In a studio in Athens in March, Liz Durrett sat still on a couch. She held a notebook and listened. Musicians recording on her new album clattered, spoke, joked and cooed over a friend's baby attending the recording session. Violins looped and curlicued from the other room. Durrett's voice came clear through the speakers, while she sat on the couch and paid attention.
"It sounds really clean," she said. Eric Bachmann, the former Archers of Loaf frontman in town from North Carolina to produce Durrett's new album, leaned back from his computer, turned around and said, "Oh, don't worry, we're gonna dirty this up."
That's one of the main appeals of Durrett's music – its balance between the ethereal and the terrestrial, drawing from both the sacred and the profane and firmly rooted in Southern Gothic traditions.
The first two Liz Durrett albums – 2005's Husk and 2006's The Mezzanine, both released on Athens' WARM Electronic Recordings label – solidified her spare songwriting and hushed, reflective moods. Durrett's voice is dusky and husky, the sort of thing that draws comparisons to Feist or Regina Spektor, and her minor-chord-heavy tunes establish an intriguingly melancholic atmosphere.
Outside Our Gates (WARM Electronic) doesn't break the mold entirely, but it does play around with formula. "Wild As Them," for instance, is as close to an upbeat pop song, complete with synths, horns and lyrical choruses, as Durrett has come. She says she's lately been taking the audience and her backing band into account more while writing, thinking about how a song will play, and whether it'll be fun to play it.
"Basically it was just trial and error," she says of past songwriting, notoriously light on memorable choruses. "What came out came out. Sometimes I'll try to write a chorus – people like a chorus, right? Maybe it's just how my brain works. I don't know what that means for me; maybe it's just linear or disorganized or something, but there's no forethought in there. I just try to let things come out however they come out."
Durrett met Eric Bachmann – who produced Outside Our Gates, wrote the songs' arrangements and played on a few tracks – three-and-a-half years ago when she opened a few dates for his Crooked Fingers project. But it took this long for the two to start working together. WARM label owner Brian Causey, formerly of the band Man... or Astroman?, facilitated the collaboration, and his label released Outside Our Gates Sept. 9.
"I think Brian always wanted to get Eric and I together because he thought it would be a good partnership," Durrett says. "I've been kind of scared to do that in the past, because I was afraid that I would lose control and it would go somewhere I didn't want it to go – I don't know why I thought that – but I'm really glad that I got over that and did it, because it was so much fun."
Durrett is a soft-spoken woman, but often jokes about her downbeat music. During her first interview for her first album, she says, the interviewer's tape recorder kept cutting out even though she was speaking. It was set to conserve tape and automatically shut off when the noise dropped below a certain level. And though her music reflects her quiet nature, she opens up considerably onstage, her airy voice all the more forceful, plaintively stressing open and extended vowels.
In fact, the regular structure of performing and touring is the aspect of being a musician in which Durrett finds the most comfort. "I really like being on tour. I like to work. I like to sit down and have time to write songs, but I like having a job to do every day. I like that aspect of being on tour. Your job as a musician is really clear-cut at that time, whereas when you're at home writing, you're kinda like, 'What am I doing? What am I supposed to be doing?' You get confused about whether what you're doing is going anywhere or making a difference, but when you're playing shows you get immediate feedback from people and you see that there is worth in what you're doing. Instant gratification, I guess."
She's also found support from a steady group of friends and backing musicians. Her uncle Vic Chesnutt appears on Outside Our Gates, as do numerous Athens musicians from bands such as Ham 1 and Tin Cup Prophette, who also serves as her live backing band at this week's show at the Earl.
It's that community of quick friendliness and easy support so characteristic of the Athens scene that was on display as Durrett recorded the album back in March.
Located in engineer Andy Baker's home, the studio sat on a tree-lined street near a bus depot. Friends discussed drum tracks and sounds, but also the merits of coffeepots and difficulties of sink installation.
For a single-minded musician whose early work sounded intimate but also isolated, Durrett pushed herself to embrace collaboration. As a result, she's found herself with her strongest album yet and a stage show that grows livelier by the day.
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