When the Thornbills got back from Nashville at the end of summer 2010, everybody and their brother had suggestions for what Jim Wiegand and Tamara Finlay's next move should be; there's a lot of pressure when your debut song is recorded with Jack White. That'd be anywhere, let alone Detroit.
Coming off the Third Man Studio sessions was akin to falling out the back of a moving van onto a gravel road. "We just didn't have the stuff," as Finlay puts it, "and then not having a band."
"But, what are we supposed to do," she adds, "just slap something together out of cardboard and call it a masterpiece?"
And it wasn't just about abstract music.
"These are our lives we're talking about here," Wiegand says.
Their quite intertwined lives at that. Cousins, they bonded as kids through rambunctious play and make-believe on an uncle's farm west of Detroit. Young Finlay followed the footsteps of her father, an accomplished opera singer and Wayne State voice instructor. Young Wiegand, meanwhile, rocked Nirvana and taught himself to strum his mom's acoustic guitar.
Finlay got picked on in school for being "an opera-kid" and recalls how devastating it was when her father broke it to her that her voice, a low croon with a slight rasp, could never pull off operatic heights. "But, still, everyone told me that my voice was really stately and formal, at least as far as rock is concerned," Finlay says. "So I didn't know what I was supposed to be."
She admits singing the Ukrainian-Russian traditional folk ballads passed down by her family helped her find her way, but even then, those weren't her own words, not her own melodies.
Finlay's dad, having taught voice to both daughter and nephew individually, "badgered" her to start singing with him. At that point, in 2008, Wiegand was developing an acoustic singer-songwriter thing of his own (with song ideas filling up notebooks). He was finding his own way as well, being heavily into post-grunge metal acts yet discovering that his voice somehow best fit the folk aesthetic.
"Part of his reasoning was, just, who we are," Finlay says, referring to her dad. "He said: 'You both come from divorced homes, you both sing, you're both intense individuals. I know that if you start singing together, you're not going to stop.' And he was right."
By the middle of last year, after the hail of shoulda-coulda-oughtas from friends and family subsided, Finlay and Wiegand decided to go with what felt right. They pared back to a two-piece after having musician-videographer Scott Allen help out on percussion for a few months. Most importantly, they started trusting themselves and each other, feeling more like siblings than cousins. They created a sort of musical tree house, as their sound developed into a sort of Crosby and Nash dashed with exotic gypsy accents.
Last month, they wrapped six songs with Eric Hoegemeyer and Scott Loudon up at Ashram in Clarkston. Jackson Smith (singer-songwriter and, like Finlay, fellow contributor to the Beehive Recording Co.) helped them out on guitar, at one point rolling his eyes at the pair of Thornbills as they spontaneously decided to teach each other cartwheels along the grassy hillocks just outside the studio window.
They couldn't help it. They were just feeling that invigorated from the sessions that the spirit took them. That, says Finlay, and they're just that dorky.
And their new self-titled EP exorcises more than a few demons: for Wiegand, self-doubt and cynicism; for Finlay, moving past a divorce. For both — again, just building that self-confidence.
Wiegand punches and strums his growling acoustic guitar while Finlay adds the mystic resonance of her autoharp. Violinist Daniel Winnick brings the perfect, gypsy-tinged, sinewy touches; a classically trained twentysomething in Battle Creek's symphony, this is Winnick's first band, in that traditional sense. Other recent additions include two gents who've been upon many a bar stage before: guitarist James Anthony and bassist Brandon White.
Finlay says, "We accept ourselves and each other." Wiegand adds, "It can be dark and hopeful, the songs. But we embrace the darkness. I was trying, before, to be something else; I just have to be myself."
"And if we're just being ourselves, and there's no pressure, we feel people will naturally respond," Finlay says. "When [Wiegand] says something hellaciously dark, I'm just like," she groans, grinning, "Yes! I love it. God, that's what I've been trying to say forever and only you, you are the only person in the universe who can finish that thought for me — and you're the only person I would let finish that thought."
Asked if they can recall a particularly formative moment for them as a band, Wiegand's first response isn't meeting Jack White. "I feel like we're only in that moment, right now."
The Thornbills play Thursday, June 28, at P.J.'s Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., with B.A.M. the Barefoot Girls, Anthony Retka, CN Pratt and the Rose Cult, and Julian Paagie; free.
The Thornbills' favorite
Nash-Crosby: "I have a DVD of a BBC performance they did that I lovingly nicknamed The Little Mermaid because, like the Disney film in my younger years, I watch it damn near every day. The relationship between those two guys is fucking amazing, the best-ever bromance. They really know how to let each other shine. It's a great performance, the Croz is tripping balls and rambling like a madman, and Nash is really patient, and warm with the audience."
Sergei Nikitin and Tatiana Nikitina: "Soviet duo, with this catchy, beautiful tune called "Alexandra" from the film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which every Russian knows and loves."
Swell Season: "Given our sound, most would assume I'm into the dual harmony, singer-songwriter stuff, but it's never been a focus. What I do [in Thornbills] is a symptom of my love for bands like Tool and Poison the Well, but didn't have the voice for it, yet found the same attitude in haunting-and-spooky instead of something in-your-face. The duo that comes to mind: Swell Season [from the indie film Once]: "I had one of those moments when I heard their single ["Falling Slowly"] and was pissed that I didn't get to write that song."
Jeff Milo keeps his ear to the ground for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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