Seconds after Julia Sanders logs on for her Zoom interview with Xpress, her 4-year-old daughter begins describing how to dip a chicken nugget into ketchup. Given the option to reschedule the chat, however, the Asheville-based singer-songwriter defers.
“I feel like if I can’t have kiddo interruptions talking about a record about being a mom, then what does that even mean?” she posits with a laugh.
Indeed, it would almost seem inauthentic to discuss Sanders’ phenomenal new album, Morning Star, without a cameo from one or both of her children. Her second LP is defined by her transition to motherhood over the past four years.
Sessions for her latest album began in fall 2021 with songs recorded live to reel-to-reel tape with Sanders on guitar and vocals alongside bandmates Stacy Glasgow (drums) and Mick Glasgow (bass). But her then in-utero son decided to make his presence felt, cutting the initial round of recording short.
“I was trying to sing and I was like, ‘I can’t. There’s a large baby on my diaphragm. That’s it — we got to wrap,’” Sanders recalls. “So we did.”
Those live takes were then digitized and sent to local producer John James Tourville, who started playing around with layering and overdubs. Once Sanders concluded her maternity leave, she returned to the studio to complete the remaining tracks with some fellow local country/Americana all-stars, including guitarist/vocalists Erika Lewis and K.M. Fuller (Gold Rose), cellist Melissa Hyman (The Moon and You) and fiddlers Lyndsay Pruett (Jon Stickley Trio) and Megan Drollinger (Life Like Water).
The extra time benefited the album, Sanders believes. The break, she explains, “let each individual track have its own arrangement and its own sound.”
In the process, she worked through her stigmas of writing about motherhood and family life. Initially, she felt that such subject matter “wasn’t rock ’n‘ roll enough.” But Sanders gradually recognized the dearth of songs about parenthood, despite the large number of musicians with children, and sought to fill that void.
“[Parenthood] doesn’t have the glamor of an epic heartbreak or a drug binge, but it’s a big life transition that a lot of people go through,” Sanders says. “Music is a big way that I connect with how I’m feeling. I think that’s why we all love music: when we’re having an experience and we need to connect and not feel alone, we reach out to the records that speak to us.”
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The South got something to say
While living in Seattle for multiple years, Austin Hart became a proud North Carolinian. The Wilmington native, who produces hip-hop tracks under the name L’Orange, says there was a laughable misunderstanding of Southern culture in the Pacific Northwest.
“[They think Southerners] have sex with their cousins and they’re stupid. Like, what? Why did we get the worst one by far?” he says. “When I was there, I tried to represent the South in a way that was eye-opening for some people that may think that those stereotypes are actually true.”
Since spring 2021, Hart has called Asheville home, where he and Wilmington-based lyricist Solemn Brigham worked on their latest collaboration, Marlowe 3. Though Brigham tracked his verses on the coast, the rich chemistry between the sonic partners gives the sense of them being in the same room throughout the recording process.
The duo have been friends since meeting at UNC Wilmington in 2008. While in college, they briefly worked together on music, before initially parting creative ways.
But in 2018, Hart reunited with Brigham, who’d kept rapping for fun but hadn’t recorded anything since his college days. In Seattle, the two recorded “Lost Arts,” “Palm Readers” and “Demonstration,” which appeared on their debut self-titled album Marlowe.
The 2018 release wound up being the most successful of Hart’s career, despite a resume that includes Time? Astonishing! with renowned rapper Kool Keith.
“The quality is all over the place. It’s just raw but it reminded me of having fun, the way we used to when we were making beats and everything had magic to it,” Hart says. “Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to keep working with [Brigham]. It’s such a bizarre experience to work with my best friend. It’s not something I ever would’ve expected, but it’s the coolest part of my career.”
Now with two subsequent Marlowe albums, each more impressive than the last, Hart hopes to further bolster the distinct musical creativity coming from the state. He also strives to have Marlowe more frequently mentioned in conversations about North Carolina hip-hop. With both members now living in the Tar Heel State, Hart’s optimistic about achieving these results.
“There’s some places that still say [Marlowe is] a Seattle group. And I’m like, ‘No!’ Even when I lived in Seattle, it was a North Carolina group,” Hart says. “I’m not influenced by Seattle. I’m from North Carolina — that’s my town, my music. That’s what I’ve always been. That’s the place that made me.”
