Thursday, September 20, 2012

Coyote Grace Share Their Story of "Now Take Flight"

Coyote Grace began as a duo of street performers consisting of Ingrid Elizabeth and Joe Stevens in 2004. The two performed frequently outside of Seattle's Pike Place Market and used their earnings to record and release their first album, Boxes and Bags. Since then the duo has added third member Michael Connolly, and continues to release popular albums with stringband music fans and tour nationally playing theaters, clubs, and festival stages.

As a trio, they celebrate and are influenced my musical styles of the past, while looking forward with openness to fuse these older sounds with new ones. The three accomplish this with the masterful use of guitar, upright bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and accordion.

This blending of the old and the new is perhaps no more evident than in the case of guitarist and transman Joe Stevens, whose gender transition resolved a lifetime of dissonance between being raised as female while identifying as male. Not without cost, Joe’s transition closed some doors while opening many others, and significantly informs his songwriting and performance.

Meanwhile, Ingrid Elizabeth, the self-proclaimed “pink sheep” of her small Ohio hometown, and Memphis-born Michael Connolly both carry the twang and soul of their Middle America roots while maintaining decidedly Left Coast values.

Having interviewed mandolin-master Michael Connolly last year regarding his "Mandolin Casefiles" album, as well as his own personal/ musical history, I was excited to connect with him again, this time with Ingrid and Joe regarding the Coyote Grace's formation, discography, working relationship and processes, and the making of their latest album Now Take Flight.

Can you each briefly discuss your previous musical experiences before forming Coyote Grace?

Ingrid Elizabeth: Most of my musical experience growing up was in choirs. The upright bass is my first instrument, and I'm completely self-taught. I cut my bass-playing teeth on bluegrass mostly, but I have had the chance to sit-in here and there with bands of every varying style. I'm very drawn to the singer/songwriter tradition and folk & roots music in general. But I've always welcomed new musical flavors to be infused in my style.

Joe Stevens: I also grew up singing in choirs; my mother conducts the Sacramento Children's Chorus, and both my parents were career vocalists. I started writing songs at 15 and eventually went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and snuck into the Composition department. There, I wrote a lot of music for theater and modern dance, among other weird projects. Before Coyote Grace I mostly performed as a solo artist.

Michael Connolly: I grew up playing in Memphis and had my hands in a lot of musical projects as a kid: playing saxophone and keyboards in funk bands, mandolin and fiddle for Irish traditional music and playing clarinet in orchestras. It was a great town to be in and bounce ideas off of a lot of great young players. Over the years I’ve played a number of instruments across a number of genres, but I’m not a songwriter per se, instruments have always been my voice.

What are some of your other musical projects outside of the band?

Ingrid: Coyote Grace has been my main squeeze for about 6 years now. I'm the band's manager/booking person as well as the co-founder and leading lady, which doesn't allow for a lot of spare time to play elsewhere. But recently, I've been lucky enough tour as a special guest with folkpop quartet Girlyman and northwestern female-fronted stringband, The Blackberry Bushes. And I've really enjoyed both projects immensely, in a musical as well as a personal sense.

Joe: Coyote Grace is also my main squeeze, although recently I have been backing people up with guitar, banjo, and vocals, cooking up some interesting tunes with Tucson-based musician Courtney Robbins, and even playing a little electric bass indie-punk style with some contemporaries here in Sacramento.

Michael: Outside the band, my main gig is engineering and producing records for bands in related genres at my studio in Seattle (Empty Sea Studios: I’ve engineered more than 50 projects in the last 3 years, so it’s been quite busy at times, especially combined with our touring schedule. This year I’ve also been sitting in on bass with The Washover Fans, an awesome indie-folk group from Seattle who will open for Coyote Grace at our Seattle show.

How and when did Ingrid & Joe and begin performing together? When/ how did Michael come into the fold?

Ingrid: Joe and I met in 2002 and started playing music together in circles at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Once we became sweethearts, we started playing together in our living room, and once we polished up enough songs, we took our duo act to the stage... and the streets. We did a lot of busking in Pike's Place Market in Seattle to raise money for our first album, then we hit the road in our 1978 Chevy RV and never looked back.

