: Our interest in music was definitely part of the initial attraction. And we both pushed each other early on to pursue music more. But it was a little while in before we even started messing around with music together, and a good two or three years before we formed Eleven and the Falcons (in 2007).

Considering the history of couples in bands, were you hesitant to mix up the two?
She: I think my main concern was not to settle with musical ideas, but that goes with working alongside anyone. I knew it would also be a challenge for me to not let negative experiences in the band affect our relationship.
He: Despite their breakup, I think The White Stripes were a good influence. It really showed us that a duo could make great music together. And I figured if Meg could be in a band, so could I, as long as Alisha was the talent [laughs]. Sonic Youth and The Vaselines were big influences as well. I think Alisha was a bit more hesitant, whereas I thought it was the perfect match. But she had previous experience in a band, and I didn’t, so I’m sure there was a bit of naiveté on my part.

What are the most challenging elements of sharing a creative project with your significant other?
She: There are definitely disagreements. The fact is, we have this "brain baby" we care intensely for. Sometimes we both get either protective of certain ideas or fail to communicate properly. The search for common ground is always essential to getting us back to being productive.
He: We definitely balance each other in the band the same way we do in our relationship, for better and worse. I tend to be more impulsive and ADD, and Alisha is more organized and sees the big picture. Both methods are essential but too much of either would lead us in the wrong direction.

What are the benefits of working with your partner?
She: Our relationship is founded upon working to better each other as individuals, and so we do the same as artists. I am so lucky to be working toward a goal in which this person understands and shares my passions. Touring is the best, though — the experiences we get to share (good, bad and really weird) are priceless. Also, practicing in our PJs is pretty great.
He: Touring is so great because we get to take the band on the road and go on vacation at the same time. Being together all the time lets us create whenever the mood strikes us, but it can also make it more challenging to get us to work on things because the line between work/practice and just hanging out together gets blurred.

Do you ever get jealous when people in the audience are drooling over your partner or talking to them after the show?
She: Nah. He's a looker, they can't help it. Plus, then they might buy our record to serenade their wet dreams.
He: Haha. Exactly. Honestly, I haven’t encountered it on my end, but there’s definitely a part of me that knows people will lust after Alisha the way we all do after artists we love and who are also attractive. It sucks, but it’s part of the price you pay by putting yourself out there. And like Alisha said, it works both ways if it translates to new fans.

Ryan Furstenberg (formerly of Uncle Mountain) and Melissa Hyman are guitar/cello folk duo The Moon and You.

Did your relationship begin before or after the band?
Furstenberg: We dated for a year before we began to play together.
Hyman: We did play music together for fun before we were a band, though. Ryan was always suggesting we work out arrangements for my songs, which was a much-needed confidence booster for me. I was still getting my sea legs as a songwriter.

Considering the history of couples in bands, were you hesitant to mix up the two?
He: We were a little hesitant, but we decided to go with it until it created problems.
She: This isn't my first trip around the band/couple block, but I am a hopeless optimist. So, I mean, I feel pretty great about how all this is going to turn out.

What are the most challenging elements of sharing a creative project with your significant other?
He: The key is to both feel fulfilled creatively. If no one acts like a diva and you can find a common collaborative ground, then it will work. If we start butting heads for too long and things are going nowhere, we just take a break.
She: So true. For us, that's the formula: nobody gets squashed, we sincerely respect one another's ideas and if somebody starts being a jerk (I usually run out of patience first; Ryan is very patient) then we go do something else for a while. Most of the time that doesn't happen. I think we're getting better at sticking it out through the frustrating parts of arranging songs — it's a terrifically challenging task sometimes, but that's part of why we love it.

Can you ever imagine the project without the other?
He: That shouldn't come up till we are both separately trying to play our greatest hits at country clubs and casinos. It's easy enough though to come up with a name for every group of people working together creatively. If it isn't, then you aren't being very creative. You're thinking about things from a marketability angle.
She: That's going to be awesome. I will name my band No Ryans Allowed, and there will be one person named Ryan in the band, but not Ryan Furstenberg. I am a very creative person.

Do you ever get jealous when people in the audience are drooling over your partner or talking to them after the show?
He: That's why we got a dog. The faintest whiff of pheromones and Bella mangles limbs and tears epidermises.
She: Ha! I kinda like it when girls are all crushing on my man and stuff. Except that one time I got pretty jealous and kicked that girl's ass in my head but in real life was totally polite to her.

Any advice for other couples currently working together or considering it?
He: Run … into each other's arms. But seriously, some great advice I got was that you are only as good a group as the relationship you have with your bandmate. You should also consider whether you can be around your partner for prolonged amounts of time.
She: Like, all the time. It took us most of a year to figure out how not to drive one another up the wall on the regular. Stick it out if you think it can work, because it's so worth it when it's working well. It will not always work well, but that's life, you know?