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Whitney Miller was furious with The Felice Brothers.
The Hudson Valley folk rockers behind the infectious hit “Frankie’s Gun!” changed their sound in the 2010s, incorporating slick production that, to her, felt at odds with their grimy, authentic early songs. In time, however, the decision made perfect sense.
“Now, being an artist myself, I’m like, ‘It’s OK for people to experiment and try out different things,’” says the guitarist/vocalist for The Maggie Valley Band. “Our guide for [production] is, ‘What serves the song best?’”
She and her sister Caroline Miller (bass/vocals) hold true to that ethos on their new album, Breakdown, which finds the Haywood County alt-rockers trying on a decidedly pop-friendly sound and wearing it remarkably well. The influence of Asheville-based producer Matt Langston is evident from album opener “Real Friends,” which shares plenty of DNA with his output in the band Eleventyseven — and is wholly intentional.
“Every time we work with a producer, we love this idea that they get to put their thumbprint on our sound,” Whitney says. “It’s really fun to get that producer to be an actual teammate, coach and leader.”
The Maggie Valley Band had similar success letting the particular styles of David Mayfield (2018’s The Hardest Thing) and Rev Wray (2020’s Something New, Volume I) mix with the sisters’ music, and cite Dolly Parton’s genre-hopping ways in the 1980s as an inspiration to dabble in various influences.
Yet, underneath each track are the group’s recognizable alt-country ways. One outright folk/bluegrass number on the album is “Walls,” which the Millers say help satisfy their supportive fan base without completely alienating them.
“We don’t want to be like, ‘Screw our audience! We don’t care what you want anymore — it’s about what we want,’” Whitney says. “But we do want to experiment, and we like such eclectic things.”
Even influences they don’t necessarily love make their way into the songs. The album’s closer (and highlight) “Tougher Than Me” has echoes of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” — which Whitney promises is coincidental.
“That happened to us before when we were working with Rev [Wray]. One of the guys walked in and was like, ‘You can’t do that! That’s too John Mayer,’” she says with a laugh. “The funny thing is I do not listen to John Mayer at all. I’m sorry to admit that, but maybe I should more. I need to give the guy a chance, apparently.”
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Numerous influences are also evident throughout Tristan Smith’s marvelous Kill Your Neighbor, whose jarring title feels vindicated by such aggressive numbers as album opener “Lament for the Sun” and other punk-rock anthems.
But like the LP’s cheerful cover art, featuring flowers and a rainbow-filled sky painted by Smith, there are plentiful forces at play across the collection’s 14 tracks. And despite the album’s title, Smith notes that he does not condone random acts of violence against anyone.
“I’ve grown up listening to a million, billion different types of music and have a hard time writing in one specific style,” Smith says. “Whatever comes out, comes out — and that could be a really gritty punk rock thing or just me sitting with an acoustic guitar.”
The local singer-songwriter displayed a similar eclectic style on his two previous albums and as a longtime member of the self-described “avant-garage punk trio” Fortezza. The band formed in Smith’s native Winston-Salem, relocated to Asheville and disbanded this fall, leaving him more time to focus on his solo work.
Whether rocking out or shifting to acoustic tracks (“The Day It Comes”; “Daisies”) or instrumentals (“One Last Tide”; “I Would Make It So”), Smith plays every instrument on Kill Your Neighbor. While that approach involved tapping into plenty of familiar objects — he’s been playing guitar since the age of 7 — the album also captures his first dabbling with lap steel guitar, adding slide sounds to the already rich textures.
It all converges in warm production that straddles the line between lo-fi bedroom tracking and a session at Echo Mountain Recording. True to his DIY commitment, Smith also did all the recording, mixing and mastering himself, using ProTools and what he describes as “an old crappy tape machine.”
“A lot of the learning of recording and whatnot was going to school [at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown] for it,” he says. “But also a lot of it was just getting bored at home and messing around with a computer.”
True to form, Smith is additionally retooling the songs from Kill Your Neighbor and others in his catalog for performance — but with a twist.
“I’m working on doing my own thing with me, a guitar and then a kick drum and a high-hat to do the one-man-band thing,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges of being in a band is touring with other people, so to be able to perform stuff just on my own, I feel like I’d be a little more comfortable with it.”
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