charts, it's becoming obvious that it's mainly a boys' club that is attracting mainstream attention - at least for now. But what of the female acts who are also hoisting the alt-country flag? One of the most promising rootsy women artists in the Americana scene is Underhill Rose.
Featuring the honeyed harmonies of Eleanor Underhill and Molly Rose Reed, Underhill Rose sprang phoenix like from the ashes of another group, the Barrel House Mamas. Because of the effortlessly smooth ways in which their voices blend, the ladies are sometimes mistaken for sisters; while they might not be related, they are kindred spirits, two women bonding over their mutual affection for folk and bluegrass.
Intrigued, I interviewed them both as they are currently celebrating the release of their self-titled debut album.
Where and when did Underhill Rose form?
Eleanor: We met in 2001 at Warren Wilson College and formed Underhill Rose in the spring of 2009, in Asheville, North Carolina.
There are not many female acts in the Americana scene. How does Underhill Rose fit into what is currently a rather male-dominated genre?
Eleanor: Molly Rose and I both grew up with strong, feminist mothers. I think they taught us the value of not seeing gender as an asset or as a hindrance. Over time, we have learned to see that it is, in fact, both! I’m sure that we may be objectified, or not taken seriously, as artists at times. We have found that our female-fronted band, offering songs that say something critical about the world, has been received as refreshing and inspiring. Overall, we get the sense that people see us as purely passionate conduits for music, and that’s what touches them. When we look out at our audiences, we see many ages of men and women.
Molly Rose: As I see it, being a minority can make or break you. I grew up being the only white girl, for a portion of my early childhood, in the Atlanta area. This experience taught me a lot about being authentic and true to myself, regardless of sex or race.
What is the alt-country scene in North Carolina like? Is it more supportive than competitive?
Molly Rose: We can’t keep up with the alt-country scene in Asheville, let alone North Carolina! There are bands and musicians moving to Asheville from all over the country, in addition to “steadfasts” who have been working the clubs for a while. In our opinion, the health of a music scene relies heavily on how the venues and the media treat the bands. We have some great radio stations, as well as daily and weekly papers that highlight the local scene. We also have a plethora of bars, listening rooms, and restaurants that want live music. There is a tinge of competition that comes when, for example, five bands (who know each other as friends or acquaintances) play on the same night. The fact of the matter is that we want to support each other and a little healthy competition helps to keep us on par with our contemporaries.
What happened with the Barrel House Mamas and how far did the band go in terms of achieving success?
Eleanor: The Barrel House Mamas originally formed for, what was to be, a one-time performance at Warren Wilson College. We were all students at the time who had gotten together in a dorm stairwell to practice harmonies. We had such a good time that we kept getting together. Once we all graduated, we decided to give ourselves a shot as a real live band. We ended up touring the Southeast for about three years, “weekend-warrior style”. We each maintained full-time jobs during the work week and hit the road on the weekend. We played venues and festivals as far west as New Orleans and as far north as Maryland. We were also flown to Los Angeles, where we auditioned for the ill-fated Fox TV show, The Next Great American Band. We also released one album, Gathering.
Although we were gaining much success, it was difficult to gauge when we should “quit our day jobs” and take the gamble on a full-time music career. Having a 9 to 5 job and then spending all of our free time either practicing or piled into a Subaru was exhausting. At the time of the breakup, we were a bit jaded and tired. Plus, we all had personal issues to tend to. It became divisive.
Molly Rose: It took a little while for the “Molly Rose and Eleanor faction” to recover and rest. After a few months had passed, we decided to continue making music. We had a lot of unrecorded material, we sounded great, and we worked well together. At that point, we realized that we had an amazing opportunity to make a new and uniquely fresh sound. So, Underhill Rose was born.
What are the group's musical influences and how do they contribute to the band's sound?
Molly Rose: I was more exposed to church and gospel music at a young age, while Eleanor’s childhood was surrounded by show tunes and ballads. Otherwise, we both grew up listening to The Beatles and classic rock, like a lot of other people in our generation. We both listened to Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, as well as harmony-based groups like Trio (Emmylou Harris, Linda Rondstadt, and Dolly Parton), CSN&Y, and Simon and Garfunkel. In the '90s, we began listening to the budding hip-hop scene and R&B. In high school, Eleanor enveloped herself in Phish and The Grateful Dead. At that point, I was getting more deeply acquainted to folk and singer/songwriter music.
Eleanor: I think we have our parents to thank for the firm, diverse foundation of music that we both grew up with. By sheer chance, our influences are quite similar. All of those influences have fused together with the mountain music we discovered at Warren Wilson College. The vocal harmonies that pull from the early days of listening to Trio and folk music, combined with the powerful vocal melodies of R&B, are very apparent. These days, it all comes down to a great melody, good lyrics, and heartfelt singing.
Molly Rose: It’s also important to mention how lucky we were to grow up during Lilith Fair, which was one of the first female featured national tours. It gave us positive role models for playing music.
Who is the group’s primary songwriter?
Eleanor: We both write songs for the band. In the beginning, I would write a lot more than Molly Rose. I would normally have her in mind to sing the lyrics as I wrote them. I have always felt like we had a sort of Townsend-Daltrey relationship. But, as we have progressed and gained experience as musicians, the process has switched. I am singing more and Molly Rose is writing more. We’ve each gained confidence and efficacy in the aspects that used to be our weaknesses. I think that it is very important to continue to challenge ourselves as artists, so that we don’t become bored or overly co-dependent.
What are the band's current goals?
Molly Rose: We are committed to always being artists. We are currently planning the Underhill Rose tour for 2012, which includes playing venues and festivals around the Southeast. We also hope that this tour includes being an opening act (we would love to open for acts like The Avett Brothers or Mumford & Sons). We are also adding our friend Salley Williamson on upright bass. She should help us hone in on a third harmony.
Eleanor: For our fans…don't worry, Gary Oliver will be staying! He will be playing drums and guitar.
Do the members have day jobs to stay afloat while in the band? If so, how does the band juggle such a schedule?
Molly Rose: Oh, yes. Right now, we do have other jobs that require our time. This keeps us playing “weekend warrior” style. Obviously, it requires a lot of dedication and planning to stay focused while we work as much as we do. However, we’re keeping our spirits bright and excited. We look forward to a future where we can focus on our music 100% of the time.
What does the band hope to acquire with the CD?
Eleanor: Our plan is to build a fan base. We hope that our music will garner radio airplay and that people will go to our website, buy a CD, and come see a show. We are so proud to finally have a product that authentically represents us.
Molly Rose: Incidentally, we are also are in the process of forming a foundation. A portion of Underhill Rose’s performance proceeds will benefit two distinct causes: agricultural education and school gardens, along with global humanitarian efforts. Currently, part of our performance proceeds go to a project called Community to Kenya, which is one person's quest to expand awareness about issues of displacement in Kenya. It also teaches sustainable farming methods. So, anyone who supports us will be supporting these causes.
Eleanor: It’s really simple: we’re drawn to music because of its ability to portray the human experience. We hope that our album touches people and that they truly enjoy it. It is our way of contributing to the world.