The Milk Carton Kids are a folk duo from Eagle Rock, California who formed in 2011 when Joey Ryan heard Kenneth Pattengale singing Memoirs of an Owned Dog (the lyrics are from the perspective of a dead dog) and was so taken by the song that he introduced himself after the show. Weeks later a song swap followed during which they realised that their combined voices blended so well together, as did their vintage guitars (of which more later) and the duo, we know today, was formed.
The pair has since played some 300+ shows, touring in support of more established musicians such as Old Crow Medicine Show, The Lumineers, The Punch Brothers, Josh Ritter, as well as headlining in their own right. When Sara Bareilles, the Grammy nominated singer/songwriter tweeted ‘Do yourself a favour and pick up the Milk Carton Kids. Wow!’ social media came in to its own and many who were previously unaware of their music soon became admirers.
Pattengale and Ryan have built up a loyal following playing to packed and attentive audiences and released three albums. "Retrospect" (released under their own names) and "Prologue," both issued in 2011, followed by "The Ash & Clay" earlier this year. The first two albums were offered for free and fans have downloaded in excess of 185,000 copies. The latest album is on the independent Anti- label which is renowned for allowing musicians complete artistic freedom – something, that as I found out during my interview with the pair, is so very important to them.
Prior to combining as a duo, Pattengale and Ryan had each forged solo careers, releasing a number of EP’s and albums without breaking into the mainstream yet their collaboration has stirred a great deal of interest on both sides of the Atlantic. The Milk Carton Kids have garnered many plaudits, enjoying successful showcases at the prestigious SXSW festival, national airplay on BBC Radio, appearances on A Prairie Home Companion in the US and a nomination in the Emerging Artist of the Year in the 2013 Americana Music Awards. Three songs from THE ASH & CLAY, the title track, Snake Eyes and The Jewel of June were included in the soundtrack to Gus Van Zandt’s 2012 film Promised Land starring Matt Damon and Francis McDormand.
The Milk Carton Kids’ close and haunting harmonies have drawn comparisons with Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, and the intricacy with which Pattengale plays his guitar has been likened to that of Dave Rawlings – high praise indeed. Whilst these comparisons, when meant in a positive way, are very flattering, the duo stress that they have not been conscious influences. I therefore explored their influences and Pattengale told me that he had been a student of classical music for twelve years and when you watch and listen to him play guitar you can see how this training has helped develop his picking style. Growing up, Pattengale spent a lot of time listening to big band jazz and Django Reinhart before moving on in his mid teens to focusing on songwriters like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Joe Henry and Gillian Welch. He started writing songs about fifteen years ago but feels that he “didn’t get good until six years ago” to which Ryan retorted “and that’s debatable!”
Ryan told me that he isn’t always entirely comfortable speaking about his musical influences because he struggles to articulate a coherent narrative. In his formative years, he seems to have engaged with music in phases and through developing obsessions by listening to the same album over and over again for months on end. He was influenced by his parents’ collection of music – rock and roll and folk from the 1960’s/1970’s. Throughout school he experienced music passively through what friends were listening to and feels that his knowledge is not as deep as it might be, but he knows every single second of 30 or 40 albums like the back of his hand. A particular favourite is Iron and Wine (Sam Beam) and he admitted to being “starstruck” when following Beam on stage during a SXSW showcase. "The Shepherd's Dog" released by Iron and Wine in 2007 is one of Ryan’s musical ‘obsessions’.
Pattengale plays a 1954 Martin 0-15 guitar, acquired on ebay; he ties a white handkerchief around the neck – it has become something of a trademark - and when asked the reason for this, explained that being an instrument of some vintage, he gets a buzz above the top fret so ties the handkerchief around to dampen the strings. Ryan plays a 1951 Gibson J45. He’d heard many Los Angeles based musicians play Gibsons from the era of the late 1940’s/early 1950’s and felt that the guitars always sounded ‘right’. As such he coveted one because it was how he wanted his playing to sound. One day, seemingly from out of the blue, he received an email asking him: ‘What is your dream guitar?’ Thinking it was from a reporter asking a question only to find that this ‘reporter’ was a fan who then purchased the guitar as a gift to Ryan. That was around 2008 and he’s not played any other guitar since!
At times during the interview, Pattengale and Ryan bickered with each other but it was clear that there is deep sense of underlying affection between the pair. When I enquired: ‘How do you write?’ Pattengale responded: “Like this! It’s a f*****g nightmare!” ‘Arguing all the time?’ “Pretty much!” ‘Who has the final say?’ “We both do!” They agreed early on in their collaboration that in order for a song to leave the room they both had to sign off on it.
Their first album, "Retrospect," was a re-working of songs written individually and previously released on solo outputs. It was almost as if they were saying ‘goodbye’ to their previous individual careers. As they prepared to tour behind this album, they found themselves writing new material, discovering the processes that were to forge what has become a productive writing partnership. Those new songs became their second album PROLOGUE. Both albums are evocative of their gentle and minimalist approach based around two voices and two vintage guitars.
Their most recent release, "The Ash & Clay," sees them engage with an America going through some tough times. Whilst it is not a concept album, it has more of an outward focus than their earlier material and is finely nuanced between despair and hope. Their delicate harmonies and timeless lyrics have had reviewers levelling high praise (Maverick gave the album 4 stars in the May/June 2013 issue) and fans clamouring for tickets to their live shows.
I wondered what it was that the Milk Carton Kids felt had been responsible for the intense level of attention received in such a relatively short space of time and they both agreed that it was as a consequence of their relentless touring. Anything good that has come to them has been as a result of their live performances whether that be from the people who find them, support them or people they end up working with. During a show they feed off the mood and energy of the audience quickly establishing a rapport – Ryan in particular has an extremely droll sense of humour and their between song exchanges are witty and full of good natured teasing. The summer of 2013 sees them taking the stage at folk festivals throughout the US and Canada as well as some further dates opening for Josh Ritter once again.
I was fortunate enough to attend their debut sold-out London show in April at St Pancras Church during which they played two sets to a highly appreciative crowd. It was their only UK date on a whirlwind European tour, but the good news is that they are returning for more dates in the UK and continental Europe in September. They enjoy playing in churches or church like venues; the acoustics are usually excellent and the settings lend themselves so well to their kind of music – contemporary folk yet steeped in tradition, simple but complex, honest and truthful. All three Autumn dates in the UK are in church settings and they promise to be nights when their exquisite harmonies and musicianship will be complemented by the affection between the pair and the funny man (Ryan)/straight man (Pattengale) dynamic. The shows are bound to be sell-outs!
Fundamentally, the Milk Carton Kids are after making beautiful music and writing honest songs. Pattengale said that if he can manage to be happy with achieving those two things then he would be able to “sleep at night”. They want to make something sound beautiful even if the point of the story in the song is to communicate some other challenge or feeling or emotion; “We don’t ever sacrifice making the music sound as pleasing as it could possibly be”. Jela Webb
This feature was first published in Maverick magazine, September/October 2013 issue. (Available August 2013; see www.maverick-country.com for details of subscriptions etc.)
Photo by Brendan Pattengale