It’s All Happening….
I first (partially) meet up with the band Ivy, Beck & Neill and it’s principal members Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Neill out on the laid back city streets of Park Slope in Brooklyn. Ivy and Neill are both leaving work on this particular late season evening, and the plan is to drive over to Beck’s studio “The Refuge” in Gowanus to tour the setup, talk a bit about the band’s debut release Live at Rockwood Music Hall, as well as delve back into the history of what brought this tightly tuned trio together.
Think of it as two parts tell-all, and one part gentle mediation.
Anyway, after some debate about our plan for the evening (and a stop to a McDonalds and gas station later), we arrive at Refuge Recording in the ex-industrialized Gowanus area of Brooklyn with plenty of necessary equipment in tow. Quality beer being right at the head of that list (it’s an excellent interview aid after all).
Shortly after Beck lets us in and shows us up the stairs, through a bustling apartment of lights, activity and a nearly movie theater quality projector screen, and into a small yet charmingly assembled studio space. It’s nearly the complete opposite mood of what we walked through just moments before, and at once feels as peacefully contemplative as it is creative. Looking around I notice how instruments of all shapes and sizes fit in neatly like stacked puzzle pieces against hardwood floors, monitors, a comfortable couch and enough tech to keep any musical gearhead salivating.
From that point on it was easy to break the ice and ease into our back and forth for the evening after initially comparing notes on small town living, the cost of upright bass players, potential podcasts, and debating the gig the group had played the evening before. Oh, and figuring out who the person was that had even brought us all together in the first place. But that’s another story.
Introductions & New Beginnings
Once the floor had gotten past it’s opening banter for the night, it was time to discuss what makes this band tick. Namely, what were the origins that took three individual musicians and made them into the fluid country/folk Voltron Transformer that they are today?
Well according to Ivy, IB&N was initially started as a backing band blueprint to further her solo career after cutting a record down in her hometown of Nashville at the time. She had already known Beck following some previous musical excursions together, and Neill was a friend of a friend coming courtesy of another local Brooklyn musician named Jamey Hamm.
With a show for her solo material fast approaching and the need for a band imminent, Ivy got together with Beck and Neill at Refuge with the idea being that Beck would play (along with a drummer and bassist), and Neill would sing backup as she tended to do with a lot of area bands. However when the initial trio came together the first time to simply rehearse vocals, they found not only an immediate sense for harmonies, but also an existing electricity in their unison that extended well past a simple backing band and it’s solo artist.
Or as Ivy succinctly put it, “We just nailed it.”
And that “it” quickly turned into deciding to create a song together that very first night. So as they sat together writing on the floor of Refuge (allegedly aided by a fair amount of whiskey), both Ivy and Beck were taken aback when Neill was gradually coaxed into revealing an excerpt of a gorgeous song idea she’d been holding onto previously called “Blame It On The Whiskey”. And while it was initially thought that Ivy would sing it as a part of her originally planned show after it was complete, as time went on the only vocal that worked on the cut was Neill’s.
Listen to “Blame It On The Whiskey”
As Ivy explained it, “The way that she sings that song, you believe her. And while it meant something to us all in a different way as we wrote it together, it was her initial story that it came from and was meant to come from her voice. And it just made it so, the way she sang it was the way it was meant so be sung. And that was the first time I’d really felt that in a collaboration before.”
Beck adds, “It was the first moment it felt like we were a group”.
Having written lyrics in large part since high school, Neill was well-versed in the subject but was discouraged in the years after by the amount of writers around her. Thus, she only considered herself a singer and would simply make audio recordings of her lyrical ideas that would get gradually discarded. Fortunately “Whiskey” was one of her then-latest that not only led to it being the first song of IB&N’s infancy, but also proved to be an outlet where Neill’s unexpected writing skills could freely flex their creative muscle.
