The American Southwest is filled with visions of grandeur and mysterious animalistic howls and cries that leave one thinking the final frontier has yet to be fully explored.
That feeling is sort of like discovering a new band for the first time, which often can turn into an exploration just as fascinating. Especially when it involves a charming couple of Nashville-based singer-songwriters known as Escondido. They grew up nowhere near the land of cacti and coyotes, yet grabbed hold of that region's aesthetic to make lovely and spellbinding tunes.
With a splendid gem of a debut album almost five months behind them and a solid schedule of summer tour dates on the horizon (including the Ride Festival in Telluride this week), Jessica Maros and Tyler James are making the most out of the two-heads-are-better-than-one adage after creating Escondido in the fall of 2011.
"We just sort of self-released (The Ghost of Escondido) ourselves and to see the response it's been getting has just been really kind of a positive thing for me to realize, even when we're in a different time now, that an unsigned band can really make a movement without the help of other people," Maros said over the phone from Nashville on July 1, days before heading back on the road.
Tyler James Geertsma, who simplified matters as a performer by dropping his last name ("I'm not trying to hide from it or anything"), had been a solo artist, versatile musician and frequent collaborator. He played with Ten Out of Tenn and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, completing a bucket list item as a keyboardist with the latter when they appeared at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2010. But he put everything on hold almost from the moment he heard -- and decided to record -- Maros singing "Rodeo Queen" on the night they met in late August 2011.
Closing in on the two-year anniversary of that moment, James optimistically envisions this collaboration lasting "forever" after exceeding initial expectations.
"You don't expect to have those kinds of opportunities without any muscle behind you besides yourselves and your little laptop," he said, referring specifically to Escondido's national television debut on Conan in April that was a right place/right time situation. Almost simultaneously, Conan O'Brien's booking agent read about the duo in Garden and Gun while Maros' friend, Nashville record shop owner Mike Grimes, was making a pitch to Team Coco.
Of course, Escondido's music had plenty to do with it, too. Though she was raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, the home of Canadian canary Sarah McLachlan, Maros' seductively cooing vocals are more of a blend of '60s Nancy Sinatra and '90s Hope Sandoval.
Providing the power, James often kicks off a song with a striking blast from the same trumpet he's owned since he was a fifth grader in Orange City, a town of about 4,000 in northwest Iowa that he said is "pretty much like a streetlight and a couple of blocks." They probably didn't listen to a lot of The Lonely Bull there, but Herb Alpert's south-of-the-border brass, um, knuckles must be stored in the Geertsma household somewhere near Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name trilogy.
Their mutual interests in spaghetti Westerns, cowboy art, antiquing and dark, haunting melodies paved the way for an original genre that has been described as something "desert sex would sound like."
They both laughed at the vivid image that presents. After Maros tried her best but stumbled during a detailed explanation about how their "music has this sort of sexiness to it," James quickly changed the subject, saying, "Let's just delete this last paragraph."
Mission accomplished, but there was no sense of tension that requires counseling for newlyweds who know when the honeymoon is over.
"We're each other's mediators," Maros joked when asked if they have a go-between during heated moments. "Like it's really weird. We get over things really fast."
If there was any doubt about their status outside the music box, they made it clear -- but not until they were asked -- that Escondido is strictly business.
"We dated for a time, but no, we're just in the band together now," James said. "When we started the band, we were just friends. We weren't dating or anything when we were making our record. ... We're best friends now, like an old married couple or something."
Sounding like a rare pair who can complete each other's sentences, they shared a good laugh before Maros declared that they are married only to their work, and that neither of them have time for romance with each other or anyone else.
"Everyday we work at it. It's 24/7," she said. "We're eating and breathing and living this life. ... Right now the focus for me is just the band."
Ever the good humor man, James threw the punch line: "And my focus is just finding true love."
While the search continues, happy days are here again for Maros and James (left). Both were left unfulfilled by solo careers while practically living separate but parallel lives in Nashville, even recording different EPs by the same producer.
Said Maros: "I remember Tyler's posters way back in the day," around 2005 or '06. "I never really knew him but I saw his poster."
Added James: "We weren't friends or anything, but we both have vague memories" of coming across each other's music.
James arrived first in 2000, enrolling at Belmont University as a business music major, then interning at EMI (where he became friends with Nate Yetton and his wife Joy Williams, still half of the Civil Wars with John Paul White despite their recent internal strife). "I was kind of a deer in headlights when I got here," James said.
He slowly saw Nashville's indie music scene grow beyond country, from a couple of bands such as Jason and the Scorchers and Guster-precursor Joe, Marc's Brother into a happening hotbed aided by the presence of Jack White and the Black Keys.
Maros signed a development deal with Nettwerk, was sent to Nashville "about eight years ago" and paired with so many different songwriters that "I guess I was just losing my own voice. ... I just didn't like the direction I was heading in and the songs that I was writing."
With a passion for fashion, Maros designed clothes and jewelry, and some of her dresses have been worn on the Academy Awards red carpet. She still makes jewelry pieces sold at the band's merch table, "but I like to keep it just for us. Now I'll alter Tyler's clothes."
And while they're determined not to be "this flashy costume band," Escondido appears in all-white suits for special occasions such as the recent video for the dreamy "Cold October," the song they sang on Conan.
James rented -- then purchased -- his formal attire from La Casa Del Mariachi in Los Angeles, and Maros made hers with friend Lynn Lesher, who is responsible for Dolly Parton's glitzy wardrobe.
"It really is like another form of expression of our music when we do wear them," Maros admitted. "It is really special. I really do feel I get into sort of this character when I put on my one-suit."
