Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: Local duo Chance Meyer and Nicole Noël take a traditional tack.
Given South Florida's decided lack of higher terrain (in the physical sense, that is), any music that takes its cue from the traditions of the Appalachian Mountains would, at first, seem immediately out of sync, like trying to grow a palm tree on a block of arctic ice. So credit Nicole Noël & Chance Meyer for daring to swim against the proverbial tide.
The duo make music that taps tradition and takes an ages-old folk stance. Their self-released debut album, A Thousand Ways Down is an unapologetic bow to simpler times, albeit with a dark foreboding edge. It's a patchwork quilt of rustic influences carefully woven together with a single guitar, a harmonica, and two voices in perfect union.
Fascinated by their daring and distinction, we sought out the duo and asked them about the inspiration behind their old-timey refrains.
New Times: So how did the two of you meet? What inspired you to make this music?
Chance Meyer: Our musical backgrounds couldn't be more different. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas playing folk and grass and blues, and Nic grew up on Cape Cod playing classical flute and singing Bach in choirs and jazz in nightclubs. We both pursued careers in law and met professionally as defense lawyers challenging death sentences and convictions where the State of Florida seeks to execute someone by lethal injection.
Obviously that line of work calls for a regular emotional outlet and escape, and that's what music is for us. We got together primarily to just have a joyful musical experience, and what better than old-time, shout-it-to-the-heavens harmony for that? Of course, we've ended up exploring a lot of dark themes in our songs and on our record, but it always returns to a place of celebration and delight, because that's what we really need from it.
So there's definitely a heavy psychological component to our music, because it's always exploring and at the same time always escaping from the ethos of death and struggle that we deal with professionally.
Chance, you apparently play all the instruments, correct? Do you ever have a band backing you up?
I play the instruments -- guitar and harmonica -- and we both sing. On the record, I used my 1941 Epiphone Olympic to add flourishes and transitional phrases and soloing that normally I sneak in here and there without accompaniment when we're performing.
But if you come see us play, there will be just a guitar, harmonica, and two voices. We like the simplicity of that, and it's consistent with the musical traditions we're exploring. More members can make for an exciting sound, but it also can dilute the vision and confuse the message. We're on the same book and page when it comes to the kind of music we want to make, and that is worth everything in the world when you're a musician. The rest is window dressing.
Is this your first album?
Yes, this is our first album. We're a young band. The songs were all written in the space of a few months and recorded in a few more. It won't be long before we have another album's worth of material; we're well on our way.
But we want to give this one a chance to circulate and breathe a little before we follow it up. A lot of people have commented to us independently that the record took a few listens before it really started to hit home for them, and we've taken that as high praise, because it means there's something substantive there to be appreciated on a level that goes beyond the superficial toe-tapping first-blush sitting.
So, it's sort of heavy and dense, and, like I said, the album needs to have some time to settle before we go further down the road.
Please share some of your influences.
We model ourselves after several great old time and Americana duos. In recent times, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings are the paradigmatic example of what we aspire to, although in our own voice, and more distantly, the Blue Sky Boys and the Stanley Brothers.
We're also heavily influenced by film and other non-musical art, and have tried to write and record this album within the ethos of early American tradition beyond music. It's full of allusion and allegory that may not be readily apparent but over time starts to percolate out into your conscious understanding of the record.
So in that way, the whole record is just one big effort in ethnomusicology, becoming its broad influences, and building on them from the inside.
How do you think your style of music finds a fit in South Florida? How do you perceive the acoustic/Americana scene in South Florida in general?
Well, certainly our music stakes a stronger claim in Appalachia or the Ozarks than here, but we do believe there is a place for it in Florida. And we're not the only ones. There are some excellent songwriters in the Americana tradition -- like Raiford Starke -- lingering sort of backstage in the wings of Florida's larger, more contemporary music scene. You have to look for it. But it's there.
And there's a small community of thoughtful people with subtle sensibilities and deep emotional experiences of life that we've found to really connect with this music. Nic likes to say it's for people with a dark turn of mind, and certainly it is. And in a way that sort of makes it, for us, a counterpoint to the materialism or futurism and I guess glamour and excess of Miami.
Of course there's a place for all that, but there's also a place for celebrating heritage. For finding our common roots in a simpler time. And that's what we are trying to do. And in a sense, any place is the right place to do that. And anyone is the right one to do it for.
What venues offer you an opportunity to play?
There're some music-centric venues in the area that we love, like Your Big Picture Cafe and Luna Star, and pretty much anything that the Broward Folk Club is doing.
We shy away from any venue that is more interested in counting heads than creating a special environment partly through a musical experience. We're just now reaching a place where we can start venturing into small festivals and traveling to communities we have a connection to, like Dallas and Arkansas and Cape Cod and Boston, because we've lived there or have people there.
But, since we're not trying to make a career out of this, we have the freedom to choose to play only rarely and in places we really want to. And that's really freeing because it keeps the music fresh and evolutionary as you revisit it over longer intervals.
So where do you go from here? Any special plans for continuing the trajectory?
Our only plans are to keep on enjoying playing around Florida, the occasional road show and seeing what sort of visibility and notice the record can get.