Musicians Tina Collins and Quetzal Jordan of Tina & Her Pony had multiple meanings in mind when they chose the title for their new album, Champion, which will be released at The Mothlight on Friday, Nov. 3.
“In the most basic way, it was about the chariot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck,” Jordan says, explaining her idea to create, over time, an album for each card in the deck. Beyond that, she continues, the term relates to the couple’s recent marriage, the passing of Collins’ father, Brad (to whom the work is dedicated), and the post-presidential election vulnerability of LGBTQ people, racial minorities “and the other others,” as Jordan puts it.
“There were lots of really big life changes happening, but there was still that theme happening over and over again of being able to be someone’s protector and cheerleader,” Jordan says. “I wanted to bring all of our experiences … into a single word, which I thought was ‘champion.’”
Just as that interpretation presents life’s challenges in an optimistic light, Tina & Her Pony’s new songs soften dark and abstract subject matter with a wholesome aesthetic that shifts from dreamy to haunting, restorative to playful. The duo’s slow-burning take on the Appalachian sound — with Collins on tenor ukelele, guitar and vocals, and Jordan on cello, guitar and vocals — is particularly pronounced on “Good Man,” a personalized take on the murder ballad format.
“It was a joke at first. I wrote it to relieve myself of family tensions,” Jordan says of the lyrics, which imagine the demise of each of her immediate family members, starting with her father — the only one who is actually deceased.
“He was a salty, amazing, muscular man with a giant beard and lots of tattoos,” she says admiringly of the former commercial fisherman. “He was a really cool guy, but not a really good dad. I’m glad that he wasn’t around, honestly, but if I could rewrite the way that he died, it would be in the ocean.” Jordan penned his verse before moving on to each additional family member, none of whom is very close to her, she says.
“[It felt] good to let them go in a certain way or to write their passing in the way that they would want to go,” she says. “It’s a strange honoring, actually. It felt really beautiful at the time. It’s like: ‘I see you, I get you, here’s this song.’”
Collins, too, processes her own father’s death in “Bat,” a song based on her poignant dream in the weeks before his passing.
“I was flying down this dirt road. … I looked down, and my shadow was a bat instead of human,” she says. “There was more to the dream, but that was the really crystallized part of it. … Something about that dream told me that he was going to die, and somehow I reached a new level of acceptance through it. That song is definitely different. It sticks out.”
“Bat” gets its ominous mood in part from guest players Hank Widmer (clarinet) and Ross Montsinger (drums) of Holy Ghost Tent Revival. And it’s not the only track that borrows local talent. Also appearing on Champion are Leah Song and Chloe Smith (vocals) of Rising Appalachia, Andrea Demarcus (bass) of Cicada Rhythm, Matt Smith (pedal steel) of The Honeycutters, Jackson Dulaney (dobro and lap steel), Kevin Williams (piano) of Holy Ghost Tent Revival and Ryan Furstenberg (guitar) of The Moon & You. All of the contributors will help re-create the album in its entirety at the release show.
That same night, artist Jacqueline Maloney will open a related, monthlong exhibit at The Mothlight. “We gave her our early, rough mixes, and she made the art while she was listening to the album,” Jordan says. “They’re line drawings of either a plant or animal associated with [each] song.”
Additional credit is due to the 256 financial backers who collectively pledged $15,973 on Kickstarter in support of Champion. With those funds, Collins and Jordan were able to book time at Echo Mountain Recording, where they say they created their most “legit” work to date. There, Jordan was also able to exercise her production skills, from helping to mic acoustic instruments to voicing her vision for each song’s nuances during the mixing process.
She also created a prestudio map of every instrument, transition and feeling that would eventually constitute the album. Her only major oversight was being in Mexico when it came time to record the guest parts. Still, she was lucky enough to get internet service on the top of a pyramid and Skyped in to see Collins and the collaborators pulling off the plan.
“I have really critical standards, [so] it’s very, very nice to be able to sit down and not wince too much,” she says, with a laugh, of the final product. “No, I’m really happy with it.”
WHO: Tina & Her Pony with guest artists
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 3, 9 p.m., $10/$12