by Bob Hanshaw
“The story of my winding up in Tucson could fill up an entire article,” says Laura Kepner-Adney, and it may well someday. For now, here’s the story in a nutshell: she studied vocal performance at Oberlin Conservatory, and began living in Tucson in 2006 after courting southern Arizona for some time. Within a few short years, she had founded two of the city’s most visible female vocal groups of the last decade: the folk ensemble Silver Thread Trio and the rock band The Cordials.
Both groups are distinguished by the intricacy of their vocal writing, for which Kepner-Adney can claim much of the credit as she is responsible for writing or arranging many of their songs. But they each represent a very different musical world in Tucson – the city’s folk and rock communities rarely meet so closely. She represents an unusual figure, invested so deeply in both. Furthermore, she has collaborated with a broad segment of the musical “old guard” of Tucson (Howe Gelb, Calexico, Al Foul, Stuart Oliver), and recalls a time when the music community was quite a bit smaller and more integrated than it is now. Though her arrival on the scene was only a few years prior to Brittany Katter’s (from our first #TucsonPortrait-found here), many of her allegiances come from the previous generation of Tucson musicians.
SILVER THREAD TRIO: SWEET DESERT HARMONY
“Well, the person that really helped Silver Thread break [was] Al Foul, who still plays in Tucson, just not as much as he used to.” Silver Thread Trio was originally conceived as a wedding band, so Kepner-Adney and her compatriots Gabrielle Pietrangelo and Caroline Isaacs rehearsed madrigals, traditionals, and other such innocuous material. But Foul “used to do [a show], I think it was on Wednesday nights at The Hut – and this shows just how much Tucson has changed, that this was a thing at The Hut – I think it was called Al Foul’s Variety Show.”
Bands from the community were invited to play a few songs in between segments of Foul’s set. Silver Thread Trio began participating, singing their wedding music to a bar audience. And, according to Kepner-Adney, “We got this incredible response, something that we never expected, from the downtown crowd. We realized that we had something going on that wasn’t happening [elsewhere], that we were different, and people were responding to it. So that was kind of a fire under our asses.”
It does seem unlikely, but the trio’s exquisitely-tuned vocals quickly became a feature of the Tucson folk scene and beyond. They began writing more original songs, or changing elements of the traditional tunes they chose.“In some cases, we would rewrite the melody to make it more suited to the song. Like I took ‘Clementine’… which has this really obnoxious melody, and I rewrote it into something that I felt fit the lyrical story a little better. Because it’s really a dark tale if you hear the entire song!”
And they were discovered by Stuart Oliver of The Dusty Buskers. “[He] really just loved what we were doing, and basically said ‘I’m starting this record label, and I really want you guys to be on it, and I’ll record you for free… and make this thing that I think should happen, happen for you.’”
Oliver’s label, Old Bisbee Records, put out Silver Thread Trio’s debut album. The women recorded it at Oliver’s house, an old miner’s cabin in Bisbee. It took three sessions over three weekends. He did a lot of promotion through his channels at Old Bisbee, which helped put Silver Thread Trio on the map. But over time, they lost touch: “We were the second album on his label, and I don’t know what he’s been doing [since then].”
SUCCESS AND DISSOLUTION
Silver Thread Trio garnered a reputation for pristine harmonies and a dark musicality, which gained them lucrative shows across Arizona. They collaborated with Amos Lee when he came to Tucson, recording backing vocals for a song on his album Mission Bell. They were nationally televised on PBS’s program Live From The Artists’ Den, singing with Lee onstage at the historic Fox Theatre. They had support from Calexico, and members of that band can be heard on STT’s second album Trigger & Scythe.
The trio has recorded with Tucson legend Howe Gelb. Kepner-Adney and Pietrangelo also had the opportunity to play in Gelb’s backing band at one point. “That was really fun,” Kepner-Adney says, “because we got to step out of just being the backup singers for him and actually play instruments too. [That] always makes me happy, because I like to step out of the role of just being the girl singer… That can get a little old after a while.”
All this activity might have led to a stint on the national touring circuit. “We tried,” Kepner-Adney says with a wry smile, “but it wasn’t going to be able to be a reality because of the lives we were living outside of the band.” Isaacs, for example, is the program director of the Tucson branch of the American Friends Service Committee, doing vital work in reforming the private prison system and fighting the humanitarian abuses that occur within it. It’s difficult to keep up a touring schedule and maintain that kind of service. Others found it similarly problematic to make space for touring in their lives.
Silver Thread Trio is not playing any more shows for the time being. “There’s nothing on the books right now,” according to a post on their Facebook page, and Laura herself concurs. “Pretty much now we’re on a semipermanent hiatus… That was seven years of my life in Tucson. And we did a pretty good job, I think.” But it’s no longer her focus: “Now I’m kind of swimming in other projects.” One of these is The Cordials.
LOUD, LOOSE, CAREFREE AND FUN
“It’s been SO different in all the ways,” Kepner-Adney says of The Cordials. The ensemble, which she named and formed a few years after Silver Thread, has made a name for itself as a rock band with a sophisticated touch. Kepner-Adney’s signature vocal arrangements remain, with Courtney Robbins and Cristina Williams contributing this time around. (Drummer Winston Watson also chimes in.) But it’s definitely louder, playing a mixture of pop, surf and grunge that often gets audiences dancing.