Music & The Ties That Bind
It became a full fledged writing addiction after that for the newly forged group, as a later full-band noodling around session led to delving into Beck’s personal story and the creation of “If You Ever Leave Me”. The song features each of the trio on lead vocals separately dealing with some post-breakup blues (“I like that those lyrics truthfully came from our separate stories”, Neill says), and if nothing else one of the greatest things about listening to the band talk about their process is the amount of real, honest-to-god backstory.
Take a listen to “If You Ever Leave Me”
There’s so much honesty infused into everything they do, both lyrically and emotionally.
As Beck describes it, “Our songs are like therapy sessions for us”. And that immediately becomes evident as the three describe early writing sessions that “might take other bands an hour” stretching into five or six as they would not only write, but bond over the experiences that led to each new song’s respective creation.
“It was the year of a thousand tears”, Ivy jokes, but behind the humor is a sincerity and a deep familial connection formed between the three as a result. That same connection and therapeutic sense of catharsis hangs heavily on their Live at Rockwood release as well, though that didn’t come without it’s fair share of learning in the process and growing pains felt both together and individually.
“We had our dark moments, but it’s nice cause it’s not fake,” Neill says quietly, “It was all part of it, cause we’ve all seen the bad sides of each other. That’s part of the beauty of when the good times are great, because it makes the good times that much better.”
For Ivy, it all came down to learning to let go. “It was really difficult for me because I’d been doing solo work for such a long time, and I’ve had bad collaboration experiences in the past. I love collaborating. It’s just easier when you can control everything yourself and you don’t have to worry about playing well with others or having to mutually decide what direction a song is going in. It was difficult to relinquish control and trust we were all going to go in the same direction at some point and trust that we all had the same goal for the song. Which was honesty and vulnerability and that sort of magic which makes it something different that people need to hear”.
Afterwards we talk about the defining musical influences for the band, and that sense of relinquishment and need for mutual connection comes up again in Ivy’s love of Patty Griffin. “The first time I heard Patty Griffin I thought to myself, ‘I want to write songs that make people feel what that made me feel like'” she says, “and that’s kinda carried me through and played a part in every song I’ve ever written. You just don’t know if they’re gonna get that along with you, but I’ve been lucky enough to find people who have the exact same goal in mind. And that control got easier to let go of, the more I got to know them.”
For Neill it was the opposite issue, as she’d never really had that type of platform before or the freedom to really state what she wanted her goals to be musically. “Trisha always says I was never jaded about the process. I’m just always grateful, ya know? I guess for me the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do is songwriting. And despite the two of us being women songwriters in music, we’ve never clashed over that because we’re two totally different sounds and styles. I think that’s why we work together, because we aren’t trying to do the same thing and we’re still not the same.”
Where’s a Music Nerd When You Need One….
While when it comes to Mike Beck, his more cloudy swirl of influential sounds seems to coincide well with his role as the musical glue holding the trio in place. At first he mentions having parents who were into listening to musical theatre, and as a result growing up around a lot of the Great American Songbook.
“He loves piano bars,” Neill jokes.
But then he mentions really being a quote unquote “music nerd”, who traveled through a big phase of blues (and playing in blues bands), covering James Taylor’s Greatest Hits on his 4-track in high school (“the first time I was really moved into playing folksy sounding guitar”, he explains), and having a deep love of classic rock.
A deep love.
“Almost every single time we bring up a song and start writing it, Mike will play the chords and then go into a classic rock song,” Ivy says, miming Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”, “Oh, this song but it’s also this song!”
“Well you guys do seem to write “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” a LOT”, Beck retorts jokingly.
All joking aside though, Beck is musically trained with a degree from Berkley and has a strong instinct for bonding composition and arrangements to the lyrics of both Ivy and Neill.
As Neill explains, “One thing I feel so fortunate to have is that if I ever have an idea for a song, I’ll ask Mike what he thinks and he’s so talented instrumentally that he quickly takes that idea and makes it into the beginnings of a song.”
“He just has a vision for where a song should move. It’s really nice to have.”
