Local duo PrettyPretty warms up the dance floor

IT TAKES TWO: “It starts with, like, ‘Here’s some chords,’” says Michael Clair, right. “There’s been times at practices when I’ll take 20 minutes going through every sound on the keyboard until we’re like, 'Yeah! That!'” says Justin “JB” Bowles, left. But ultimately, when it comes to writing songs for the local duo PrettyPretty, “It’s crazy how easy it is sometimes,” Clair notes. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Following Rihanna’s sage advice, “Please don’t stop the music,” local artists Justin “JB” Bowles and Michael Clair didn’t. “We lost a drummer,” Bowles says of the duo’s former band, Grammer School. But when that outfit ended, “We decided it wasn’t possible for Asheville to not have this songwriting team.”

So the two — Bowles on keyboards, Clair on guitar, with vocal duties shared — went to work on the 70 or 80 songs they’d written and re-emerged as alt-pop act PrettyPretty. And, on Tuesday, July 24, the pair release their new album, Sugar Daddies, at The Mothlight.

If the record doesn’t have a specific theme or continuum, its title does capture the sweet optimism and danceability that underscore each of the 10 tracks. There are hints of post-new wave and doo-wop, filtered through an ’80s lens. The album’s sweaty, soulful instincts possess an Elvis Costello (circa My Aim Is True) nerd-sexy swagger. And, if the lyrics, on first listen, tilt toward the absurd, the garage-y guitar and hooky keys parts give the songs ballast.

“With Grammer School, we thought we were going to get a tour bus; we had all these plans,” says Bowles. “But when PrettyPretty came along, we were like, ‘Let’s just play music.’” In a way, letting go of the rock star dream opened the door for greater creative impetus.

As Clair puts it, “I still get to play music with my best friend.”

But it wasn’t necessarily a smooth start. “The first show we played [as PrettyPretty] was when JB was going off to work at Dollywood,” Clair recalls. Bowles, who studied voice and piano in college, was in a roving a cappella group at the Pigeon Forge theme park.

“As a trained singer, I sang a certain way for a long time,” says Bowles. “When I was able to play some rock ’n’ roll music and sing on my own, I was able to find my voice.” The result was a surprise: the almost hiccuping snap of it, the velvet low notes and smooth sweep into his upper register, the agile runs. With that instrument, which Bowles still seems to be exploring and unfolding, he can express emotional shades that both complement that band’s melodies and — especially in the case of the sultry, throbbing “Bedpost” — add more nuanced layers.

“I feel like my range is getting bigger,” he says. “I can hit notes I wasn’t able to hit. “

But as much as is revealed on the album’s tracks — from the post-disco melodrama of “Gay Cruise” (on which Clair sings lead) to the breezy instrumental “Dad Bod” to the thrumming, dark dance number “Outro” to the spacey atmospherics at the end of final track “JK” (which comes in at a precise 11 minutes and 11 seconds) — plenty also goes unsaid. “When [Bowles] does the lyrics, we don’t talk about it,” says Clair. “So every time we record something in the studio, I’m like, ‘Now I can hear what he’s saying. I hear what those lyrics are. Now I know what that’s about.’”

“Instead of asking me, I think you’re just assuming,” Bowles says.

“I don’t want to ask you! I want the mystery,” Clair replies. And, after all, don’t all listeners feel that way? We think we want to know the inspiration for a song until it takes away from our personal narrative and how the song resonates with our own lives.

So, perhaps it’s surprising when — in the face of Sugar Daddies’ intimate-feeling songcraft — Bowles reveals, “There’s a lot [fewer] heartbreak songs on this album … less about relationship shit. There’s nothing on this album that’s superpersonal.”

What is personal, and deeply felt, is the friendship between Clair and Bowles and the way their music sustains them. Through relocations, day jobs, family responsibilities and health scares, it’s a constant. The commitment to their collaboration and creative process (over output or racking up fans and Facebook likes) has led to some some measurable evolution.

“Bedpost,” which Bowles originally wrote in 10 minutes (“because I was feelin’ it … it makes me want to put my hair up in pigtails and sit on the steps outside and eat a sucker”), started as an acoustic number that Bowles sang from a stool while Clair played guitar chords. It’s taken three or four years for it to find its way to its current lush iteration. That span of time “is crucial for us,” says Bowles. “It’s how our best stuff comes about.”

But if there is an end game here (there isn’t), or a mappable journey from Grammer School to PrettyPretty, it would be the duo’s mojo to make listeners move. “[In Asheville], no one really wants to go see dance music,” says Clair, “but we’re bringing people out.”

“We dance,” says Bowles. “Sometimes I can’t play the piano because I’m dancing so much.”

“At the last show,” says Clair, not to be outdone — and readers should probably take this as a challenge to their own moves — “I was dancing before the song even started.”

WHO: PrettyPretty with Fashion Bath
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Tuesday, July 24, 9 p.m. Free

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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