“It’s a different kind of fun. Playing loud, loose rock and roll is so different than delicate 3-part harmonies… we have 4-part harmonies in The Cordials, but it’s a more carefree kind of fun.” Kepner-Adney put The Cordials together in order to explore this noisier side of music for herself, something Silver Thread Trio had no room for. “I started writing the songs because I wanted to teach myself to play guitar differently, so I started writing leads.” No longer limiting herself to a “girl singer” persona, Kepner-Adney is a full-on rock guitarist in this band. It’s a refreshing change. She seeks to correct the relative lack of female instrumentalists in rock – and she does a damn fine job of it.
As rosy as it is, there is one small problem for The Cordials: everyone is in other bands. It’s a common issue in a community as tightly-knit as Tucson’s. Robbins is half of Proper Operator; Williams is in The Modeens; Watson is in practically every band in Tucson (most prominently Chicha Dust). Kepner-Adney didn’t realize it when she put the band together, but juggling musical responsibilities has made things a little hard for this group too. Even so, “it [feels] a lot more relaxed.”
THE TUCSON SCENE ADRIFT
Kepner-Adney gets excited talking about the old Red Room-centered scene. “I’ve always felt like the downtown music scene had… this community aspect to it. It happened more so when there were free shows all the time at a place with affordable drinks, which is so rare now, on Congress Street, when the Red Room was open, where you would just go and hang out and meet people.” It was an emotional center, and something of a central pivot around which Tucson musicians would revolve.
“And it felt like a community,” she continues, “the Red Room was a community. For better or for worse! That is gone … I’m still friends with, and engage in musical dialogue with, and booking with, all the bands that I met in that era, and bands that were formed from the same people in those bands… I realize that there’s a whole new generation of Tucson bands that I’m not super familiar with.”
It’s worth noting that the Red Room only closed three years ago, but for many people – not just Kepner-Adney – it marked the end of something like a golden age. “The Tucson scene kind of consisted of the Red Room, Congress, Plush, Solar Culture… through those venues, any given night, you’d find a really great local band playing.”
Kepner-Adney mourns the loss of two more of these mainstays: “Plush isn’t the same place it used to be” without former booker Kris Kerry, who now buys national talent for the Rialto Theatre (Plush is now under new ownership and has changed its name to The Flycatcher). And as for Solar Culture, “It’s more of a public art space” than an active venue. In its rock heyday, it hosted Arcade Fire, Final Fantasy, Man Man, and Animal Collective, to name just a few. It now hosts bands less frequently, and they represent more of the avant-garde, free jazz, world music, “Kirtan [chant]… which is great for people in that community who wanted a space.” But it’s no longer a go-to for local album release parties or touring rock bands.
NEW (AND OLD) ANCHORS
Through all this talk of what has died, Kepner-Adney maintains positivity about the future. The scene is not dead; it has merely undergone a shift.
“It’s cool to see, though I’ve never been there, 191 Toole.” Kepner-Adney respects the all-ages venue’s hard work. “I know that they’ve been booking bigger and bigger shows, and it’s really exciting.” And she is aware of the rise of Topaz, but “there’s no overlap here… I only know who I talk to and who they talk to,” which does not include many in that community. She sees hope for more live music on Congress: “R Bar is trying to maintain a little bit of the Red Room’s aesthetic.”
I asked her about the musicians who make Tucson what it is, and she gave me a list of performers both old and new, and across the spectrum of rock and folk in this city.
Howe Gelb, Calexico, and Katterwaul made her list (Kepner-Adney met Brittany Katter through the Red Room scene). So did Loveland: “Dave Bryan I think is one of the best writers in Tucson. He’s just got this incredible knack for writing the sweetest love songs … [but] never steps over the ‘adorable’ line. And his voice is just so excellent… Whenever he says he’s having trouble, I still think he sounds like a million bucks.”
She praised Run Boy Run, who are probably Tucson’s preeminent folk ensemble today. “They are one of those bands that just kind of exploded… Silver Thread booked them to play our last CD release in 2012, and when we came on stage after they played, I said ‘You know what, this band is gonna put us out of business.’ And they did.”
She laughed after that last remark. “They didn’t really, but we stopped and they’ve just escalated so fast, and they’re doing great… I really hope they get to do it for a long, long time.”
A NOTE ON THE SERIES
I am writing this series, Tucson Portraits, to paint a picture of what Tucson’s music community is today and how it got here. My plan is to write one in-depth profile, accompanied by photographs, every week for a year. Enormous changes will take place even in that span; the scene will be very different between the beginning and the end of this project. But it’s the best I can do.
My interviews are with some of the people who drive Tucson music: people who are the most visible, the most ambitious, the most knowledgeable, the most representative of our town. I aim to cover a broad spectrum – this week’s featured artist occupies a very different musical space than last week’s does, and I am making it a point to talk to people from the hardcore/metal, DIY/punk, and rap/hiphop communities a little further down the line.
Laura Kepner-Adney is a unique resource when talking about the scene. Her local career started right at the heyday of Tucson’s last musical generation, and she is continuing her work as the city ushers in its next. And she is a bridge between the rock and folk spheres in Tucson.
She has other projects going forward, though I can’t talk about them in this space. Suffice it to say, she too is worth watching.
Bob Hanshaw is a writer and musician based in Tucson. He plays bass for Sun Bones. You can follow #TucsonPortraits on Facebook here.