During that recording process, Joe and I stayed in Michael's basement (a respite from the freezing cold life of van living) while he mixed our album, Boxes and Bags. That was in 2006, and since then, Joe and I have both found homes in the sunnier skies of Northern California.

Meanwhile, Michael and I met in 2005 when we played in a Seattle-based bluegrass band called Captain Gravel. Our run with Captain Gravel ran about 2 years, then I left the band to travel with Coyote Grace. About 6 months later, Michael left the band as well. But we always kept in touch, and whenever Joe and I were in Seattle, Michael would sit in with us as a special guest.

The chemistry was always there, and began to really take shape as a trio when we were asked to tour as the opener for Indigo Girls. We couldn't imagine doing it without Michael. That's when our trio sound really solidified.

Can you take us through the band's history, discography, and evolution?

Coyote Grace: Boxes and Bags (2006) was our first project. All the tunes were written and sung by Joe. The album has a very intimate and introspective character. The album shows the naked first incarnation of Coyote Grace as just bass and guitar with very minimal instrumentation, and captures the essence of our roots as acoustic street musicians. Michael doesn’t appear as a musician on this album, but mixed it.

The Harvey Tour (2008) is a collection of live recordings from our RV travels & touring of 2007. For most of that tour, our good friend and Tucson folksinger, Courtney Robbins, traveled with us. The album is a collection of original songs by Joe, Ingrid, and Courtney, as well as a few fun cover tunes.

Ear To The Ground
(2009) was Recorded at Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, CA, this album has a fuller band sound, including some guest appearances of Courtney Robbins, Katherine Monnig, and more significantly, Michael Connolly. On this album, Michael played 6 different instruments and was involved in some of the arranging process as well. There is also the studio album debut of some of Ingrid's original songs (including the title track) and her lead vocals. Joe and Ingrid had put down roots in California, and Coyote Grace was becoming a more sustainable business. Michael was becoming more involved in the sound and development of the band.

For Buck Naked
(2010) the recordings for this EP were made at the same time as the "Ear To The Ground" recordings, but they didn't have the cohesive energy of that album's content. So, we decided to make an EP with all the 'misfits' from that session. The makeup of this album covers a wide range of instrumentation. There are some very naked live recordings of just Ingrid & Joe, as well as a full band studio sound. The content is edgier than our other albums as well. We like to call this project the “quirky exposed underbelly” of Coyote Grace. 

Let's move onto Now Take Flight:

Was there a tune(s) that set the course for the album?

Ingrid: We didn't have a certain song that set the course, but we definitely knew we wanted to have our sound grow in ways and directions that it hadn't been able to before. Trying new recording techniques and instrumentation arrangements that we'd never done on an album or on stage was exciting for us.

Joe: No specific tune set the course, we had more of a sonic concept that stretched over the entire album that the collection of songs fit nicely into. We were interested in literally having more continuity between songs, and we were able to do a lot more at Empty Sea Studios than we have in the past. At some point along the way, Michael's song "Now Take Flight" pulled ahead as the title track and as the overall tone for the album, somehow appropriately wordless.

Was there a particularly challenging aspect and/ or experience while writing/ recording the record?

Ingrid: The fact that Michael and the studio are in the state of Washington and both Joe & I live in California was a very limiting factor in our timeline of production. We had to be very focused and intentional with all our studio time. There was a bit of time for artistic and technological brainstorming, but overall, we had to be pretty efficient. All the arrangement flowed fairly organically though. It was the first time that Joe & I had let anyone else fully into the artistic process of making an album, so that was a new experience. But we really enjoyed everything Michael had to bring to the album - not only as a co-creator, but as an engineer/producer as well.

Michael: I had engineered and produced dozens of albums for other artists in between the last Coyote Grace record and Now Take Flight, but there was definitely a challenge in working on a record for a band I am a member of. It’s much harder to retain objectivity as a producer when you’re that close to the material. 

Did you have a preconceived idea, theme, direction for the album? Or was this more of a song-by-song accumulation?

Ingrid: Honestly, there was no one certain song or two that determined the feel, it was just our sound's incarnation at the time. This album was born of a batch of songs that were already in the rotation of our live shows and grew to include songs and arrangements that hadn't seen the light of day yet. Once we were in the recording process, it became clear which songs were really gelling and which ones going to have to sit this one out.