It’s quite an interesting relationship in that way for the three, as Beck laments being “too technical” at times and having perhaps a bit too much musical education when it comes to working on new ideas for the band. While on the other hand, Ivy admits that it’s nice because it helps keep she and Neill working within a logical hemisphere of music when they need to be “wrangled in”. Eventually they often just meet in the middle anyway.
“I’ve sort of learned how to understand what their weird ideas are through the lens of what people are used to hearing”, Beck says.
Ivy adds, “He kinda basically makes our ideas that we can’t musically make happen on our own… happen. He’s the Bridgeman. He just loves making music, he’s the quintessential producer that way. That’s how his mind is geared, and that’s a lot of what you hear in his work producing Live at Rockwood.”
The Science of Production
And when referring to Beck’s inner “music nerd”, there was no bigger moment to see it emerge then when he lit up talking about Rockwood and those very production aspects.
“So… well Rockwood is such a fancy venue, Ken Rockwood spares no expense in making the place sound beautiful and having the best gear,” Beck says, “So not only can they get great sound but they have a fancy rig up in the back to record shows with. So if you pay like $100 or something they’ll just press record and put it on a thumb drive and give it to you.”
“So I got that, and it sounded pretty good but it’s live so it’s not perfect. But after doing some tricky stuff with my gear here (as he gestures to the consoles) I could just sorta goose it up and make it sound polished and pro. The hard part is that all the drum and bass parts are in all the vocal mics too, so if you do anything to the those or vice versa… it all becomes sort of a juggling act. Fortunately there are ways around that.”
He continues, “Initially the thought was we were going to use the bare bones of the recording and build stuff or fix stuff to make it sound more like a record. But in the end we just ended up using what happened that night, cause it was more than good enough. All it really came down to was technical and audio fixes to make it sound full and like a record, but like it was still right in the room where you could sense the audience and that big space.”
When The Willow Stops Weeping
After a bit more bantering with the band (and another beer or two being passed around) we once again go further into the emotional depth of the record, and arrive at probably one of the most poignantly meaningful exchanges of the night. At first, it begins with favorite songs for each of the band on the Rockwood release.
For Neill, “To be honest, my favorite of all the songs are the slower sad ones. Like the ones that get real honest. While the other ones are fun I would cut them out entirely if I could. The most upbeat one I enjoy is “Texas”, but it still starts the way that I like best. It just always feels right.”
Adds Ivy, “I think that “Texas” is probably my favorite song on the record too.”
And Beck chimes in, “I love “Blame It On The Whiskey” because it was our first song together, and it makes me love you guys. And I love “Play Me A Record”. I think it’s just very well constructed from a songwriter-y perspective. But I also love “One Day at a Time”, because the slow stuff is really where we’re at our best.”
Listen to “Texas” & “One Day at a Time”
But truthfully the best may still be yet to come for this trio song-wise, especially when I pose a question to Ivy about an older song of hers called “Weeping Willow” and it’s recent sequel “When The Willow Stops Weeping”. “When The Willow Stops Weeping” is a bonus track that originated after Rockwood was finished and has not yet been formally recorded. But the story behind it makes needing it in the world that much stronger and more deeply essential.
As Ivy explains it, “Weeping Willow was the first song I ever wrote with Brian Elmquist. I wanted to learn how to play guitar, he wanted to write songs, so I suggested writing songs together and he could teach me to play guitar. That never happened, we just ended up getting carried away in writing songs together instead. And I had just been through a heinous breakup, and as a songwriter I’d kinda written some…. stuff. But I had not yet figured out how to write what I was going through in the moment. I could write how I wanted to with things that had happened in the past, but if it was happening to me now I couldn’t do that.”
She adds, “I would give Brian most of the credit for pushing and teaching and pulling that out of me, because I had gone and sat under a willow tree in Park Slope and just written pages and pages of lyrics and all this stuff to do with this breakup. And, I got into this writing session with Brian and flipped past it. But he got it out of me and pushed me into being able to open and unlock that door in my songwriting. And so we wrote Weeping Willow.”
