Blood Harmony. Whether it’s The Beach Boys, Bee Gees or First Aid Kit, that sibling vocal blend is the secret sauce in some of the most spine-tingling moments in popular music. The Cactus Blossoms – Minneapolis-based brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey – offer compelling evidence that this tradition is alive and well, with a deceptively unadorned musical approach that offers “creative turns of phrase, gorgeous harmonies, and an ageless sound” (NPR All Things Considered), not to mention spine tingles aplenty. Their 2016 debut You’re Dreaming, a stunning and transporting collection of original songs, earned high praise from Rolling Stone and Vice Noisey, tour stints with Kacey Musgraves and Lucius, and a perfectly cast performance on the third season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Now their unlikely rise continues with new album Easy Way (out March 1), to be released on their own label Walkie Talkie Records.
While many bands would have been content to stick with the winning formula of their debut, the Blossoms refused to repeat themselves. If You’re Dreaming celebrated their vintage country and rock influences, Easy Way reveals a songwriting style that has changed, evolved, and gotten more modern. Dan Auerbach, another artist who knows from bedrock influences, co-wrote two songs on the album. “Dan’s love for songwriting was inspiring, just the kick in the pants we needed to start writing again after being on the road,” says Page.
The brothers’ decision to produce the new album themselves no doubt led to the new sound. “We wanted the freedom to experiment with our own weird ideas,” says Jack, “We used to joke that the working title album should be Expensive Demos.” As they crisscrossed the nation on tour, the brothers would stop through Alex Hall’s Reliable Recorders studio in Chicago to chase the new sound they were after. The result joins together what would otherwise be distant corners of the American songbook. Both the traditional twang of Chicago pedal steel guitarist Joel Paterson (Devil in a Woodpile, The Western Elstons) and the primal wail of free jazz saxophonist Michael Lewis (Bon Iver, Andrew Bird) are at home on the album. Just as they did with their debut, the brothers found a voice all their own.
The path they took to finding that collective voice is an unlikely one. Though Jack, Page and third brother Tyler who sometimes joins the Cactus Blossoms on guitar, grew up in a musical household, they never took much of a shine to singing as kids. Jack and Page’s first love was graphic design, and they were disciples of Milton Glaser and Paul Rand before falling under the spell of Dylan or Guthrie (they still have a hand in all the band’s artwork). It wasn’t until they moved away from home in their early 20s that they got, in Jack’s words “sucked into the folk music vortex,” and discovered the natural musical gifts they possessed.
Things progressed slowly, but just as surely, doors began to open for The Cactus Blossoms. There were early dates with Nick Lowe and JD McPherson, followed by an opportunity to tour with Kacey Musgraves and vocal virtuosos Lucius. “Every night Jess and Holly [of Lucius] would invite us up to sing ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’”, says Page, “Just the four of us around a mic with an acoustic guitar. It was our favorite part of every night.” After You’re Dreaming was released, The brothers found themselves playing prestigious stages from Newport Folk to Lincoln Center.
When the call came for them to perform their signature song “Mississippi” on Lynch’s Showtime reprisal of “Twin Peaks”, it was the latest in a series of signals from the world that they were exactly where they were meant to be. “Being on the show was an experience like nothing we’ve ever done before yet it was oddly comfortable,” says Page, “We’ve played so many bars like the ‘The Roadhouse’ on the show that in some ways it felt like any other gig.”
But the joy of finding that elusive sound and the thrill of the improbable journey isn’t lost on The Cactus Blossoms. “Had you told me seven years earlier when I was busking on the street, that I would have some of the experiences I’ve had with my brothers since, I would’ve thought you were insane.”
Photo credit: Nate Ryan