Joe: One of the ideas we came to the table with was a further exploration of the crossroads between our acoustic roots and the digital medium it inevitably becomes as a recorded work. We used a lot of "found sounds" (the thunderstorm, in “Born Blind,” for example) that at their root are natural sounds; we modified some acoustic sounds to shape the tension and release dynamics that are very present in our live shows but often gets lost in translation when recording.

"Trevor" sports a live take of everyone in the studio (engineers and all) playing some kind of instrument to create a sort of rolling marching band beat that expresses the self-made and unapologetic character of the protagonist in the song. We also had the intention of creating the experience of an implicit journey through the album, sonically and lyrically, that would be felt rather than noticed directly.

Michael: As we worked on song selection, we noticed that certain themes and words were cropping up in the lyrics to multiple songs. So there was some amount of discerning, rather than prescribing, the themes for the album.

Can you discuss the songwriting process, both lyrically and musically?

Joe: All of us are solitary songwriters, meaning that we compose all the music and lyrics on our own, then bring them to the band for further arrangement and filling in of parts. There's a lot more flexibility and collaboration happening in arrangements these days than in the past. I really love that. That's what makes me feel like we are forging a really signature sound that truly incorporates each of our three different musical experiences, flavors, and strengths.

As someone who has traditionally composed in a vacuum, I find my songwriting these days naturally leaves more and more room for my bandmates' input, and I compose with an awareness of the potential roll of their instruments. Writing and arranging to create the fullest piece when all one has to do that with is an acoustic guitar inevitably sets a course for the tune, and I am enjoying the freedom to leave more room in my songs and watch them coalesce and come alive when brought to the group.

For example, “To The River” took form when the bass and cajon foundation was built underneath, and the ethereal organ gave shape to the empty space surrounding the lone banjo in the treble range. “The Show” was also a full-on group collaboration from the vocals down to the layers of instruments, with the exception of the lyrics.

Lyrics for me come from some strange place that I don't entirely understand, though I find I am able to sit with them longer or let them go if that's what they decide to do, and they do actually ask to be edited. A healthy detachment is key to shaping good lyrics.

Ingrid: An example of that was the title track "Now Take Flight". It started as an instrumental tune where Michael wrote the chords, melody, and basic arrangement. We had performed it live quite a bit, but once we got into the studio, it took on a whole new dimension. During a scratch track of the song, I had counted out loud through some sections, and we liked the way it added to the song.

We decided to put in a string of words that would be used instead of numbers, but using the voice more as an instrument than as "lyrics", per se, hence, the more effected, almost robotic tone of the vocals. Joe & I collaborated with Michael to choose those words and place them in the song. But throughout the process, it still maintained Michael's creative integrity. The arrangement also changed quite a bit in the studio, with Joe and I each writing our own parts to the new additions. It was really fun and really exciting! On the other side, we all felt like we'd created something that had never been done before. It's such an incredible feeling and quite an artistic achievement.

How collaborative are these processes among the three of you? Please discuss your interconnectedness, different points of view, and unique sensibilities that you bring to the project.

Ingrid: The songwriting is all fairly separate, but the true Coyote Grace sound is really forged in the arrangement process. Joe is very focused on the songwriting aspect (as he is the primary songwriter for the group and a very prolific writer at that). Michael brings a lot of instrumental knowledge and skill to the table, not only as a producer, but also as a really skilled lead player.

I think I provide a sense of editing, writing & arranging that lends to the catchiness and palatability of our music, as I am the one with my finger on the pulse of popular music. All together, I think we cover a lot of bases musically.

Also, being a lifetime performer of many mediums, I believe it's really important to connect with our listening audience. Be it over the radio or on the stage, I want our music to really get through and stay in people's heads and hearts, to make a deep impression. The combination of Joe's lyrics, my rhythmic style, Michael's unforgettable lead lines, and our tight harmonies is a pretty undeniable fit.

Then, when take the stage, we want to make the audience feel at ease and for them to laugh, cry, and be completely enraptured with our performance, both musically and visually. We move really freely in our skins on stage, and we hope that it inspires people to feel more comfortable in their own.

