Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion On ‘Bright Examples’

In a world where labels look for more of the same and clone yesterday’s successes for tomorrow’s releases, it’s refreshing to see a music act break from its own past to explore that mysterious land known as the future.

Such is the case with Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion. Already established as favorites on the folk music circuit, the husband-and-wife duo has charted new ground with their latest release, Bright Examples, an album that showcases their musical talents yet steers towards a more polished American pop sound.

Pollstar recently spoke with Sarah Lee and Johnny about Bright Examples in a conversation that covered everything from music influences, the creative process and balancing raising a family with building a music career. And, for Sarah Lee, the chat also veered into her own musical bloodline, including father, Arlo, and her own discovery of grandfather Woody’s music.

But most of all, the two artists talked of a future exploring new musical horizons.

2010 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco

How did the Bright Examples album begin?

Johnny: It’s a full-on record we made with Vetiver and our friend, Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. It all went down in Woodstock, N.Y., at an old church called Dreamland Studios. We recorded the record over the course of about two weeks. It took us a while to find a home for it, which was fine. Basically, right now is a good time to put the record out, sound-wise and everything. Instead of being too ahead of the curve, we’re hopefully right there with it. We never know.

Is Bright Examples more “produced” than past efforts?

Sarah Lee: I think it wasn’t more produced as it was the idea to get more soundscapes into it. We were growing. We love The Beach Boys. We love all the very cool sounds and were kind of headed that way.

Johnny: I think there was a batch of songs that weren’t picked for this record that were more in the Smiley Smile vein that would fall in that category. Brian Wilson always talked about “feels” which are 45-second clips of like, a vibe. There’s a lot of those. I love that whole idea of a feel. It’s made me think of songwriting differently.

You’ve got your categories. Okay, this falls under [the category] ‘I’m trying to write a song as good as Bob Dylan.” It’s a political song. It’s got a message. Am I being too teachy-preachy” Blah, blah, blah.

Then there’s the beautiful country pop ballad that would be in the Neil Young category. And then there are the fields and all the vocal stuff. It’s got a great melody and the words are kind of silly. To me it falls under The Beach Boys category.

Flo & Eddie came up more than The Beach Boys. I didn’t really know who they were until we started doing the overdubs in Los Angeles and Gary, Sarah Lee and I were doing our three-parts. And it was like Flo & Eddie. It was awesome.

Sarah Lee: We had 11 people playing in the studio at once and it made for this really unique blend of people not playing too much. You couldn’t play too much. You’d step on someone. You really had to find that part you were going to play. It was such a fragile and beautiful moment when every time this would come true. Because it was live and all these great musicians coming together, we got that big wall of sound. Even though it sounds more full, a lot of it is very natural.

Johnny: I knew we had assembled a great batch of musicians. Kevin Barker, who plays with just about everybody. He’s on tour with Joanna Newsom and is one of those guys who kind of moonlights with Vetiver. My buddy Neal Casal, who plays guitar in the Cardinals for Ryan Adams, and is a great singer-songwriter – he was able to show up. We had a couple of piano players.

It sounds as if the two of you are moving towards more of an American-style pop direction that’s not as rootsy as past efforts.

Sarah Lee: We’re getting away from that and that is deliberate. But you never know. We have a honky-tonk record in store. We got a lot of dirty rock n’roll. There are a lot of things we could do from here. And then we go and make a kids’ record and people don’t know what to think.

Johnny: We’re into exploring all types of stuff. I feel like we’re really looking forward to playing with a band a lot in the next couple of years and playing more rock clubs.

That’s what I grew up doing, and I think it took a while for Sarah Lee and I to come together as a husband-and-wife duo and not be so overshadowed to a certain point. Let’s have fun. Playing the folk circuit is great. But we did that and I personally felt we had done it really well but maybe we were peaking. As soon as you feel like that, it’s better to move on to other explorations.

During the time leading up to recording Bright Examples there were many male/female duo albums released to critical acclaim, such as the Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson album Rattlin’ Bones, the M. Ward / Zooey Deschanel project She & Him and the Robert Plant / Alison Krauss album, Raising Sand. Did these or other duo albums released at the time influence the new album?

Sarah Lee: No, not this time. I was working at a record store when Gillian Welch came out. Johnny and I were living in Hollywood and Gillian and David Rawlings were on TV. Our jaws dropped. It was huge.

Johnny: I did listen to the Krauss/Plant album but wasn’t inspired by any of that. I was inspired to create a backdrop over which Sarah Lee and I could sing that was fresh and hip. I just wanted to make a great record. We’re always writing songs with Louris. I’m lucky enough to have those kind of sessions. I grew up playing in bands and I miss playing in one. Being a songwriter kind of allowed me to moonlight in other bands and that was cool.

I hadn’t listened to those records but I listened to Vetiver’s record and Louris’ new record and all the peers I admire. As a music supporter, I’m always looking for the little band that just put out the 7-inch.

