We decided to start a band together because we look alike,” Raelyn Nelson says and laughs, calling from band rehearsal in Nashville.
Nelson, a Nashville-based artist and the granddaughter of Willie, is talking about her latest project, mmhmm, a duo she started with lookalike and fellow local musician Hannah Fairlight. Playing together since just December 2016, the duo is already poised to be one of the breakout stories of the year — they may not have music out yet, but their spirited live shows have earned them a local following and the support of tastemakers like roots radio station WMOT.
Nelson and Fairlight are musical yin and yang, but mmhmm started with a mix-up. “We had mutual friends, and that’s how we met,” Nelson explains. “We were hanging out in the same circles, and people started confusing us for each other a lot. I would go to the bathroom even, and Hannah would come back and someone would be like, ‘So-and-so says to tell your grandpa hi.’ ”
While mmhmm has played venues like The Basement and City Winery and events like WMOT’s solar eclipse viewing party, they don’t yet have recorded material out in the world. As they explain, though, that’ll change soon enough, as the pair hopes to get an already in progress debut album released — ideally with a record label partner — by December of this year.
“We are recording a full album with Brad Jones,” Fairlight says. “We have two songs finished, and we just did four more. We’ll probably be finished by October. We plan to release it by Christmas.”
“Yeah, our goal is to get all of that done within a year of us starting the band,” Nelson adds. “We started in mid-December last year so we thought it would be really cool if we got it out in a year, if we could do an album a year.”
Though Nelson and Fairlight have different musical backgrounds — Nelson plays left-of-center country rock with Raelyn Nelson Band, while Fairlight cut her teeth on rock & roll and reality television — they quickly found more to bond over than their similar appearances.
“We meet in the middle over bands like the Runaways and Joan Jett,” Fairlight explains. “And some outlaw country. I like a little of that, too. But I’d say Raelyn has more of a country background and I have more of a rock/alternative background. We come together there, and the songs just happen really naturally.”
The two artists also share similar ideologies and aren’t afraid to get political in their songwriting. In early August, they headlined an educational benefit at City Winery for the Tennessee Cannabis Coalition, a statewide cannabis advocacy organization for which Nelson sits on the board. Both she and Fairlight hinted that politics — “girl power, feminism, animal rights, environmental rights, cannabis rights,” as they put it — would play a role on mmhmm’s debut LP.
“We went to the Women’s March in D.C. and marched and wore our chaps,” Fairlight says. “Raelyn brought a ukulele, and I brought an accordion, and we sang ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun(demental Rights).’ That’s been a special part of our band. I feel like we are politically charged.”
Nelson and Fairlight are serious musicians tackling serious subjects, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a good time, too, as anyone who’s caught one of their banter-filled live sets can attest. (“We’ve been called a modern-day Hee Haw,” Nelson says with a laugh.) Their debut album, then, is sure to mix thoughtful observations and playful levity in good measure.
So what’s mmhmm all about? Nelson sums up the band’s philosophy pretty well: “There are no ‘no’s’ in mmhmm.”