Love in a time of collaboration

The family that plays together: Charlotte-based Matrimony is husband and wife duo Jimmy Brown (second from left) and Ashlee Hardee Brown (second from right). Ashley’s brother and Jimmy’s former band mate are also part of the group.
The family that plays together: Charlotte-based Matrimony is husband and wife duo Jimmy Brown (second from left) and Ashlee Hardee Brown (second from right). Ashley’s brother and Jimmy’s former band mate are also part of the group.

Matrimony is, indeed, a love story — though not the obvious one. The band itself (fronted by husband-and-wife singer/songwriter duo Jimmy Brown and Ashlee Hardee Brown) is a melding of two musical careers and two continents (he's Irish, she's American). More on that in a minute.

"The whole reason we call ourselves Matrimony is because it's a marriage of music and words," says Jimmy. The singer/guitarist was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but was spending some time traveling in the the U.S. when someone suggested he drive to Hickory to see the band of another Belfast native. That was Alyn Mearns, with whom Jimmy would form Airspace. (More on that in a minute, too.)

While in Hickory, Jimmy also met Belfast poet Adrian Rice, whose first sequence of poems is housed in collections in the Tate Gallery and Harvard. "Adrian mentored me a lot with words," says Jimmy. "We would hang out every day, just talking about poetry. We ended up writing a bunch of songs together." (Watch a 2007 performance of the poet and musician at http://avl.mx/37.)

Matrimony's sound shares little with that project. It borrows more from the raucous post-folk of the Avett Brothers and the rough-hewn indie-pop of Elizabeth & the Catapult. "You can have really heavy words and it just doesn't work with the melody, or the melody can distract you from the words," says Jimmy. "When you write a poem, the music's already in the words and you don't have to worry about that as much." He says the real challenge is to pair music with "words that are awesome on their own" and to "let the music accent the words here and there rather than trying to say it all through the words."

The Storm & the Eye, the six-song debut EP by Matrimony, was hastily made so that the couple would have something to hand to fans. (Smart: The band formed less than two years ago and has already performed at South By Southwest.) It was also a hit-the-ground-running opportunity for the newly minted husband and wife to try their hand at co-creating a record.

Jimmy and Ashlee were introduced by her brother, who was in a band with Jimmy. Apparently, the connection was instant: Ashlee and Jimmy penned the song "All I Want" during their first meeting. If the song "Last Love" (the lead track on Eye) is anything to go by, they knew right away that they were meant to be together. "The first day I met you, I said 'I'll marry him,'" Ashlee sings. (For what it’s worth, they’re lovely together, both waifish and serious. Her: sloe-eyed. Him: tattooed and wearing an array of hats.) But, at the time, they were in two different bands. That meant two different touring schedules and little time left over for wedded bliss. So Jimmy and Ashlee decided to yoke not just their hearts but their careers as well.

Before Matrimony, Ashlee was a member of Flagship, the Charlotte-based rock band led by Drake Margolnick. She also released a pair of albums under her own name. Jimmy had been launching a solo project in the U.S. and Europe (which included opening dates for Sam Quinn and Japan Ten). That followed on the heels of his tenure with Airspace, a lush and intense pop band whose layered instruments share little in common with Matrimony's acoustic production.

But chart Jimmy's musical journey through his almost-annual appearances on Dublin, Ireland's Balcony TV (a lo-fi video show), and there's the deceptively simple guitar accompaniment and the bewitching ache in his voice. These both return in the song "Flee or Fight," the one song on Eye that Jimmy wrote pre-Matrimony. With Ashlee's voice providing sweet and dusky harmonies, the song takes on complex nuances.

On Eye, Ashlee and Jimmy take turns singing lead. Jimmy says that with a full band now in place, songwriting has moved in a new direction. "We're discovering how we're all supposed to play this music together," he says. "When we write, I wouldn't try to write the whole song. I'd bring it to the band and we'd all work on it. It seems to have a more life when we play live because everyone's invested."

With the support of the band, including keyboards, Matrimony's sound is fuller and fleshed out. Almost poppy. There's the sense that this is a work in progress and an extended family in the making. Ashlee's brother Jordan Hardee (banjo, mandolin) is among the new members, as is former Airspace drummer Alex Watson. "We've all known each other and traveled with each other for such a long time," says Jimmy. "We've actually all wanted to be in a band for so long." Various other projects and contracts kept that from happening, but they still jammed together whenever they had the chance.

And now that's what they do professionally. But, perhaps (considering the band name) there's this: "I feel very privileged to be in a band with my wife. She's super-talented," says Jimmy. And for them, it's not about being a couple band. Don't expect any "I Got You Babe" covers. 

"It's just doing what we do — it feels right to us," says Jimmy.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Matrimony (with Aunt Martha)
where: The LAB
when: Thursday, June 2 (10 p.m., $7, lexavebrew.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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