Harmonious opposites

It’s the differences between award-winning singer/songwriters Ashland Miller and Mary Beth de Pompa that keep the sweet harmonies and complementary guitar work of acoustic duo CommonbonD honest and original.

“Without each other, we wouldn’t have the [musical success] we’ve had,” notes Miller, who was interrupted during our early-morning phone conversation by a call from de Pompa — checking to see if Miller was awake and prepared to answer questions. “We complement each other,” Miller says with a laugh when she clicks back to our conversation, bringing de Pompa with her.

When the two Washington, D.C.-based performers began playing together in 1992, they found that their personalities, on- and off-stage, were as different as the sound of their voices and the styles of their music. Miller favors a sweet, sensual approach to songs, while de Pompa belts out soulful, powerhouse vocals. Somehow, though, the formula works.

“We do approach music very differently,” admits de Pompa, “but [in spite of that], we completely connected through music.” This unlikely connection has resulted in CommonbonD’s ecletic sound — which de Pompa calls “forosoco” (a combination of folk, rock, soul and country).

CommonbonD has built a steady, faithful following over the years. The band released its third CD this year, Naked Soul Dance (Get Bonded Productions) and, judging by the glowing reviews the disc has collected, the third time might very well prove to be the charm for this twosome. Fueled by homey, often-emotional overtones, Miller and de Pompa conjure up aural images of the Indigo Girls and Michelle Malone (they’ve shared the stage with both) and even the grand dame of folky blues herself, Bonnie Raitt.

Miller and de Pompa also enlisted some extra talent to liven up Naked Soul Dance. Deanna Bogart pulls out the piano boogie-woogie on “Slick Skin Boogie,” and Al Williams adds soprano sax on the giftedly scripted “Long Way Home.” Backup vocalist Christy Turner and electric guitarist Scott Smith also contributed to the disc. (De Pompa notes that the duo may add a full band to their live performances, to keep that “big” sound.)

“[The new CD] was a complete transformation for us,” she explains. “Adding other instruments created a whole new dimension to our music.”

On Naked Soul Dance — as in their live performances — Miller and de Pompa share the spotlight, trading off on lead/backup vocals and lead/rhythm guitar. Songwriting is a collaborative process for CommonbonD, as well.

Despite their obvious comfort in the recording studio — which de Pompa says is “like being a kid in a candy store, with all those sound options available” — it’s on-stage that CommonbonD really shines. “Live shows are like a drug for us,” de Pompa proclaims. “The energy of a live audience is indescribable” — and often uncontrollable. As one music writer put it, “If you [don’t] dance to de Pompa’s ‘Slick Skin Boogie,’ don’t bother calling 911, ’cause you’re already dead.”

It’s the softer songs, though, that reveal the emotional core on which CommonbonD built its name — whether personal (“You don’t greet the love in my eyes/You don’t even sympathize,” laments Miller in the heartwrenching “This Love”) or political (“One man’s burden brings another man pain/It’s a cold hard circle that will never change,” declares de Pompa in “Rain of Hope”).

The duo already has enough material to get back into the studio for a new CD, but, for now, they’re content to take things slowly. “We don’t aspire to be rock stars,” muses de Pompa. “We’re just amazed we get to play music for a living.”

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