What kind of creative process goes on between the two of you? Do you have defined rolls? Does one writes lyrics while the other creates melodies? Or do you write separately?

Sarah Lee: Most of the time we come up with stuff on our own and then bring it to the other person to fix. Johnny’s the most prolific person of this group. He has so many songs, I can’t keep up. So we tend to write separately and then [the song] comes together when it’s time to perform it. That’s my favorite part. That’s when the magic sort of happens.. and morphs into something we both feel good about.

Johnny: Just the other day I e-mailed Pat Sansone who plays in Wilco. We just did a tour with his side project called The Autumn Defense. We kind of hit it off, and I had just written a song, kind of off-the-cuff. I kind of bombard ideas so it was like, “Why not send it to Pat, see what he thinks?”

So it was nice to get a response from somebody else. It may not be the best song in the world but it was an idea and Pat’s a great musician. And Pat replied back, “It’s great. That’s awesome. It’s definitely from planet Big Star.”

I appreciated that and I was able to move on and not bother Sarah Lee with it. With Sarah Lee it’s more about the words or an idea. Where a song is like a vibe, experimenting, like singing in a different vocal range. There are so many variables.

Sarah Lee, compared to other musicians as well as your own family background, you began your musical career rather late in life. Why is that?

Sarah Lee: People don’t believe me that music was not that much a part of our house. It’s what dad did when he was on the road and what mom listened to when she was cleaning the house. It wasn’t like we sat down and had jam sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays.

I didn’t even know about my grandfather’s music until I started playing. I feel like a lot of people misunderstand that. I did not come around to what my family meant, or my grandfather’s music or even some of my dad’s music until I started playing. And that was when I was about 18.

Sarah Lee: “We tend to write separately and then [the song] comes together when it’s time to perform it. That’s my favorite part.”

What musical influences shaped your lives?

Sarah Lee: I listen to everything. I grew up listening to pop radio. Lot of my friends were Dead Heads. I didn’t go that route so much, but that led to Bob Dylan. All kinds of really folkie music. Jim Croce and stuff. The records in my dad’s collection.

Then I took a real sharp turn and listened to punk rock and I’m still influenced by some of those guys – Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, NOFX, Henry Rollins, Black Flag.

But these days I think I’m listening to Skeeter Davis.

Johnny: My mother was a big beach music fan. I have a friend that says, “Don’t meet your heroes” and I’ve kind taken that to heart. Obviously the Beatles were huge. I had one aunt who was a huge Beatles fan. She made me remember all their names.

Then I had another aunt pushing The Beach Boys on me. My mom had Some Girls by The Rolling Stones when I was growing up. That was always one I loved. Then it just morphed into punk rock. I grew up skateboarding and listening to Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, Dag Nasty and all these punk bands in the early ‘80s. Black Flag and all that stuff.

[But] I’m love everything. I’m a big fan of the San Francisco Quartet, I’m a Dvorák fan. I love classical music.

Sarah Lee: I’ve always been creative. I loved to write and draw. I got really screwed up when I started reading Bob Dylan’s “Tarantula” at a very young age. I found it in our library when I was 12 or 13 years old.

I felt he was talking to me. I was like, “Wow. This is brilliant.” And it totally messed me up. I started to write and think I could get away with that too. It certainly sparked [writing]. And I always thought I could do something with these writings some day.

What are your plans for the tour?

Johnny: We’re confirmed for the Wilco festival. Carson Daily is taping the show in Los Angeles. I think they’re going to interview us and have three songs on the show.

You also have a date with Martin Sexton. Will there be any more?

Johnny: There’s going to be more of those as well. Martin is a friend of ours. He lives in our neck of the woods.

All this and children, too. We talked with Arlo a couple of years ago and he described touring when he was a young father, saying the babies would sleep in the guitar cases backstage while he was performing. Did that tradition continue with your own children?

Sarah Lee: Absolutely. Even more so, because we’re on the ground level here. It was kind of cute and fun, but by necessity we had to do that in all kinds of scenarios.

We were at MerleFest four years ago. They had that midnight jam and we really wanted to go. It was our first time and we were kind of hooking up with all kinds of great musicians. So we brought our baby, put her on the side of the stage and the soundman watched her. And the monitor guy said she slept through the entire thing.

They’ve definitely had rock ‘n’ roll lives and I think they’re all the better for it. We’ve really just thrown them into our crazy world. They’re amazing kids. I think we really got lucky.

Johnny: “I think it took a while for Sarah Lee and I to come together as a husband-and-wife duo and not be so overshadowed to a certain point.”

Bright Examples, on Ninth St. Opus, arrives in stores Feb. 22. Upcoming shows for Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion include Feb. 19 in San Luis Obispo at the Steynberg Gallery and Feb. 22 at Hollywood’s Hotel Café where the duo will hold a CD release party and their performance will be filmed by “Last Call With Carson Daily” for a segment airing in March. The duo is also appearing at San Francisco’s “Noise Pop Festival” Feb. 25 and SXSW March 19. For more information, click here for the couple’s website.