“Fast forward to now and a few months after cramming for the Rockwood record. We were exhausted and had taken a month off. We were burnt out essentially. And we were doing a bunch of shows later to play out the record, and some friends of ours had things happen. Two stories basically, the first being my little cousin dying in an accident, which wrecked my whole family. And my grandmother had died in the last few years, my brother had passed…. it was just a lot of heavy losses in my family. And it was just too much.”
“And not being with my family (back in Tennessee) I couldn’t go to the funeral, and just knowing my family was falling apart and not being able to be there…. and then, a couple of friends of ours Kanene and Katherine had their friend from college kill himself. And them just kinda sharing their story with us and how hard and swift that had hit them… out of the blue. They had no idea. And all of that kind of happening at the same time… my family had gotten together at the time. And my cousin’s Mom asked me to write a song following her passing.”
“I was anxious about it because we weren’t very close and I didn’t really have a major connection with her, but after a while this other stuff with our friends came up and I just started thinking about it all over again. Family, friends…. people who had lost. That can’t be replaced, and how sad life can be. And when we first started writing the song, it was really depressing. I mean as it starts out, but I feel like we had come to a certain place and a maturity in our songwriting where there was still hope.”
Neill interjects, “You have a chance to speak life into people. You’ve been given the platform of the stage and you can use it for whatever you want. But you have a chance to speak life…. to do something for somebody that’s true and good. And leave them with some kind of hope. And that’s like the best feeling in the world.”
Ivy continues, “It was that way with “Texas”, and “With The Willow Stops Weeping”…. it started out just sadness. And then we decided where we wanted it to go.”
“The Lord binds the broken, he won’t leave you the same”, murmurs Neill, quietly singing a line from “Willow”.
Ivy concludes, “And writing a different story, and a different ending. That song is one of the most honest things I’ve ever written. It’s definitely very true to how my life is completely different from what it used to be. Different from the darkest of times, and that song in three or four minutes was just the way of telling someone else the story of my life. And how everything was taken, and somehow…. I was able to see that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Not everything good has to always end.”
Sit and behold a live Rockwood version of “Willow”
Fun With Stupid Questions…. And The Road Ahead
And that was like listening to a statement that puts all other statements to shame with it’s power and sheer… soul-wrenching honesty. Eventually though (much like what I’d been talking with IB&N about all night) we did emerge from that emotional darkness and ended the night on something a little lighter.
Namely, the Stupid Question Lightning Round. And while that may seem, well, stupid, I ended up learning a lot from the fine folks in Ivy, Beck & Neill. Such as there being a majority preference in the group for the Rolling Stones over the Beatles, that dragons held the vote over zombies in which was more awesome, that Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Elliott Smith were top choices in favorite 90’s bands, that no one particularly cared for either the Mets or Yankees, which Jonas is Beck’s favorite (Joe… it’s a long story), and memories of Michael Jackson’s death that either evoked great stories or no recollection at all.
Or an MJ joke that I can’t repeat here in print.
Hint: Garfield wasn’t responsible.
But all in all, it was an evening of great storytelling, music, and something that by the end felt less like an interview and more like friends sharing equal dosages of their light and dark in how they got to this point.
As Neill put it as our interview was winding to a close, “ I wanna do music for the rest of my life. It’s more than therapeutic, it’s like-“
“-becoming who you were supposed to be. That this… was always going to be.” Ivy finishes the thought, and ends it on a note of stark truth that rings equally strong for the both of them.
And as for LP number two?
“We’ve got about five or six songs up our sleeve” Neill says, adding with a laugh, “It’s just too much fun!”
And if it’s one thing I learned this night at Refuge Recording as I later leave and head back out into the quiet of a New York City night, fun is a big part of when you’re around these three.
Too much fun, indeed.
Photos are courtesy of a variety of sources including myself, Mara Schwartz (for whom I dedicate this piece to), and bits and pieces from the band. For more on Ivy, Beck & Neill search them on Facebook, tweet their Twitter, and buy their record on Bandcamp, iTunes, and any sensible retailers that digitally carry “Live at Rockwood Music Hall”. Available now.