The Be Good Tanyas don’t like to record any song that they can’t duplicate live.
“We’re lazy that way,” says Samantha Parton, who along with Frazey Ford and Trish Klein make up the Tanyas.
What Parton calls laziness is really just another way of talking about how these women strive for authenticity as they create folk-roots tunes that hark back to the Americana they all love. Their focus is on harmony and vocals, with Ford and Parton both taking vocal lead, and multi-instrumentalist Klein giving each song a distinctly old-time feel.
“We’re not really into the back-up singer thing,” Parton says.
Parton and Ford began trading harmonies right from the start. They met planting trees in northern British Columbia. “We would sing at night,” Parton says. Parton had sung with her twin sister for most of her life; Ford had done some singing with her mom — so harmonizing came naturally to them both. In that straight-out-of-a-folk-song setting, they sang mostly old tunes from the 1920s and 30s.
“We’re a little obsessive when it comes to music,” Parton says of their love of roots music. “I like to follow the evolution of a song. The way different people approach it.”
On their latest album, “Hello Love,” you see this love reflected both in the band’s original tunes and in the songs they’ve chosen to cover. But “cover” seems like the wrong word — “reinterpret” feels better. After all, these are songs the Tanyas have fallen in love with playing.
“We wrote a lot of original songs for this album,” Parton says, “Some of them are on here, but we ended up going with some of the cover songs that we really loved. We really like doing songs by people we know.”
Maybe, like me, you hadn’t heard of Sean Hayes, whose 1993 tune “A Thousand Pieces” takes on a haunted feel with Parton sweetly crooning it. Or how about Jeremy Lindsay? Ford gives his “Scattered Leaves,” about the end of a relationship, an almost sultry treatment that makes you imagine the person on the other side of this song living in a world of regret over losing her.
When she sings, “Scattered leaves don't lie / Aw' now baby, baby, quit your cryin' / like everything that ever mattered, scit-scat scattered” you know that relationship is over.
And what’s especially wonderful about these two cover tunes is that they make you want to go back and listen to the original versions, which Parton says is part of the point of doing covers — to give that song its own life. A cover song can mean different things to her on different days. “I sound sad on the version [of ‘A Thousand Pieces’] on the album,” she says. “At other times I’ve felt more joyful singing that song.”
Their own songs can sound even more authentically Americana than some of the covers. “Ootishenia” with its lines, “Bust apart ah we lose each other / The constellation of my sisters and brothers” feels like it could be from another age — the banjo, especially, takes you right back.
Both Ford’s “A Human Touch” and “Hello Love” seem to reflect the optimism of a new mother — she had a baby during the break from the band’s last album and this one. The first song is almost teasing in the way Ford sings, “Yer so busy frontin’” and urges the other person to stop trying to fool her into thinking he’s not human. “Move me,” she and Parton both urge in harmony. They go on to sing, “Won’t you shake it like you've never done before?” And there is something about being urged by two women to shake it that will make you want to.
The strangest tune on the album, a cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” came on a day when Parton was sick and Klein and Ford were inspired by Jeremy Lindsay’s band’s love for Prince. “We haven’t played that one live yet,” Parton says.
Ultimately, harmony is the power of the Tanyas. Parton admits that their recording process was a bit disjointed this time around, primarily because they came off a long break and hadn’t been touring. It was difficult to start cold and try to create inspiration.
A sign of a great band always seems to be their preference for playing live rather than working in the studio, and this goes double for the Tanyas, who, Parton says, like their shows to have a “living room” feel. And though they don’t encourage it, they always feel good when they look out in the audience and see people singing along.
“Everything’s starting to come together,” Parton says of their current tour. Sounds like yet another perfect harmony.
For more information on the Be Good Tanyas, visit: http://www.begoodtanyas.com.