Ami Worthen and Jason Krekel perform together as garage-pop duo Mad Tea. Krekel also serves as guitarist for surf-rock outfit The Krektones and performs with a host of other local musicians.

Did your relationship begin before or after the band?

Worthen: Meeting Jason inspired me to start learning to play music, which led to me writing songs. Jason says hearing my songs led him to want to be in a band with me.
Krekel: Yep. The musical relationship and the romantic pretty much ran together.

What are the benefits of working with your partner?
He: It’s helpful in that most low points stem from frustration at the industry and having someone to help through the darker times is fortuitous. We can debrief after shows and help lift each other up when the other is down. … And the closeness does allow us to communicate in a unique musical way. We have our own language.
She: For us, music is just another way we connect, it adds richness to our romance. 

Do you ever get jealous when people in the audience are drooling over your partner or talking to them after the show?
She: Nope. I'm all for it. For some crazy reason Jason doesn't tend to get hit on after shows. I think people are intimidated by his awesomeness. 
He: No; it is an extension of the trust we have for each other. I don't get jealous whether it is at a show or not. I think any couple that doesn't have that trust is not enjoying their relationship to the fullest.

Any advice for other couples currently working together or considering it?
She: I don't believe in giving advice — every couple is unique, and as grown ups they should be able to figure out what's best for them. 

Stephanie Morgan and Chuck Lichtenberger perform in local indie pop outfit stephaniesid and independently with a variety of local jazz fusion projects including Crybaby and The Archrivals. stephaniesid.com

Did your relationship begin before or after the band?
Morgan: We met when Chuck subbed in for our piano player in my jazz standards band (now called Crybaby).  

Considering the history of couples in bands, were you hesitant to mix up the two? 
I had just come out of a two-year relationship with the drummer in that band [Crybaby]! And we were all friends. So, yeah, we were hesitant for a minute. But you know how these things are.

What are the most challenging elements of sharing a creative project with your significant other?  
The line between creative differences and personal differences is blurry. So we argue about that sometimes. Communication becomes extremely important, and we don't always have that figured out. 

What are the benefits of working with your partner?
We get to spend more time together than I think most couples do — sort of like retirees — and we know what the other is into creatively and emotionally, which makes for a sort of shorthand when we're working on new ideas. But having that acute awareness of each other's emotional state in a group situation can be a challenge because we tend to want to fight each other's battles.   

Do you ever get jealous when people in the audience are drooling over your partner or talking to them after the show? 
No. We love when that happens. Love and lust make the world go round. And at the end of the day, we're going home together. 

Any advice for other couples currently working together or considering it? 
Be honest, to the core. It's harder than you think.

Singer-songwriters Emily Easterly and J Seger perform together as VA/MD, separately as solo artists and occasionally back other local songwriters. emilyeasterly.com and jseger.com

Did your relationship begin before or after the band?
Seger: A friend of mine knew [Emily] and asked if I wanted to go see her play. That was the first time I saw her. As our relationship started, we were both doing our own things musically and we greatly supported each other in those endeavors. Then it went from sound-boarding ideas, to helping polish ideas, to accompanying, to writing together, to a shared project [VA/MD].

Considering the history of couples in bands, were you hesitant to mix up the two?
He: Not at all. I was eager.
She: No. I have always liked to surround myself with creative people, so it only made sense to be with someone creative and to share those ideas together.

What are the benefits of working with your partner?

He: The benefit is simply that there are two of us interested in an idea! Working with people musically, in general, can be difficult in terms of time, inspiration, motive. I'd say our relationship makes it much easier because we're already invested in each other, so those things are less of a pain point.

Can you ever imagine the project without the other?

She: I think even if the other weren't physically playing on the project, there would be a lot of discussion and sharing ideas about it, so ultimately, the other would always be involved.

If, God forbid, you ever broke up, would that be the end of the band?
He: We're married. There's no breakup or The End. 

Do you ever get jealous when people in the audience are drooling over your partner or talking to them after the show?
He: Of course; she's beautiful and talented. And that is why I carry a switchblade.
She: [Laughs] Yes, he's the kind of guy who stands out in a crowd even when he's not on stage, so I can get my feathers ruffled on occasion if there's some unwanted attention around!

Any advice for other couples currently working together or considering it?
He: Forget all of the stereotypes and romanticizing and just get on with it.
She: It all comes down to respect. If you don't respect what your other half is doing, musically or otherwise, then any kind of working together (or relationship for that matter) probably won’t work.

Dane Smith can be reached at dsmith@mountainx.com.

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