The Be Good Tanyas are not the kind of band that makes you think of Brooklyn. With sweet, clear harmonies and down-home songs built on a foundation of acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin, the outfit's Appalachian folk seems ready-made for back-porch listening rather than the Big Apple's concrete streets.
But Brooklyn is where the Canadian trio finds itself this morning, in town for a gig in support of its sublime debut, "Blue Horse." Actually, the group members love this part of New York, where they always try to stop when touring the East Coast. The city also loves the Tanyas, who are causing a minor stir with their rootsy, low-key musical offerings, a mixture of originals and classics like "Lakes of Pontchartrain" and "The Coo Coo Bird."
Now if they could just locate a drummer.
"We haven't yet found our one true-love drummer, somebody who's gonna commit," says singer/multi-instrumentalist Samantha Parton. "We really put them through it. We go through drummers; they're boys and we're girls. Not only are we girls but we're superpower girls; we all have these amazing superpowers. They get a little intimidated. (laughs) I'm sorry, I'm feeling a little wacky this morning."
The Tanyas (Parton, singer/guitarist Frazey Ford and Trish Klein, a multi-instrumentalist who sings backup) originally met in the mid-'90s while working as tree-planters in the Canadian Kootenays, laboring during the day and gathering at night for extended back-porch jam sessions. When the job ended, the three went their separate ways, drifting to such disparate locations as Montreal and New Orleans. A couple years later, they ran into each other back home in Vancouver, and the as-yet-unnamed Be Good Tanyas were born anew.
"We'd all kind of been rambling around on the road, on our own little trajectories, for quite a while, and wound up back in Vancouver," Parton recalls. "I had not been a part of the music scene at all. I'd been living in other towns anywhere but there was where I wanted to be ... I think I just wanted to explore; I guess that's the way it always goes. I'd set my sights for other horizons and really didn't want to be around anything too familiar. I found familiarity boring at the time; now I find it comforting. I'm a pretty adventurous person and I like to see what's around the next corner. But it's good to know that there's a little bed somewhere that's your own, and a little room that's your own it's not a room that has four wheels underneath it."
The Tanyas first "reunion" show was fairly inauspicious, but a great idea nonetheless: With little to lose, the band spent an afternoon busking in a parking lot where the Lilith Fair tour had stopped for a day. Though the Tanyas left with only a pocketful of spare change and a few hash brownies, the group was inspired to continue performing, taking up residence on Vancouver street corners. Eventually, the band captured the attention of two local businesswomen, who promptly offered the Tanyas their first indoor show.
"Our first 'real' gig was at a thrift store," Parton laughs. "They had never had anything like that before. One of the women had heard us playing on the street and asked if we would come play the grand opening at their new store, and paid us in clothes. Out of that gig, we got another gig a house gig every Sunday at a vintage store. It was great. We like to go vintage clothes shopping; it's one of the ways we bond."
The Tanyas got to do plenty of antique-garment shopping in the spring of 2000, embarking on their first U.S. tour in Parton's "big-old, beat-up Dodge van." Typical of the group's DIY ethic, the Tanyas oversaw every aspect of the outing, which found the band seesawing across a patchwork of coffeeshops, clubs and the occasional thrift-store opening. Having worked as traveling musicians in previous capacities, the trio wasn't put off by the rigors of the road.
"I booked it all myself; I did all the publicity myself," Parton recalls. "It was really like the kind of touring I had only known before, which was really seat-of-the-pants, nobody's getting paid, everybody's just getting enough money to eat and the gig money is going towards gas. I actually prefer the kind of touring that we do by the seat-of-the-pants in a way. It feels more real; you feel like you're on the road a little bit more."
Though the Tanyas' first U.S. trek was relatively successful, the band did have to endure its fair share of odd gigs and backwoods crowds along the way. Parton laughs as she remembers the good, bad and ugly times from that tour.
"There were some shows that have been nightmarish, but in a good way, like this gig we played in Ponca City, Okla.," she says. "I wouldn't call it a nightmare, but it was definitely a bizarre dream the people there, the barbecue pit, the big huge racks of ribs that they cooked up for everybody, and the people who looked a lot alike and were very, very drunk, throwing cans at the stage."
Upon returning home to Vancouver, the Tanyas hooked up with Hellenkeller beatmaster Futcher, who was spending a semester teaching college students the ins and outs of studio production. Futcher approached the Tanyas about recording some on-campus demos: The group would serve as guinea pigs for his pupils, the completed demos compensation.
"He thought we'd make a really good class project, because they'd learn a lot about miking different instruments and stuff like that," Parton says. "We started going into his classes once a week and recording. We did that for several months; we recorded a lot of stuff. We weren't really planning to do anything with it. Somehow, we got a distribution deal. A distributor saw one of our gigs and said they wanted to distribute our album, if we ever made an album. So we thought we'd make an album."
To complete "Blue Horse," the Tanyas augmented the student sessions with three weeks of recording at Futcher's home studio. The completed disc was sold at shows, eventually catching the ears of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Canada's version of National Public Radio), which began playing the record on its affiliate stations. Response was immediate: With no marketing or advertising of any kind, the disc sold nearly 10,000 copies. One of those CDs was purchased by the wife of Nettwerk Productions president Mark Jowett, who insisted that her husband sign the band. Within weeks the trio had inked a major label deal.
Currently, the Tanyas are in the midst of their second tour of the United States, this time supported by a record label and promoting a CD that's getting rave notices from music's elite press. Billboard Magazine gushed over "Blue Horse," writing, "It only takes a few seconds of listening to the album to understand why Nettwerk signed the trio." The Tanyas also have been favorably compared with such neo folk notables as Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent, who seem to be musical mentors rather than sources of plagiarism.
"There's a similar spirit there," Parton agrees. "But everybody has to have something to pin you on a frame, some kind of context. So it's gonna be Gillian Welch or Lucinda Williams or Joni Mitchell. And that's all right those are all people I admire. As long as they're not saying we sound like Tiffany."