If you wanted to write a modern, southern fairytale, maybe you’d start it like this.
The first time Andrea DeMarcus, a classically trained bassist, met Dave Kirslis, he had been hopping freight trains around Georgia and South Carolina, and hopped off in Atlanta, where DeMarcus lived. They would go on to form the rootsy, jazz-tinged folk duo Cicada Rhythm together, and to also become romantic partners.
But not right away.
“It was not love at first sight,” Kirslis says. “At least not for her. I think she was a little bewildered. I was pretty much covered in dirt and grease from head to toe. But after that, we stayed friends and eventually began to play music together.”
As Cicada Rhythm, DeMarcus and Kirslis draw from their very different musical backgrounds to create a distinctive, imaginative sound that can’t be pigeon-holed.
DeMarcus started playing bass in her public school orchestra and went on to take private lessons, and then study bass at Julliard.
About her experience at Julliard, she says, “It was really hard, really competitive. I loved playing with people. That’s one of my favorite things, and so when I did go to college that was the one part of it that I loved. I got to play with hundreds of different people at the same time. And it’s awesome to know that so many humans have played that music in the past and they will in the future, but it didn’t allow me grow creatively.”
It was after she graduated from Julliard that she met the train-hopping Kirslis, who had a very different musical background.
“I was just really into roots music,” he says. “From an early age I was always really into guitar. My mom was an Irish immigrant and she was really in love with American music, so she was always playing Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, that kind of stuff. And my dad was from the jazz world. He played jazz piano. I was always hearing him play Thelonious Monk and stuff. My dad picked up a guitar off the side of the road. It was broken in half, and he fixed it. I would just bang on it all the time as a kid.”
After high school, Kirslis frequented Northside Tavern in Atlanta, and followed the bluesy bands that played there, including King Johnson, led by Oliver Wood, now of The Wood Brothers. Kirslis approached Wood about guitar lessons.
“At the time I was pretty poor, so I suggested ‘hey, I’ll do work for you.’ There were a couple lessons where I paid him and a couple lessons where I’d do work around the house. I pulled weeds.”
In Everywhere I Go, the follow-up to their self-titled 2015 debut album, DeMarcus and Kirslis expand the scope of their music in more ways than one.
They describe it as a “patchwork album,” because it was recorded in so many places. They recorded much of it in producer Kenneth Pattengale’s (of the Milk Carton Kids) home studio in Nashville, and then recorded some songs in Nashville with Oliver Wood, who Kirslis remained friends with long after his weed-pulling days. In addition, they recorded some of the songs in Georgia, including in their own house.
The album is sonically diverse as well. “Scared Straight” features jazz-influenced vocals by DeMarcus. “Where the Dogwood Dies” starts, a Capella, with a melody that hints at a traditional Celtic tune, and then shifts to a mournful waltz for the chorus:
Are you happy now? Where have you gone? Are you happy now? Have you become a roving soul?
“Shake Up,” “Out Alive,” and “Do I Deserve It Yet?” veer into rock territory, a major step away from the spare, acoustic sound of their first album. This change was not without controversy.
“There was definitely a lot of arguing about the drums,” DeMarcus says. “We spent the whole time convincing our drummer and our label and our producer that we needed to have this certain drum sound.”
On Everywhere I Go, the drums are a voice, not just an accent, as they had been in the band’s first album.
DeMarcus says, of the drums, “It didn’t need to be an accessory; it needed to have its own identity and presence. We hope our fan base accepts the drums as much as we love them.”
The influence of Pattengale shows up most prominently in “Roses by My Side,” where he plays an acoustic guitar part that will be recognizable to Milk Carton Kids fans—long, sweeping lines that serve as a melodic counterpart to the vocals.
Kirslis says, “That part’s one of the loudest things in the mix. For me, it really makes the song. It’s so happy and really breezes through all the chords.”
“We were honored that he even wanted to play on our album,” DeMarcus adds.
“Kaleidoscope Rose,” written by Kirslis, stands out for its dreamy, fanciful lyrics.
There once was a man who tinkered with gears / He built a machine that would take back the years / But one day he went missing, and no one knows why / If I had my guess, I’d say he was ready to die / Oh Lila, do you miss him now that he’s gone? / How could you be with a man who’s already gone? / And if he could come back, tell me why come he don’t? / They say he had a garden with a kaleidoscope rose / Tropical ferns in symmetrical rows / Though he kept to himself, how long isn’t quite clear / But rumors tell stories of heartache, lovers, and tears.
It sounds like the kind of song that was inspired by a book or movie, but that’s not the case.
Kirslis says, “That song was really just way out in Dave’s brain. It’s a story that I made up. I was house sitting for this family I used to help out in Atlanta and I had this massive room and I would just play guitar in there. It’s basically just a story about a guy who would travel through time. And he falls in love with this woman. But then the narrative shifts to the woman’s perspective and he was no longer there, and, if he could really travel through time, why is he no longer here? It’s kind of sad. What’s the line in the chorus?”
DeMarcus supplies it for him: “If he could come back, tell me why come he don’t?”
“It’s kind of a ‘cry in your beer’ song,” Kirslis says.
About the line “why come he don’t?” DeMarcus jokes, “Yeah. We don’t use right English.”
Kirslis says, “Kenneth kept on bringing that up during the vocal takes. ‘This song’s all about some hillbilly truth.’”
The whimsical video for the opening track, “America’s Open Roads,” is a DIY analog animation that they put together with the help of several artists, some technology and a really old roll of paper.
“My dad picked up this huge roll of paper from the side of the road,” Kirslis says. “It was thick, like a tree trunk. It’s been hanging from our garage for like 30 years. I was always like ‘We’re gonna figure out something to do with that.’ For this video we hired like eight local artists–students and artists I was fans of in Athens–and we gave them 10-foot segments. We got them to draw long roads, whatever they wanted to do, and then we glued them all together and built a machine that spun it. We used Arduino. It’s like a circuit board that can control motors. Yeah, it was way too involved. But it looks cool. As the paper’s moving, the camera’s just focused. The paper’s moving by and the magnet’s holding the van in place, so it looks like the van is driving.”
It’s a rolling landscape, literally.
“Andrea drew one of the segment and I directed it,” Kirslis adds.
What is black but the absence of light / We’re all the same, shapes inside the night / Don’t depend upon the sense that fills in all the blanks / Hear the welcome winds that carry all the seeds of change and blow / Down America’s open roads.
Pattengale plays a jaunty melody on a Hammond organ on “America’s Open Roads.” It endows the song with the feeling of a playful yet purposeful adventure, propelling the travelers through America’s sometimes dark and ominous landscape, determined to find hope along the way.