Matt Evans, Niamh Fahy, and Kevin Butler met by chance in 2014. By early 2015, they were writing music together and creating the songs that would become their first release, Where We Started. This debut EP is out shortly on March 4, 2016. A local affair, it was recorded at Fathom Tree Recording Studio, and mixed and mastered at Test Tube Audio, both studios in Austin. Joining them on bass for this EP is a friend of the band, Nick Seaman.
About a year ago, Evans contacted me online about his band Sleepy Holler, whose music I quite enjoyed. (Especially “Call Me Home.”) We got to talking, and I suggested he check out Sofar Sounds down in Austin, to play a private living room show. Then just recently, Evans got back in touch to let me know 1. he’d had the chance to play a Sofar show and 2. his other band, Reddening West, was releasing an EP soon! He explained: “Whereas Sleepy Holler remains mostly a ‘long-distance’ project with my friend Jon who lives in DC, Reddening West is a band I put together here in Austin to capture the value and energy of in-person collaboration.”
And while I liked what Evans was doing with Sleepy Holler, I loved what has been made with Reddening West. Joined by Fahy on violin (plus keys, some guitar, vocals) and Butler on drums/percussion (and guitar, backing vocals), Evans is part of a dream team of musicians. Fahy, an “incredibly accomplished violinist,” as Evans is not shy to admit, is originally from Ireland and spent five years touring internationally, only settling in the US in 2014. Butler is a talented recording engineer by day, and therefore had a heavy hand in engineering, mixing, and mastering Where We Started. It reeks of originality, of genuine craftsmanship, like something that was built and made for a commission: full of purpose, a singular vision in mind, handiwork proudly showing.
“All You Need” is the perfect soundtrack for a road trip out west, staring out the windows as the foliage whips by and the mountains remain ever present. It echoes and rolls, Evans’ vocals calmly layering in-between, asking “is it all that you’ll ever need?” Fahy’s gorgeous violin acts like the lead guitar, improvising in the breaks like that’s how indie music has always been. There’s something unusually tight about this trio’s performance, and for so few instruments, a strong sense of richness - a lush and full sound.
For bordering on folk, there’s nothing “folksy” about these songs, but more so something acoustic and natural. In “Golden Light,” the instrumental elements bounce back and forth effortlessly, likely due to Butler’s skill behind the board. Evans’ lyrics reflect a sense of longing, of reflection, asking many broad questions, such as: “your wild heart, wasn’t it always some place else?”
There is no need, however, to be anyplace with dramatic scenery to enjoy Where We Started. These three paint scenes through their instruments, through their words, that can transport you from a simple living room to anywhere your heart desires. Whether it’s working your way through an emotional hurdle, or enjoying a moment of positive personal reflection, Evans and company have created an album you never knew you needed - and now you won’t want to do without.
To understand more about the band and the EP, I asked Matt to share some insights on Where We Started and where Reddening West has consequently ended up.
ME: Thank you for saying so. One factor that definitely helps our continued collaboration is that Niamh and Kevin are actually engaged - they’ll be tying the knot this coming summer. So that’s super exciting, and definitely a contributing factor in our cohesion.
But more than that, I think we’ve all been around the block a little bit musically, and we know how rare it is to find a group of people who all share a vision about the sound and path you want your music and band to take. And, personally, I feel super fortunate to have connected with these guys - I think our respective talents complement one another, and I know I’ve become a better musician by having the opportunity to play with both of them. We work really well together.
I also think we all share a mindset about pursuing music. We’re all working full-time jobs - I’m a grant writer for a local nonprofit, Niamh is a music therapist and teacher, and Kevin spends his days as a recording engineer and producer - so the time we do have to create is really sacred.
I also want to mention Nick Seaman, who was an integral part of this EP. He joined up with us this summer to play a few gigs and help us record this EP, and his contributions were invaluable. Sadly for us he’s since moved back to Boston to finish his degree at Berklee, but we were really fortunate to have him join us for this EP.
KS: Where We Started is a release that I would more expect to come from perhaps the Pacific Northwest, with its theme and the feel of the album: an indie folk base with western American influences, and a soothing manner throughout. Then there's almost a jazz section in "Handful of Dust" towards the end, and overall some classical elements. I'm curious what some of the musical influences are for different band members, and what sounds may have influenced this EP specifically?
ME: Wow, you hit the nail on the head. I’m from Tucson, Arizona originally, but after college I moved to Seattle. I lived up there for about five years. Those were incredibly formative years for me (and where Sleepy Holler was formed). A number of these songs were started during the time I was up there, and nature, and most specifically, the environment of the Pacific Northwest, continues to be one my primary sources of inspiration.
