Music often opens the door to a magical reality — an avenue between the seen and unseen worlds. It taps into worlds of emotion, experiences both known and unknown.
The aptly named band Bermuda Triangle, formed by Brittany Howard, Becca Mancari, and Jesse Lafser, lives in another world, little more than an idea — primarily due to its current ghostly existence. There has been one true gig, and there is no recorded music ready for release. A few gigs this fall in other cities are being discussed. Bermuda Triangle is the phantom proof of these three women’s creative alliance. And they are clearly the best of friends.
When like minds approach music together, the collaboration can lift it into another world. And this particular side project for the Alabama Shakes frontwoman, and the two other singers and songwriters, is full of promise if little more than a beautiful belief at present. Flashes of the three performing at The Basement East in July have given reason to believe.
“We’ve known each other for a while, and all of us have our own projects going on, and we never intersect,” Howard says from a table on the back porch at Mickey’s Tavern, where she sits with Lafser and Mancari. “[When we’re working] it’s the most important thing at the time. Like, we have the friendship and we’re all musicians, and I’m not sure why it took so long. It just happened. Like, why aren’t we singing together?”
There is a broad definition of folk music in which it may encompass all things from deep country to the seething street. And these three are onto the extension of that story, that conversation around the human condition. They are in the process of making real music that can resonate.
Howard, of course, is the undeniable force that leads Alabama Shakes, a band that has turned much of the popular landscape on its head with a distinctive, hard-charging brand of rock and soul. Howard, electric guitar in tow, and the Shakes have been leading a thoughtful Southern revolution within the ranks of popular music.
Mancari and Lafser are two artists cut from modern Nashville cloth; with Mancari originally from the East Coast, and Lafser originally from St. Louis, they have rooted themselves in a scene here that reveres the rock club and the honky-tonk. And while that scene, anchored in East Nashville, seems so new and fresh, it emerges from the deep and rich DNA of this town.
Drinking in broad daylight seems to affirm some clarity for the three. There’s a communal feel to their discussion. “I came here about eight years ago for the music,” Howard says. “I came up from Athens, Ala., about an hour-and-a-half south of here. It started happening more frequently, and I made a lot of friends here. I started working with Andrija Tokic at The Bomb Shelter and made our first [Alabama Shakes] record here.
“I would get called up here, and do backing vocals and whatever, and it was very exciting to me,” she continues. “I started coming up more and more — like four times a week — and I eventually got tired of sleeping in bathtubs. You know, I used to sleep in Margo Price’s basement — anywhere I could hole up. Then I finally bought a house here about four years ago, and just started hanging out with this bunch [motioning to Lafser and Mancari]. And life’s never been the same.”
Lafser and Mancari also felt the pull of Nashville’s gravity. “I came to study psychology at Belmont in 2006,” Lafser says. “I had a music minor, so I did classical guitar, and that’s how I learned all the finger-picking I do today. I made Nashville home after college — and live part-time in Taos, N.M.”
Mancari notes her own trip. “I’m from a serious Italian family,” she says. “Nashville is still kind of foreign to them. They think it’s very old-school country. But when I think about it, it’s like I always knew I was going to come here. It kind of haunted me. I moved here after traveling everywhere . . . and I realized I should come to my haunted place. I just drove in with my guitar and my bags — and I thought it was the worst decision I ever made for the first few months. I’ve been here five years now.”
The hastily organized gig at The Basement East was Mancari’s brainchild, after the three had agreed they should be playing together in some fashion. They performed to a packed house in support of She Shreds magazine, the lone publication devoted to female guitarists and bassists. The trio featured Howard on acoustic guitar and stand-up bass, and Mancari and Lafser on banjo and acoustic guitar. A drum machine offered low-key support, as they offered a harmony-laden set with cool and soulful underpinnings. Songs of emotional longing and reflection hung over the club — which happened to lose its air conditioning for the entirety of the night.
“Our instruments were going out of tune,” Lafser says. “It was charming, and the crowd was so receptive. It was exotic.”
“It was a sweat lodge,” Howard says. “It was crazy.”
Crazy or exotic, the set confirmed the group’s magnetism, and it created a shining landscape for each artist to explore new channels. When Howard performed the new and fragile song “Short and Sweet,” with Mancari and Lafser blending and bending to the heart of it, the magic was apparent. The fundamental line squeezed into the world — “There is something between us” — defines the power of these three.
“Things came together so quickly,” Howard says. “For me, it was about songs that I had written that didn’t fit anywhere else at the time. I was really inspired by these two girls. I used to go over and sit on Jesse’s porch, and they would just pass the guitar around. I would never have anything. I want to be able to do that. It’s such a simple thing. I was so busy touring and playing, I had forgotten to write. And so I had these two songs, and I said let’s do these and it happened.”
Lafser, whose approach has always been driven by a devotion to lyrics, cites a rejuvenation with her involvement in Bermuda Triangle. “We each brought two songs to the table,” Lafser says. “I’d written a couple of new songs that people hadn’t heard before, so we just started working on them in preparation. . . . These ladies have brought me back into doing what I love to do again. I kind of stopped playing music and lived in Taos for seven months — didn’t pick up a guitar. I’m creating again now.”
Mancari feels the idea of Bermuda Triangle might flourish through trust and collaborative work ethic. “I can only speak for myself, truly, but I’ve never met two other artists I can trust so completely,” she says. “Their work ethic is like something I’d never seen. We worked real hard [preparing for the gig]. We want the songs to be strong, but at the same time, we’re finding the way to let go. The second you stop caring so much is when the thing takes off.”