Personally, we have a very close and special way of relating. Joe and I having been partners for many years and transitioning beyond "romantic" with success, we have a very special chemistry and way of artistically communicating on stage. Also, Michael has been my best friend for many years, and we've collaborated on lots of artistic projects outside of Coyote Grace as well. So, having such a close understanding and connection to each of them makes the creative process and all aspects of life on the road together all that much deeper.

We all have different perspectives and experiences when it comes to business aspect of it, and I feel we are constantly learning from each other and how to work with each others strengths to keep the wheels of this machine well-greased and running.

I think our connection as an ensemble and collaborative process has entered a real growth phase with the relatively new addition of Michael. He adds a new dimension dynamically and melodically, bringing in new tonal textures, rhythmic additions, and harmonic meat to the chords in the songs. Ingrid and I have been performing for so many years in every situation imaginable and have developed a musical communication that is very intuitive and works very well under pressure.

Michael reads that language easily and we trust each other on stage, navigating new tunes on the spot, as well as bringing material to the table. Ingrid and I share the duties of bringing the lyrical content, and we both are a tight rhythm section team. She keeps the heart beat that frees me up to set the chord structure, and Michael fills out the chords with far reaching melody lines. I bring my music theory nerdyness and years of songwriting, as well as my love of words and the folk music tradition.

Michael: After years of sideman work with a number of bands and songwriters, I’m enjoying the benefits of a “long-term relationship” with a band, in playing with Coyote Grace over this longer stretch of years. I’ve been able to find ways to do more than play licks and fills on my instruments, the kind of “faking it” that you do with a band you sit in with for a few shows. Over time, we’ve been able to integrate my instruments into the arrangements in a more natural, satisfying way.

How has each of your experiences outside of Coyote Grace benefited/ influenced/ challenged how you all work together in this band?

Having worked with other bands recently, it makes me appreciate how effortless our groove is. Musically, I can fit in with lots of bands, but my particular musicality and style of playing is such a natural part of Coyote Grace. It feels like my musical home.

I also really appreciate how much we laugh together. I seriously lose weight on the road from laughing so hard all the time, despite countless hours of sitting on my butt in a car. I really love these guys and love how we continue to make it fun for each other.

Joe: I second that. It is a good mirror to take on other projects to fully grasp how important that musical sixth sense is to the playing experience, and how far and few between it really is to feel that innate connection with other musicians. Combine that with friendship, love, and such a wide variety of skills, and there's just no band I'd rather be in.

Michael: I’ll second those emotions.  There’s nothing better than feeling emotionally and musically close to your fellow bandmates onstage. Even the worst moment on tour will be a running joke in the van by the next morning.

What were you listening to during this time that significantly influenced the writing/ recording the album?

Ingrid: Personally, I was pretty well-steeped in the songwriting of Ray LaMontagne and the musical soul of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals during the time these songs were coming together. Definitely the harmony and musical arrangements of our good pals and tourmates in Girlyman had an impact on the songs structure. (They also guested on the album with vocals and drums.) I'm sure these all seeped into the album's sound through artistic osmosis.

Joe: Po’ Girl was an influence for me at this time, being a mirror to us in the melding of musical traditions and oddly coupled instruments. Nora Jones, with the incredibly diverse palate of tone qualities set over the instrumentation, and Alexi Murdoch, with the subtle but very affective sonic contours he used to create a wider dynamic range than just the acoustic instrumentation could do on its own were also big influences for me in this project.

Ingrid gives me a hard time because I actually listen to far less music than she does, but I was listening to Jimmy Smith, Norah Jones, Fleet Foxes and some Indian classical music around this time.

What are your biggest non-musical sources of inspiration?

I truly believe that art begets art. Even though I am a huge music fan and listen to music almost constantly, I am often just as inspired by experiencing spoken word, visual art, dance, film, and natural beauty to write and create. Engaging in any kind of creative process is my primary joy and spiritual path. Sometimes it results in music, sometimes other mediums. It's all equally gratifying and worthwhile to me.

Joe: The thing outside music that fills my cup is road tripping and spending time out in the big empty spaces. That is where I feel the most at home. I also spend copious amounts of time reading, writing, and people watching.

Michael: Before I was a full-time musician, I was a computer programmer, and I still have quite a strong geek-streak in me. My typical inspirations and outlets revolve around programming projects, good conversations with friends, and when I can time, working with my hands. I built the violin that I play with Coyote Grace, and I’m due for another instrument project when I can get to it.

How does Now Take Flight connect most to your previous work?

Ingrid: Joe and I have often referred to Coyote Grace as our musical lovechild, as an an entity that emerged from a simple folk duo that continues to grow and change. From the street corner and giant theater stages alike, from countless hours in a van getting from here to there, from playing with other talented and fun-loving people, from adding new instruments into the mix all the time, from getting braver in who we are and what we stand for...

Now Take Flight is the next evolution of our sound and identity as a band. And now, this musical lovechild has a 3rd proud parent (Michael), who has had a profound impact on this manifestation of Coyote Grace, seeing as he wore the hats of producer, engineer, performer, and artistic co-creator.

Joe: Now Take Flight for me is a more developed voice of the ensemble, and exemplifies what we have learned so far in our evolution musically, lyrically, technically, and of course in life. We are in an era when many people are taking their own musical spin off our eclectic roots as American musicians, and new hybrid/alt forms of roots, folk, Americana whatever are coming out of the woodwork.

This is our take on the acoustic tradition as well as the now established tradition of recording music, which is an art form in its own right, with its own antiquities and schools of thought. I feel like this album is a more intentional exploration about there those two worlds intersect.

What sets it most apart?

Ingrid: I truly believe it's the best album we've put out thus far. Maybe all artists say that about their most recent album, but I know the quality and material of this album are the most polished and artistically actualized that we've ever felt. This album really underscores our specific breed of indie folk/roots music, and I hope it continues to further solidify what Coyote Grace means to listeners out there.

Joe: One of the main variables in this project is that we had way more access to studio time and space (as well as the accumulated smarts that came in the wake of our four previous projects). But we have much more artistic leeway to re-listen, make edits, brainstorm, and try out ideas than we ever have had before. Recording deadlines are always tight, but we had way more space to play in the creation of this album. The other big variable was Michael's full input and expertise. He had been on the periphery of our other projects, but this time it was everybody throwing in all they had.

Michael: I think the biggest question this album is trying to answer, both for Coyote Grace, and in the roots music world in general, is “What is ‘new’ roots music even supposed to sound like?” As politically and socially progressive people who are in love with throwback sounds and instruments, it’s a funny line to walk. I think this album embodies some intentional addressing of that question.

Can you discuss how the Northwest roots and country music community benefits you artistically and musically?

Living in Seattle, I’m excited by the amount of interest there is in roots, classic country and old-time music here. When I was growing up in Memphis, traditional stringband music was mostly a thing my parents’ and grandparents’ generation did out in the country. By contrast, it’s heartening to see the amount of young people interested in reclaiming these instruments and sounds and integrating them into a modern sensibility.

Joe: Ingrid and I no longer live in the Northwest, but a place where we interacted with musicians of our ilk back in the early days was the other folks who played regularly at the Pike's Place Market. Joe of the Tallboys (who is sadly no longer a member) was often down there with his fiddle, as were Charlie and Charmain of Squirell Butter, also members of the Tallboys.

Slim Pickens were also regulars down at the market. We were the folks who were going to any lengths to not have to take on another job, and made much of our income at Pike's. We were all in the rotation at the Conor Byrne and then the Tractor, and that community was an important source of camaraderie for CG when we were fledgling starving artists.

Will you be touring nationally for Now Take Flight? What are your plans for the rest of 2012?

Ingrid: Although the album was released at the tail-end of 2011, we took a brief hiatus from touring due to health-related issues for the first half of 2012. Therefore, we are extra excited to finally do some big CD release tours on the West and East Coasts this fall. We tour nationally year-round, so we'll be making our way around to all the regions within the next calendar year.

Our entire tour schedule is available on our website at:

Michael:  We kicked off the tour season this year with a live, HD video webcast from my studio in Seattle on Sunday, August 26th.  It’s part of the Empty Sea Television series I started in March of this year. We do a 3-camera HD shoot and stream it live online. You can learn more here:

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