I would also say the Austin area and the Hill Country represent a very special landscape to me, too. I didn't realize it during the writing process, but so much of the dry, earthy simplicity of this landscape has also infiltrated these new songs. I think there’s something of Arizona, the Northwest, and Texas in these sounds - all of the places I’ve lived have made their way into this collection somehow.
I would certainly name jazz and classical as inspirations for all of us - from Mingus, Monk, and Parker to Debussy, Satie, and Part. We all love those genres. The part you mention in ‘Handful of Dust’ was actually written in the studio, in that take. So that was a bit improvisational for us - it was built around these two guitar lines, but we decided going in that we would let that part do what it wanted, and we wouldn’t try to control it too much.
Overall, as a group, I think our influences are pretty expansive, from Irish folk to saccharine pop. But I would name artists like Grizzly Bear, Andrew Bird, Feist, Sam Beam, The National, etc., as musical influences for this group’s sound in particular - but that’s just scratching the surface. So much old and so much new finds its way into the “influences” category.
But I think for this EP, we were mostly trying to capture something I don’t think any of us had a name for or an artist to point to - just some vague sound in our heads. I do remember during the time we were in the studio I was listening a lot to Other Lives, Mimicking Birds, and Damien Jurado - I don’t think a ton of that is coming through, but for some reason I remember those being present at the time.
Niamh has spent a lot of time with different Irish folk groups, most notably Riverdance - she toured with them internationally for five years. She also played in a cool orchestral folk sort of group in London called SixToes for a while.
ME: I had some of these songs kicking around for a while - as I mentioned above, I started writing a few of them when I was in Seattle, as far back as 2008 or 2009 (‘Golden Light’ comes to mind). By the time I started playing with Niamh and Kevin I had moved them forward, but getting together and making group decisions helped shape these songs and get them finished - from deciding on final arrangements to adding new instruments or elements to provide texture, depth, and dynamics to the songs. I would say we went into the studio thinking the songs were mostly ready to go - we had been playing them at shows, etc. - but inevitably, we made some eleventh-hour changes to some of them, just based on how we were feeling in the moment.
KS: It's hard to ignore the lyrics in this EP. While the sounds themselves may be calm, the words are heavily focused on self-reflection and emotional themes. I wouldn't call it sorrow, but there isn't quite a jovial message being communicated here. Are there recent experiences in your life, or of the other members', that found their way into these lyrics? Or are they greater expressions of the general experience of living?
ME: No, there isn’t much joviality - haha. I don’t know - I have a hard time keeping things light lyrically. I would say the lyrics are a mixture of my own experience and my own observations, with a dusting of commentary and storytelling. The most impactful stories to me - whether film, literature, or visual art - try to shine a light on the darkened corners of our emotions and our experiences. I think exploring the difficult and traumatic things we experience is what resonates with me lyrically - when I strike an emotional nerve within myself, I know I’m onto something I like. Most of the lyrics on the EP are vignettes of people or situations familiar to me. Some are my own stories. Some are my stories mixed into the stories of others. Some are my experiences or observations extrapolated to apply more generally.
KS: So, Reddening West had an opportunity to play a secret living room show as a part of Sofar Sounds (in Austin, I assume?), which I have been a part of in Minneapolis, as a coordinator of the shows. What was that experience like, performing as a band?
ME: Yes, we did get the chance to play for Sofar Sounds Austin, but, at the time, we were booked under the Sleepy Holler name (we hadn’t yet decided on a name at that point and we were operating under that umbrella before I made the final decision to officially split the projects). I don’t think they posted anything on the blog - just social media (some photos here).
The experience was great. Kevin and Niamh had both played Sofar shows previously in London - Kevin with Black Books and Niamh with SixToes. And the best part is that they actually met for the first time at Kevin’s Sofar show. So it was really amazing for them to get to play together here in Austin and bring it full circle.
We loved the gig and the setting. It was almost disconcerting at first being in a room with people very intently listening to us play, but we relished it. It was really special. We had the option to plug in and use mics, but we wanted to do it in true Sofar spirit, so we played entirely unplugged (with the exception of our bass player, Nick). We had the chance to share the bill with a couple of great Austin acts, Reed Turner and Emily Wolfe, who were both incredible. I think that kind of stripped down setting suits us quite well - I hope we have similar opportunities in the future.
KS: You also mentioned you played an unofficial SXSW show last year. Any shows at SXSW again this year? Or what are the exciting elements of 2016 for Reddening West, besides the release of this debut EP?
ME: We are in the process of figuring it all out as we speak! Being residents of Austin, SXSW is hard not to participate in in some capacity, so we anticipate doing something, but we’re not sure yet what that will be. Other than that, we’re in the process of making plans for local and regional shows and we’re writing new material, starting to think about what’s next. So, we’re really looking forward to a great year.
Special thanks to Matt Evans.