Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, respectively, singer-songwriter Melody Walker and picker extraordinaire Jacob Groopman have fused their influences into a style they like to call "Americali." They define it as Americana with a California twist, but of course, it's much more. Drawing from genres including bluegrass, rock, jazz, classical, Afrobeat, samba and Balkan folk, yet staying close to their American folk roots, the duo create literate music that honors tradition, yet sounds completely of the moment.
On Walker's debut album, GOLD RUSH GODDESS, the couple wrap their voices in tight harmony over intricate textures of banjo, guitar and mandolin as they sing of ancient truths and futuristic myths, conveying a stunning level of songwriting and musical versatility throughout.
Recorded in a historic general store on a remote sea cliff in Caspar, Calif., the songs contain not only lush melodies and solid grooves, but the ambient sounds of birds and waves echoing off organic surfaces, imbuing these tracks with a natural feel that's the antithesis of studio sterility.
Acting as co-producers, with engineer Calvin Turnbull at the soundboard, Walker and Groopman frequently recorded live through four mics, adding layers afterward. Both played a variety of instruments including guitar, percussion, bass, melodica and synthesizer; Walker also played piano, tenor banjo and organ, while Groopman added banjo and drums. They also tapped in-studio collaborators including bluegrass band the Bucky Walters (on "Do What you Love Blues" and "Family Band"), Rondo Brothers and Foster the People producer Jim Greer (on "Gotta Write Love Songs") and fiddler Alisa Rose of Real Vocal String Quartet and 49 Special (on the title track).
Both Walker and Groopman grew up surrounded by music. Her father is musician and songwriter and her mother owns an auto body shop in her hometown of Martinez, Calif. (the subject of gorgeous "Martinez," which Walker delivers as if she's breathing an existentialist sigh). They turned her on to the Beatles, bluegrass and bossa nova, and cultivated both her love of metal/prog-rock (Tool, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson) and female singer-songwriters (including "huge archetypes" Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco).
"My parents gave me the music and the drive - a dangerous combo," she jokes, adding with a more serious tone, "It became the fabric that gave meaning to the world and gave me a place in it."
That foundation led to a bachelor's degree in music from Humboldt State University, where she co-founded the women's world-music/fusion a cappella group AkaBella.
Groopman, who grew up in Richmond, Va., says his first love was rock 'n' roll, but he got turned on to old American folk and bluegrass via the Grateful Dead - which, it should be noted, started out as a jug band. Groopman actually played jug-band music at Oberlin College while earning a degree in jazz guitar; after moving to the San Francisco Bay area (where the Dead formed and flourished), he jumped into the local bluegrass scene. He also toured extensively with the Afrobeat band Albino! and country-rockers the Real Nasty.
But these days, the pair are concentrating on making music together - along with family and friends. In fact, the video for the song "Family Band" (which came to Walker in a dream shortly after she met Groopman) features lots of both.
But despite the sentiment expressed in the upbeat, slightly poppy track "Gotta Write Love Songs," Walker says she doesn't write many, so she borrowed one from her father, "Stars Align." She and Groopman also cover Blondie's "Dreaming," giving it a contemplative, mandolin-centric treatment worthy of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
"Do What You Love Blues" offers another pleasant surprise, segueing from a fingerpoppin' a cappella call-and-response intro to a harmony-filled bluegrass breakdown. On "Get Back," she wraps her muscular, bluesy vocals around Groopman's snaky slide-guitar riffs.
They're just a few of the treats contained on GOLD RUSH GODDESS. We could go on, but just take our advice and go check it out, via stream or pay-what-you-want download, at melodywalker.bandcamp.com. Then you can start singing its praises yourself. And you will.
Trust us. You will.