Howard echoes the sentiment. “It’s a peaceful place to work,” she says. “That’s the beauty of it — to learn the instruments in this amount of time and to learn how to work with each other. With the new instruments; with the drum machine; with the banjo — not being silly, but not caring that much, that was really freeing. It actually relieves a lot of the pressure of being a musician and trying to make it.
“In my case, people are looking at me and saying, ‘Where’s the new music?’ Stuff like that — you know, sometimes you just want to make music because you like to. This trio — that’s the situation I got to be in. It’s fun. It’s exciting . . . but within that framework of being scared of failure, you kind of just say ‘I’m good.’ ”
The bond among the three is genuine. You can sense the energy and the desire for community when they are together. “We all kind of inspire each other,” Lafser says. “When we come together there’s this magic. I’m inspired by the community around me, and I’m grateful for the community of friendship around me. I think people have been so receptive because it’s been such a contrast to what we’re doing. It’s refreshing, and that show was amazing. It was an incredible night for all of us.”
There is a comfort of place and time that seems to hold them all together. Nashville is a gathering place, after all. It has been for ages, from prehistoric times to present day, a place to gather for sustenance. It has been a special hunting ground for men and animals alike, and today’s harvest is the dream. Look around — this town is full of creatures stalking the dream.
But instead of falling prey to the stress of competition, these three embrace the community of the creative spirit. Writers. Singers. Musicians. Creators of all stripe run to the river for its power and its comfort. In letting go, they are holding on. The spark may be found anywhere.
“I went to the American Legion last night,” Mancari says. “I walked out of there with my girlfriend, and we talked about how it’s a special thing in our life to be around — how it is inspiring to be around a lot of people that care about what they do. It can also be suffocating — when people are desperate or disillusioned. That’s why I love what we’re doing, because we’re such individualists and communal at the same time. It’s something I’ve always wanted.”
The others nod in agreement. They are making one another stronger from the ground up, from the fundamentals of their individual songwriting to learning how to play new instruments. Newfound strength is liberating.
“It kind of alleviates — it’s kind of like it doesn’t matter what happens,” Howard says. “It doesn’t have to pay the bills. It’s not a serious thing, but in the same respect, I really love it. It’s very important to me as a creative person. Imagine you make music as your job. I don’t think about it that way, but it is. You know, I go on the road and have to perform those songs at a certain level — so to have another outlet on top of it. That’s what it is for me, like a writing gig and I can have real fun with it. I don’t think pressure is the right word, but being inspired is nice.
“It’s an avenue for me. There’s still the Shakes, and there’s still that music. It’s just when I write the different types of music, and it doesn’t fit there, then I have someplace for it to go. Leaves the door open, you know.”
That doorway has become a place for a building buzz. Rolling Stone magazine referred to them as a “one-off supergroup” following the show at The Basement East. A few drinks in, and you get the impression that Bermuda Triangle is more than a “one-off.” It’s about a way of living, rather than a straight-line drive to the bank. No one is here to alter their own individual identities. Here, within the Triangle, they are focused on making their artistry better.
“Words are very important to me,” Lafser says. “So, I feel that what I do is always very lyrically driven. But these ladies have opened my mind to more vibe and sound. I’m constantly trying to strip down what I do to say something profound in the shortest way possible. I’m a word person. I consider myself a writer first, and guitar player second. That’s kind of changing.”
Mancari echoes the recognition of change. “I [recently] worked with a song we had written together, and I heard a part that I would never have heard if we hadn’t been working together,” she says. “And if I wasn’t in our group and listening to the music I’m listening to right now. I’ve been inundating myself with sound. I think of myself as a writer first, too — I don’t consider myself a great guitar player or anything like that, but my band has even noticed a difference in my approach. I’ve been trying different things.”
Howard enjoys the visceral experience of working out something new and being inspired by it all. “If you’re going to be a creative person, then it feels good to the brain and the body and to your existence to be creative,” she says. “So if you’re working so hard you forget to visit that part of yourself, then you don’t feel good. That’s part of being a creative person.
“As writers, we all inspire something out of each other. Jesse is very much a wordsmith, and so that inspired me to be better. Having three harmonies and a voice as beautiful as Becca’s, that allows me to do stuff I never thought of. We’re playing like traditional instruments so there’s a folk element to it — and I’m not very familiar with those things. We’re just storytellers, and I like that. We all know we can do our own thing, but this is welcome, this is changing me.”
Beyond the buzz, and beyond Bermuda Triangle’s potential, is a foundation of friendship and camaraderie that inspires them. It is the best part. In fact, it is the true heart of the matter.
“I think the beauty of it is the freedom and friendship we have — it’s all helping us individually,” Lafser says. “I’m working on a record, too, so the timing of it is very nice.
“We wrote this song together called ‘Bermuda Triangle’ and there’s a line in there about how we were in a past life together — we were soldiers. That song is us.”
Mancari has a new record, Good Woman, due out in October. Lafser’s record, Tomboy, is being mixed, with a release date yet to be determined. And of course, Alabama Shakes are the Alabama Shakes. But as a group, Bermuda Triangle is into discovery and letting it unfold naturally. Collectively, they are trying to tap into something deeper than themselves, individually.
“It feels that way,” Howard says. “The camaraderie. There’s an old understanding between all of us that I can’t really explain. There’s a kinship — a trust that’s kind of beyond . . . it seems inevitable. So we’re here now. In Nashville now — that’s just where we are now. That’s just where we met this time.”