A pair of sisters met a pair of brothers and became four of a promising kind. Known as The Vespers, this grounded group of homegrown musicians have Nashville in their blood but down-to-earthier ideals in their souls.
Blessed with humble spirits, and songs with such emotional depth and intricate harmonies, it makes you wonder how they can be so under the radar. This sister/brother act doesn't even have a manager -- or a Wikipedia page.
That's all about to change. With the release of their superb second album, The Fourth Wall, on April 3, the Vespers -- Callie and Phoebe Cryar, Taylor and Bruno Jones -- better get ready to lead a life less normal. As long as they're ready and willing, it's hard to fathom a better collection of unsigned, indie artists in the 19-22 age bracket capable of breaking through that wall.
Neither totally shy nor gregarious, the Cryar sisters are confident and outspoken enough to know what they want in their music, yet still open to outside ideas. Before a video shoot in their hometown last week, they graciously shared thoughts about the origin of the Vespers, The Fourth Wall, their Nashville upbringing and what they want out of all this.
"Callie and I have been singing together for so long, it's more of a natural thing," said Phoebe, who proudly calls her older sister "a vocal powerhouse." Callie's bluesy delivery on Son House's "Grinnin In Your Face," the lone cover on the album, is proof positive of that.
The Cryar twosome (Callie, far right, and Phoebe in the "Flower Flower" video) share so many pretty physical traits that many have mistaken them for twins. While splitting lead vocals and playing a number of instruments (Callie: guitar, ukulele, banjo and electric bass; Phoebe: mostly banjo and guitar, some ukulele and an occasional mandolin and accordion), they admittedly remain competitive with each other (Phoebe: "Very"; Callie: "Extremely."). But their contrasting personalities are soon detectable, with Phoebe-speak coming quickly and quietly while a candid Callie pauses more often but is always "telling it like it is," her younger sibling reveals.
"We're definitely sisters, so we have our little spats here and there," Phoebe added. "But at the same time we understand each other very well."
While mostly in agreement during this almost hourlong conversation, the Cryars did have a difference of opinion about their songwriting abilities:
Phoebe: "I usually lean towards melodies, and her lyrics, she usually puts a lot more thought into hers and they're usually very powerful and they can stand on their own. But my lyrics are a lot more simple, I think. And I usually lean on the music more."
Callie: "I've got to correct you there."
Phoebe (expressing mock outrage): "What!"
Callie: "I think the reason I put more thought into my lyrics is because it's more of a struggle for me to just naturally come up with good lyrics. ... I don't like writing a song unless I'm proud of the lyrics and so it takes me longer and takes me studying harder to make lyrics that I like. Maybe that's why it seems like I'm better at lyrics, but I'm not. I just have to put more time into it to get a good grade, basically."
While Phoebe's higher-range vocals may be more delicate and her words less complex, her songs can be just as affecting -- and effective.
And when I do you wrong
Sin pushes me away
It always takes so long
For me to stop askin
Phoebe's touching performance of "Will You Love Me," that swells to a stunning conclusion as the two repeatedly sing those four little words in harmony while turning a question into a plea, is one of the album's highlights, taking what could be an ordinary love song to deeper, spiritual heights.
"In reality, it's kind of written for my relationship with Christ," Phoebe said. "I'm always finding myself worrying that I don't ever measure up and I can't attain to God's perfection. And it's hard for me to just even talk to God because I feel like I'm not worthy. And I'm not. But at the same time, he doesn't see my faults. They're forgotten in his eyes and he loves me anyway, even though I have doubts about it."
Raised as devout Christians, Callie, 21, and Phoebe, 19, don't hide their show of faith, letting listeners slowly get the inspirational message without hitting you over the head with it. Clues are conveyed through other songs such as "Lawdy," "Got No Friends" and "Better Now."
Callie succinctly summed up the nature of the group.
"We're all four Christians. We're not a Christian band, but we're a band of Christians," she said, not volunteering that information until asked. "And we're all pretty seriously committed to that and it's very important to us... It's certainly something that people find out about us after they meet us. It's not like it takes a long time to realize that 'cause it's just how important it is to all of us."
Two of seven children (all now ranging in age from 13 to 26) homeschooled by their mother Melanie, the Cryar sisters first started singing professionally around the age of 8 and 9. They both did studio session work with older sisters Sophie and Tilly for a number of children's projects, mainly through a company called Kid Connection Music.
Around the age of 13, Callie said she and Phoebe were lucky enough to perform in a children's chorus on Dolly Parton's collaboration album Those Were the Days, and the experience obviously was a thrill. "I liked her a lot," Callie said of meeting one of country's leading ladies. "She's sweet."
They didn't continue to go down that country road, though.
The word is defined as "evening prayer." Phoebe ran across it in while reading a book from literature class in her senior year of high school. Like the Cryars, the band's name was distinctive and, Callie said, "easy to remember." Done deal.
The Cryars were the Vespers even before they met the Joneses, who were two-thirds of a rock trio called Fuel to the Fire. After meeting them and singing a song or two during a "campfire jam" at a mutual friend's house in Nashville in 2008, the Cryars went to see the Joneses perform, liked what they saw and asked them to start backing them up.
Taylor, 22 (drums and mandolin), and Bruno, 20 (guitars, other string instruments), became equal partners in the band in 2009, with no designated leader. The bearded brothers brought their rock sensibilities to the folkier sisters, giving the group a rootsier, grittier sound. (The Vespers, from left: Callie Cryar, Taylor Jones, Phoebe Cryar, Bruno Jones.)
As a result, the Vespers continued to improve, and the Joneses' growing influence is evident from the first album (Tell Your Mama) to the latest. Bruno's slide work on "Grinnin in Your Face" and the Trampled by Turtles-like frenetic finish to "Close My Eyes" are clear-cut examples.
