“This is a song. These are the lyrics that I am singing. I play the guitar. My name is Mary. The drummer's name is Kevin. He plays six ply drums. They are Yamaha birch woods. They have a dry tone. They have single ply heads. Except for the snare, which has an oil-filled head.”
“That's an excerpt.” Mary Halvorson is the guitarist for People. She may be the one to sing these words, but she'll always be a guitarist first. Years of study and a jazz degree from Wesleyan have imbued her with refined technique and precise, unpredictable chord progressions. A graceful economy of sound and motion seems to smooth over the odd timing and dissonance inherent to her arrangements. Even when she hits the distortion. Halvorson's voice is a part of this effect, floating easily above her guitar, but it's still just an embellishment. “I don't tell people I'm a singer.”
Kevin Shea employs his six-ply Yamaha birch woods with a loose finesse to match Halvorson's, rattling from his kit a fine ring of rhythmic debris that keeps time on the verge of breaking orbit. It is a flurry of percussion, sticks clicking off rims and sides as often as heads, that feathers and guides Halvorson's crisp, clear notes without overpowering them. Shea also writes most of the lyrics, originally bits of his short stories that Halvorson arranged.
“A lot of the lyrics don't really roll off the tongue,” explains Halvorson, who tailors all of her music specifically to suit the cadences and content of the lyrics. “I want to create music that can make even the most irregular words sound natural.”
“We wanted to mess with the standard way of doing things,” Shea adds. “Writing songs with lyrics, but not in the standard way.”
Hence the odd narration of the newer songs, which will eventually appear on their third album. In making composition transparent, these pieces both toy with and underscore the process. Amusingly but perhaps helpfully, as despite their briskly listenable experimentation, People are still frequently met with confusion. A recent concert review, for instance, managed to mistake the entire repertoire for improvisation.
“The problem with our band is that we don't fit in anywhere,” Halvorson says, equal parts bemused and frustrated. “What are we? Do we play in rock clubs? Are we a rock band? Do we appeal more to experimental music people? Would people who like jazz like to hear us? Usually the answer is that none of these people would like to hear us.”
Or all of them, eventually. By diving through the gap between established genres, People have struck upon something much rarer and more intriguing than straight jazz technique or simple pop arrangement. And potentially much more rewarding for a wide selection of listeners.
“These words are simultaneously about how the song starts and what the lyrics are about. Both of us are singing now. The guitar is about to come in. Will it be loud or soft?”