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Best of 2007 Profile | Utah Carol

utahsquare.jpg"JinJa envisioned this album being a monkey on her back for the next ten years," said Birkenbeuel. "She put her foot down and said this has got to get done. So we had to whittle everything down to 12 or 13 songs. It's hard to know when a song is done, but..."

"We hunkered down," Davis interrupted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Utah Carol: JinJa Davis and Grant Birkenbeuel. photo: Hayley Murphy 

Utah Carol | Songwriting & Willow Trees

At the start of every year, most serious music fans probably wonder what releases will come out that year that are destined for significance, personally or otherwise. The magic of being both a fan and a music writer is stumbling across a real gem—finding the sort of record that you can attach yourself to, and stamp as one of your life soundtracks. It might only happen a few times a year, so it's to be treasured when that kind of album comes along.

Such was the case for me with Rodeo Queen, the third record by Chicago duo Utah Carol. That would be singer/songwriter/ multi-instrumentalists (and romantic partners) Grant Birkenbeuel and JinJa Davis, who have perfected a lilting brand of folksy-soft rock that's uniquely their own, although occasionally reminiscent of Mojave 3 or the gentler side of Yo La Tengo. Utah Carol's first album, Wonderwheel, was released in 1999—although a pleasant listen (and consisting of at least half instrumentals), it was a group searching for their sound, striving for something. They found that sound on 2001's Comfort for the Traveler. The increase in quality was startling; suddenly there were delicious tight harmonies, stronger melodies and breezy arrangements that marked Birkenbeuel and Davis as clever, inspired musicians. But it would take the duo nearly six years for Rodeo Queen to emerge. Despite that lengthy delay, the new album was an absolute gem, embodying a vibe of thoughtful contemplation that made each of its stirring melodies and harmony-laden tunes that much richer. Mojo critic Sylvie Simmons praised the record for its "twilit, floaty songs and Western campfire guitar." It was an album made for restless souls who still believed in love and togetherness despite an increasingly chaotic world. But it didn't come about easily.

"The space between Comfort for the Traveler and Rodeo Queen was so great...so much had changed in the world, technology speaking, that I was literally overwhelmed," said Davis during a recent phone interview. "I didn't know where to start. MySpace, huh? iTunes? Blogs? What are you talking about? It's only five years, and suddenly all the contacts I had earlier had either vanished into the night, or they had moved up so high in the food chain that they didn't care about you anymore. They were just gone. So I truly didn't know how to crack this egg."

"JinJa envisioned this album being a monkey on her back for the next ten years," said Birkenbeuel. "She put her foot down and said this has got to get done. So we had to whittle everything down to 12 or 13 songs. It's hard to know when a song is done, but..."

"We hunkered down," Davis interrupted.

"Any free moment was gone," added Birkenbeuel. "There were no movies..."

"No sex!" interjected Davis, laughing. "Nothing!" So in other words, the couple were suffering for their art during this time?

"Yeah, our familiar relationships were suffering," said Davis. "We were in a hole."

Somewhere in that "hole," however, magic started brewing. Older songs were given fresh twists, new songs fell into place. "Come Back Baby," one of the record's most heartfelt compositions, is a good example of Utah Carol finally coaxing their muse along.

"That was a song we couldn't quite get at first, and we were getting discouraged," said Davis. "We'd actually been putting it aside for awhile, saying aw, this isn't working. But finally when we hunkered down, it started coming together. The original chord progression I wrote was slightly more minor, and Grant made a change to the bass line that made us reconstruct the melody. Grant's a phenomenal guitar player—he comes up with interesting, beautiful guitar lines."

"JinJa basically wrote the whole song," the guitarist explained. "My contribution was picking out her work, making it into verses." He also helped provide a memorable ending to the song, which is a cascade of wordless background vocals followed by some eerie keyboards. "You kind of hear things when you're playing stuff back 5 or 10 times, that might fit. It's hard to explain. But that keyboard part, I had all these different instruments doing kind of an Asian vibe."

"I was in the other room when he was working on that," said Davis. "The whole melody was written, and the end part, we could just never figure out if we should put words to it or put an instrument on there. So one day I was in the room downstairs and I heard this oriental tinkling sound and I though, What is that? It's so weird! Grant had just come up with that. It was very mysterious; it wasn't something that was planned."

Rodeo Queen is full of little mysteries like this, which is why the album holds up so well on repeat plays. There's the unexpected short whistling and subtle horns that grace "Ruby," the haunted intimacy of "Whisper to Me Sweetly," with its featherbrush percussion and ambient guitar providing just the right backdrop for the duo's hushed harmonies. But perhaps no song exemplifies Utah Carol's unique creative gifts more than "Twilight Time," undoubtedly my favorite song of 2007. Over an infectious loping rhythm, the flawless male-female harmonized voices tell an ambiguous romantic tale laced with nature imagery. The arrangement is straight from the Gods, as the instrumental break that follows the repeated lyric "Don't wait a long time"—and a final verse that mentions "willow trees in springtime"— provide the sort of shivers up the spine that only the very best music ever achieves. Considering the origins of the song, it's astonishing how it ended up.

utah1.jpg"We were in Amsterdam playing a show for someone," said Birkenbeuel. "This guy hired us to come out there and do a personal show; it was just an amazing thing."