"They kind of expanded my horizons with listening to music," Callie explained. "At first, I was really just kind anti-pop, really anti ... I didn't really listen to a lot of funk or rock or anything. And I think them pointing out music like that to me really just brought out some more soul."
With the help of friend Fairlight Hubbard, the Vespers are churning out a series of videos for the album (the latest, "Flower Flower" will be followed soon by "Better Now") and are currently on tour. Return visits to the Appalachian Uprising and Uprise Festival are among the stops on the festival circuit, while they patiently await calls from South By Southwest and Bonnaroo.
Their personalities shine through on their hourlong talk show "Reason & Rhyme," which airs live at 2:30 p.m. Central each Wednesday on Livestream, with episodes now available as podcasts on iTunes. They interview fellow musicians such as Ten Out of Tenn's Matthew Perryman Jones and, since Taylor and Bruno are pro wrestling fans, Jocephus Brody and Abriella of Amazonia were recent guests.
Idealistically, the Vespers prefer to maintain artistic, creative and business control and, at the moment, are content as long as they can continue paying the bills. The Fourth Wall was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign that met its goal of $15,000 in November, allowing the Vespers to put the finishing touches on the album they recorded last May and August between tour stops.
"We can be a little particular about some of the decisions we like to make with our ... just where we want our music to be and stuff like that," said Callie, a rock climber who knows the value of keeping a firm grip. "We want to avoid selling out and signing away business control just in order for us to be famous, basically. We kinda want to get to where we can have some success and at the same time have our own independence, too."
Oh, and there's no need to wonder if the Cryar-Jones connection goes beyond friendship and band business, which Bruno mostly handles as a de facto manager.
"All of us are single right now," Callie said, laughing. Pressed on the matter, she added, pragmatically, "I think for now it's best for us to be able to focus on music without having outside relationships. But who knows when that will change. I'm sure it will one day. And it'll just be something we'll have to go through and deal with."
The Fourth Wall
The name of the album is sort of ironic, considering that the Vespers want to go against the unwritten rule of the fourth wall created for actors, who are told to avoid looking into the camera or maintain that invisible barrier between the stage and the audience.
"A lot of the songs on this new album have more of a live feel because we've been playing live for the past couple years in our careers and that really resonates with us," said Phoebe, who has the majority of songwriting credits on The Fourth Wall.
"What we were trying to do is break that fourth wall down. Just with the way we interact with the audience. That (term) really struck a chord with us.
"Whenever I go see a show, sometimes I get disappointed because the band doesn't talk to the audience as much as I'd like," she added. "Because I love getting to know the people up there and just seeing their personalities come out and how they interact with each other and stuff. And we do a whole lot of that. Just doing what comes naturally."
The Vespers give much of the credit for the progression of their sound to co-producers Anderson East and Daniel Scobey after handling those duties by themselves on their debut album.
Pushing the Vespers for authenticity over slickness was a key element. "They would point out things that we didn't really notice," Callie said. "Normally, where I would want to go for the perfect take, they opened my mind a little bit to sometimes what sounds more real sounds better."
While The Fourth Wall has its share of folk ("Instrument For You") and dark themes ("Close My Eyes"), there's room for lighthearted pop, too. Songs such as "Flower Flower" and "Jolly Robber" are infectious jaunts, and the somber "Daughter" takes an unexpected turn in the last 90 seconds with the ambient sounds of a typewriter, various percussion instruments, bird noises and other outside voices "to create this chaotic atmosphere," Callie said.
The gospel-infused "Got No Friends" might be the album's best cut, with the foursome sharing songwriting credit and contributing to a rabble-rousing chorus that ends joyfully with "But I know no matter what I do / Jesus I will always have a friend in you."
"We like to experiment in the studio," Callie said. "Even if we don't use everything, we just like to try all the ideas that we have for harmonies."
There's an air of mystery surrounding the Cryars' musical evolution, despite the fact their father Morgan was a successful Christian pop singer in the 1980s. They seemed reticent to mention any major influences, but other Christian-based artists apparently aren't among them.
Callie remembers being really young when her parents, originally from Louisiana, frequently listened to a popular Irish family band called the Corrs, "but that was one of the things that was kind of forced on me."
The sisters had a fondness for bluegrass, then grew to love the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Iris DeMent's take on the traditional "Pretty Saro" from the movie Songcatcher before discovering Eisley"s "cool harmonies" and Iron and Wine.
While Callie said the Avett Brothers provide songwriting inspiration, and Phoebe mentioned she really liked "the singer" from the Duhks "before they broke up" (Sarah Dugas), the sisters don't acknowledge anyone for shaping their sound. They stand steadfastly behind their own work.
"We just try to be as original as possible, pretty much," Phoebe said, surprised that the Vespers would draw comparisons to a sweet-sounding trio ("I actually never listen to the Wailin' Jennys") and duo ("I'm not super-influenced by the Civil Wars, although I do love their band.").
While stellar Nashville groups such as Sugar + the Hi-lows, Humming House and the Farewell Drifters continue to emerge every day outside the country realm, Phoebe said matter-of-factly, "We try not to feed back on anything that anyone else is doing creatively."
The voice of reason, Callie talks just as passionately as she sings. About their approach, she surmised, "A lot of it, too, just comes down to, this is what we do. Not everyone's gonna like it. Some people might, some people might not.
"There does need to be an element of trying to make music that other people get excited about balanced with, we just need to do what we do. That's the integrity of our music is our sound. We can't help but have that sound. It's just what happens when we get together."
That should be music to the ears of anyone listening to the Vespers. Now it's time for someone to start singing their praises.
All images courtesy of the Vespers.
See the video for "Flower Flower" from The Fourth Wall: