Close Harmony

Kieran Kane and Rayna Gellert find a third voice

Kieran Kane and Rayna Gellert were both booked to play at the 2015 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, unaware they were on a course to a new chapter in their careers.

“I was out there playing with [songwriter] Scott Miller and I saw Kieran playing with [his son] Lucas, Kevin Welch, and Fats Kaplin,” Gellert says. “I was blown away and gravitated toward Kieran’s sensibilities and his playing. I recognized immediately that he thought the same way I did musically.”

Kane adds, “We started talking after the show and she seemed quite convinced that we should do something together. At the time I only knew about the old timey side of her music, but she sent me a couple of songs she’d written and they were really great. At that point I thought maybe we could do something.”

Since that first meeting, Kane and Gellert have cultivated their musical partnership with songwriting and accompanying each other on respective solo recordings, as well as recording and performing as a duo. The Ledges, their first album of duets, was released in early 2018, and they continued their creative partnership on their new collection, When the Sun Goes Down, released in March on Dead Reckoning Records.

Both Kane and Gellert partially built their individual careers by collaborating with other musicians. Kane was a member of the 1980s hit-making country duo the O’Kanes and more recently has been with the Americana supergroup, Kane Welch Kaplin. Gellert was a member of the all-female old-timey band Uncle Earl and has worked on a variety of projects with other
musicians. But despite past travels on the collaboration highway, both quickly realized there was a unique quality to their musical partnership.

“We sat down and wrote one song,” Kane says. “We found the pocket pretty quickly in terms of the rhythmic groove. I’ve worked in duo-esque situations back to my days in the O’Kanes, but this is different. What we’ve been able to do together is rooted in traditional music, but it also feels very new to me.”

“I have loads of friends who co-write all the time, so I knew it was a way people can function,” Gellert says, “but I was totally new to co-writing and it was kind of scary for me. Some of our first songs came out on Kieran’s EP [Unguarded Moments from 2016] and some wound up on my EP [Workin’s Too Hard from 2017]. But we kept writing and pretty soon we’d piled up enough songs that we said, ‘I guess we’re making a duo album.’”

In addition to the songs, the pair soon found their shared performances were creating a sound and atmosphere very different from their individual work. This unique and different voice called for something outside the usual recording procedures.

“We wanted to avoid what Rayna calls the Red Light Syndrome — having someone hit a record button in a studio, the red light goes on, and the attitude is ‘let’s make a record!’” Kane says. “We wanted to remove all that. So when we recorded the first album, we did it in New York at my lake house. We set up a studio in the living room, and if it was going great we’d keep going, and if it wasn’t, we’d go for a swim in the lake or play some golf. There was no pressure to get it done in a set amount of time. The clock wasn’t running.”

Working with simple recording gear and simple instrumentation of just fiddle and guitar, mandolin or banjo, Kane and Gellert recorded the basic tracks in New York and brought the bare bones recordings back to Nashville for mixing.

“The recordings were really raw and to be honest, hard to listen to,” Kane says. “But if everything was in tune and the groove was good, then we thought it would be fine when we mixed it. We have a great engineer, Charles Yingling, who I’ve been working with since he was a baby. He was able to take what we were doing and clean up the edges a little bit and it sounded amazing, but at first he was doing too much engineery stuff and it just wasn’t working. When we listened to the first mix, we were both like, ‘What happened?’”

“He was scooping out too many things from the mix,” Gellert says. “I texted him to warn him that we were going to have him make a lot of changes, and he texted back, ‘I’m already doing it.’ His wife had the same reaction we did.”

Released in February 2018, The Ledges drew rave reviews from critics for its lean but powerful instrumentation, sharp and skillful songwriting, and stately vocal harmonies. Writing for No Depression, critic John Amen said, “The Ledges, taken track by track and in its entirety, exudes a seductive magic.”

Even better than critical praise was Kane and Gellert’s discovery that their collaborative well continued as a source for more music. Before the end of 2018, they began work on a follow-up record, When the Sun Goes Down. Although the album was recorded in Kane’s Nashville living room rather than a secluded cabin, little else changed.

“With The Ledges we were still concerned about things like, we need more fiddle or more banjo,” Gellert says. “With this one, we were more confident about letting it be what it was. We were still feeling our way through what we were doing as a duo, but this one feels so muchmore settled.”

“On the first record we were pushing and pulling a lot,” Kane says. “I think this album is less thoughtful and more instinctual, and the songs are more cohesive. When we were sequencing the album, there were several times that the songs (as recorded) flowed perfectly into the next, like it was the next chapter.”

Both Kane and Gellert agree the ability to trust instinct over intellect has been the key to their collaboration, both lyrically and musically.

“I’ve also been more experimental in our duo than in other settings,” Gellert says. “My background is in old time fiddle music and the way I use the fiddle in this setting is different from anything I’ve done before. I’ve used mutes and clothespins to change the tone of the fiddle and working with Kieran affirms my most minimalist instincts. I’m not afraid to hang out on one note for a while. I may have the same instincts with my own work, but I always seem to talk myself out of it.”

Kane adds, “This is much more than the duets I did with the O’Kanes or what I’ve done with Kane Welch Kaplin where it wasn’t duets but more like swapping songs back and forth. The combining of our voices makes it bigger, almost like a third voice is being created. I was listening to a track recently on an iPhone. The music was coming out of that tiny little speaker and it made me think of something you’d hear on WSM from the classic days. It was just the two of us, but it felt and sounded like a whole band playing. It was almost like an out-of-body experience where you say, ‘Is that us?’ I’ve worked with really great harmony singers who can come into the studio and really match the timber, accent, and phrasing of another singer, but it still sounds like someone singing harmony. What we’ve been able to capture is pretty unconscious.”

That blending of two voices to create a uniquely powerful and passionate sound has a long tradition in country music from Sara and Maybelle Carter stepping up to a microphone in a make-shift studio in Bristol, Virginia to Ira and Charlie Louvin cutting devastating songs of love and loss on Music Row. It’s a form of musical alchemy that Kane and Gellert continue to practice.

“I laugh sometimes because I was so insistent at first,” Gellert says. “Kieran was not playing much at the time we met, but I said, ‘I have to be doing something with you.’ I recognized a shared wavelength and I’m so happy I was right.”