While the music career was temporarily on hold, Maros and fashion gal pal Leanne Ford worked as designing women, taking styling trips to exotic locales like Costa Rica. When they weren't on the job either at home in Nashville or away, they would write -- poems by Ford, songs by Maros.
"You know, Leanne was sort of someone that kind of made me believe in myself again," Maros said. "She's really this inspiring spirit. We sat down and she's like, 'Jess you really should be singing again. Like this is your thing.'
"There's just a few people that you feel comfortable around. I was sort of like a closet songwriter and singer. ... I just didn't feel comfortable about it. I guess maybe the environment I was living in, I just didn't have the people or the surroundings, the safe place. ... So Leanne kind of sat me down and I felt really comfortable with her and just sort of started writing."
The pair cowrote a number of songs, five of which (including "Rodeo Queen," with "my man in his Wrangler jeans" who's a loving machine) would later appear on The Ghost of Escondido, alongside three more with James. But Ford was just as valuable as a matchmaker -- bringing Maros and James together two years later.
Though the trio share a mutual friendship, James described Ford as "pushy" in her email attempts to get him to meet Maros. It was in late August 2011 when Ford was making a Christmas demo at James' home studio, and she wanted Maros to sing on it.
"So I went over there and hung out and I'm like, 'Oh, this is a new crew of people that I've never met before besides Leanne,' " Maros recalled. "And then Tyler was recording the song and Leanne was like, 'Jess, play him 'Rodeo Queen,' play him 'Rodeo Queen.' "
Before the night was over, Maros had a copy of that recording -- with James playing the bass and drum parts on his laptop. She went home and thought, "Whoa, I've never met anyone that could record my songs this way ... like this is how I've been hearing it in my head the whole time and no one ... everyone always changed it and took it into this completely other direction. ... And Tyler really nailed it."
James was similarly smitten.
"Jessica, which I've come to know now, she's a really driven girl and really doesn't mess around and gets stuff done," he said. "And she started playing me the songs and I was like, 'Man, this would really be great.' Because I wanted to make a Southwest-inspired record. I had been listening to a lot of (Italian composer Ennio) Morricone and a lot of that kind of stuff. ... So we kinda knew there was something special right away. ... Whatever else we were doing went to the wayside."
Within a week, they held their first pre-production meeting for what was going to be Maros' next solo project, with James producing.
If she was nervous about the opportunity, Maros didn't show it. But memories of being the spurned teenage girl who always wanted to be one of the guys and join a heavy rock band but never could because "I had this sweet little voice" lingered.
Meanwhile, James was having a few second thoughts, too:
"Should I hold back and save these ideas to further my own solo career?"
Then Tyler unselfishly popped the question to Jessica in early September 2011 at Sam & Zoe's, a Nashville coffee house, and it didn't involve signing a prenup.
"Would you consider being in a band with me?"
For Maros, that was far better than a marriage proposal.
"I fell into this solo thing because no one ever really asked me to be part of a band," she said. "And I've always wanted to my whole life. In high school, I was always that girl that hung out in the music room that always wanted to be asked to be part of that but no one really ever asked me."
Escondido was born. It had nothing to do with the city that's about 30 miles north of San Diego. The Spanish word meaning hidden remained in James' head as a favorite choice for a couple of years just because it "sounds like a good band name."
The Ghost of Escondido was recorded live on Oct. 17, 2011, at The Casino in Nashville, with Evan Hutchings (drums), Adam Keafer (bass) and Scotty Murray (electric guitar), then released on Feb. 26, 2013. They've already completed writing far too many songs for their next record and will begin narrowing them down when pre-production begins at a rented cabin in Grand Lake the week between the Ride Festival and the Underground Music Showcase in Denver.
Maros and James have hit the road in a Volkswagen SportWagen along with his brother Grant Geertsma, who plays bass and keys and usually occupies the backseat with the rest of the band equipment. When it doesn't involve supporting Lord Huron, they will add Hutchings and guitarist Brandon Walters to their lineup for Telluride and other selected dates, with aspirations to eventually become a full band, full time.
As much as they like other musical duos, it sometimes takes more than two to make this alt-country-and-Southwestern act function.
"With the Civil Wars, they've sort of created this, financially wise, it's very, very easy and clever to go out just as a duo and kill it without a band," Maros said. "It's just like the beauty of what they do. And for us, I would love ... I picture us ... I think we're just really a band."
And now that they have a team, including Austin, Texas-based manager Amy Lombardi (Neko Case, Kelly Hogan), James believes there will be less pressure placed on each other's shoulders.
"I think we get in fights when we think the other person is like taking over or not letting the other person speak their mind. ... It gets super intense when it's just us two all the time, every decision," he said, with Maros voicing her approval. ... "We're not trying to be rulers of our own domain, you know."
While James, 31, likes getting older ("It's fun to finally realize what your priorities are"), Maros pragmatically enjoys the benefits of aging, even though they laugh about her birthdate being a secret.
"You have more of a story," she said after finally revealing she's in her late 20s. "You've lived a little bit more. Songs are supposed to be about storytelling, about your life."
Through it all, James said, "I think we've both been pleasantly surprised that the longer we work together the more we realize each other's strengths and weaknesses. And we realized that we complement each other well."
Yet Maros and James don't have a clue what makes it work.
"There's just some things you can't explain," she said.
Maybe that's a deep secret, too. Like the wonders of the Grand Canyon.
Escondido is scheduled to play the opening night party at the Ride Festival in Telluride on Friday (10 p.m., July 12), then the Underground Music Showcase in Denver at 7 p.m. on July 21. Publicity photo by Sarah Barlow.
Read Part 1 of the series: The Revivalists Step Up, Up and Away
See Escondido's official video for "Cold October":