"It was a corporate gig," Davis explained. "We were playing at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in front of 500 intellectual property lawyers." She laughed. "So we're playing in this museum with wax figures everywhere—it was so creepy!"

Birkenbeuel continued the story: "So after the show, we're in Amsterdam and it was like another world. I'm like, ‘I can't believe we're here!' In those moments, I get kind of creative...and I started playing around with this E chord, playing this simple riff over and over. It just hit me right there. There's this band called the Handsome Family, and they have an album called Twilight. I've always liked that word. And JinJa had some lyrics—she heard this story about these two sisters in Russia, one of whom was in an avalanche. It was a terrible story of this woman trying to find her sister in the mountains."

"She never did," said Davis. "Originally the lyrics were a lot more morbid. But I told Grant, ‘Look, we can't be writing about death so much in this song. Let's back off a bit from the death stuff.' So we changed the lyrics around so they were more ambiguous. It really did start from a sad place, but it turned into more of a love song. Our songs seem to always end up lamenting love in one way or another."

As for the beautiful verse about the willow trees in springtime, Birkenbeuel said that came from simply taking a walk down the street with JinJa. "I grew up around these willow trees, and I always think about them. So we picked that out and it seemed to fit."

"I used to go to my aunt and uncle's house in Wisconsin—they had this giant willow tree in the backyard that I was always fascinated by," said Davis. "I always wanted to write a song about willow trees. 'Cause, you know, it's just a disturbing tree. Strange and beautiful at the same time."

The combination of nature imagery, aching romanticism and gorgeous harmonies makes Utah Carol's sound both dreamlike and therapeutic. It's music that travels incredibly well. And it seems to soundtrack a certain kind of restlessness and intangible yearning.

"I think that's actually overt. In my thought process when I'm writing, I often feel disenchantment and disillusionment. It's like that song by Paul Westerberg, ‘I'm So Unsatisfied'-I always think of that song ‘cause I know exactly what he means. There's definitely a bit of longing in all our records, the feeling that there is something a little bit better...so where is it? How do I get it?"

The engaging harmonies are a big part of what makes Utah Carol's music so sublime. I mentioned to them how purely relaxed their voices sound together, as opposed to artists who maybe sound more polished or slick, but don't have the heartfelt grace that UC deliver so effortlessly. Their vocal sound is something that evolved over time, according to Davis.

"I kind of forced Grant to sing with me. He was writings songs himself, and I was like, ‘Why don't I sing on them?' And he said ‘No, they're instrumentals!' Grant never envisioned himself as a singer. So it's been a slow progression from our first album, which had a lot more instrumentals, to Grant realizing and believing that we do sound good together. I've been singing harmonies all my life. Ever since I was a little girl I've been harmonizing with myself and taping myself. I just love the way harmony vocals sound."

It was apparently something of an epiphany for the duo to realize the potential of their vocal sound. Davis had done most of the vocals on their first two records, then something shifted. "On this record, Grant came up with his own backup vocals, which he didn't do on the first two. It was completely different. Other people have been commenting on how much they love our voices together. And we never knew that when we first met. We were married for many years before we started singing together."

As their sound has coalesced, so have more opportunities been opening up for Utah Carol, even though they still consider themselves to be under the radar. A Serbian DJ got hold of their record and started playing it frequently, and some listeners wrote to the band after hearing them played. The song "Ruby" was featured on a Paste sampler in 2007, and that also got them some attention.utah2.jpg

"Grant and I are really proactive about ways to get our music out there," said Davis. "We've had our songs in films—the biggest picture we placed a song in was All the Real Girls by this independent director named David Gordon Green. He's pretty well known. ‘Ruby' and ‘Can I Ride With U'"—another gem from the new CD—"are being used in a movie called Love and Mary. It premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival. and we have a bunch of songs in a documentary coming up called Rodeo Queen, coincidentally."

They also made a deal with the Intercontinental Hotel chain, which wants to use a couple of their songs to promote Hotel Indigos around the U.S. There's a deal with MTV, there's attention from MySpace visitors, and the band is even actively working to prepare a new album. Four songs have taken shape, and Davis hopes they'll have something out by summer of 2008. Neither she nor her husband want another half-decade to pass this time.

"I want to get another record done as fast as possible," said Birkenbeuel. "We kind of work in spurts. I'm trying to pull JinJa along; she's not exactly ready yet. She's getting her juices back together. Mine are ready to go. She's starting to add some things to what I've done."

Davis, ever the perfectionist, seems to work intuitively, and to fuss over things for the best of reasons—these songs really matter to her. They need to be nurtured. For example, she doesn't want the song "Shine Your Light on My Tears" to be on their set list. It would be a compromised version, she said.

"The vocals and harmonies on that song, it has a real spacious quality—we can't replicate it live. I can't get the feeling right and I don't want to ruin it by trying. So that one will always stay on the record, unless we can pull together a 15-piece backup band." She laughs. "But if we ever get the phone call that we're going on David Letterman, you better believe we'll whip the top Nashville guys together so fast!" | Kevin Renick

Utah Carol's three CDs are available through amazon.com and other online sites. To learn more about the band, go to www.utahcarol.com

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