Spring Forward, Maybe April
On the stream of my You Tube feed, videos of a studio performance appeared before me. I didn't ask for these; I may have watched a bunch of Neil Young videos and heard a Jayhawks song and an Emmylou Harris song. Anyway, these young women appeared, singing songs with powerful hooks and heart. I could sense they were a new act. So, who had written these songs? Once I heard more, I had to hear everything all over again. I have now listened to each song dozens of times.
These hold my attention like Siren songs. The works of the young women, many of them were written around the time they met at Nashville’s prominent Grammy Camp when they were still in their late teens. Today, the songs’ ageless quality is underscored.
The tunes are simple to remember with thoughtful, more complex, interplay in the arrangements. There is total unison in the voices yet each voice has a distinctive shade of its own.
All three play guitar and mandolin and they interchange instruments depending on the song. They each bring something quite different to the country genre though. Together, everything just fits.
They bring to bear a trinity of diversity in Country/Americana genre: the South, the West and Midwest merging into one sound.
Introducing… Maybe April
Kristen Castro from Simi Valley, California, has delicate vocals like Nancy Griffith and a percussive and hooky mastery of the strings that fuels a lot of the instrumental. She had played metal and rock guitar prior to getting hooked on singer songwriter work.
Katy Bishop from Jonesboro, Arkansas, holds a soulful country melody and an earnest and magnetic tone. She has a traditional country music look and drawl, if outward appearances in interviews mean anything. There is a videos of a family reunion in which horse riding and fun moments with grandma are involved. But also, there is something rich and complex in the vocal and her lyrics that hints at R&B or soul too.
Alaina Stacey is from Chicago, Illinois, and her folk-edged sweet voice, her songs, and her dynamic personality seem to bridge the gap between 70s-quality rock vocal and country charm perfect for their nearly simultaneous migration to Nashville where the young women met as girls at Grammy Camp.
The three are refreshingly sincere yet have a modern, no-nonsense vibe. They embrace all that is good about relationship songs. They sing in around. They sing in harmony. They reel you in with songs that employ country, blues and a little soul. Their sincere on-stage interactions add stage chemistry. So, this was all planned from the beginning, right?
The Changing Key: Nashville, 2012
The group formed in part because they were the odd ones out. “At the end of the week of Grammy Camp, we had to do a show for industry professionals—a launch party. We were kind of thrown together,” said Kristen. “Basically there are different parts of the camp and in the songwriting track everyone was paired up but us." Nashville-based songwriter and teacher Drew Ramsey had noticed some similar style among the three and said, ‘Why don’t you guys write a song?’
"We were like okay, sure!” Quickly, the trio found some Nashville magic.
“Yeah well we wrote a song called, “Loving You Still,” with in a day.” They had written the piece in a couple hours. It’s still one of the songs they sing live.
“Why do I keep climbing
stairs if there’s no other
floors are we going nowhere.
We’re falling the wrong way.
Some pain just don’t go away.
Words are just letters fit sweetly together
A promise don’t mean that you’ll stay, and
I’m learning to hate you by loving you still.”
It was Alaina’s first experience singing harmony in a group and it has a traditional rock ballad feel mixed with bluegrass. “It’s a beautiful song,” she says. They threw in a key change and when they performed the piece people cheered at the crescendo moment when they kicked it up a notch.
“Something happened,” Alaina said. And it wasn’t just clapping heard, but later, from professional mentors of the camp, there was encouragement, ideas. They were given the chance to play at the “A Song is Born” 16th annual Grammy Foundation Legacy Concert in Los Angeles where they received kind words from Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and others.
Songwriters' Rule #2: Always CC Your Future Bandmate
A year later, Alaina sent a serendipitous email. She was considering taking a year or two off college to pursue music. She was thinking of making the move from Chicago’s North Side to Nashville. She emailed Katy who was already living in Nashville but thought to include Katy who was in So Cal.
“I asked Katy if we could room together … I thought I would copy Kristen to let her know what’s going on.”
Katy remembers that email well. “I was going to school out in California and was loving country music and bluegrass music,” says Kristen. “But there wasn’t a lot of that in California. I thought it would be cool to be around people I really love and have the same passion for music that I due. And then Alaina’s email came and I said, alright. It’s fate.”
According to Alaina, Kristien responded, “Guys!! I think I think I might move to Nashville too. Can we do this?!” They would live together and form the band.
[Video, right: "This Time" by Maybe April.]
Maybe April: Early Beginnings
They found talent at a young age so I had to ask, "How did you get experience at a young age?"
Katy Bishop who started writing songs in Arkansas from age 13 performed in musical theater but did not play her songs live for a long time, “It was really nerve wracking to me. I don’t think I played songs for others until I was at least 15.”
Alaina Stacey came from a musical family. “My parents are both musicians. And both my older brothers. I grew up around music. It was mostly just singing when I was younger. And before I was 13 wrote little songs... When I was 13, I wrote my first real song that I performed.”
Since I am an ex pat Chicagoan, I asked Alaina about the Chicago community I had heard of and she mentioned a list of influences including Old Town School of Folk Music, Whitney Young High School and a few very musical friends she attended school with, including one who is the son of Wilco’s lead singer songwriter, Jeff Tweedy.
Kristen Castro’s California roots are in metal and yet she sees the transition to country instrumental as fairly seamless: “I started writing when I was 10 and I only wrote on guitar when I was 11 or 12. And I mainly wrote instrumentals. I started actually incorporating vocal melodies when I was 15 or 16.” She started in hard rock punk and metal.
“I was kind of like a nerd: into movie scores and stuff like that. And I was listening to a lot of Iron Maiden and Metallica”
I asked where she applied this influence in her country music.
“I sort of use the same as how I used to play but on acoustic guitar. It sounds really pretty now because it’s on acoustic.”
Alaina Stacey adds, “The technique is still there. Metal is actually quite melodic. Iron Maiden is pretty melodic.” So a lot of her melodies—her talent, her ear for that-- come from metal but the chords she plays around those melodies are more beautiful, more country now.”
Kristen says that on one of their songs, “Blush,” she taught Katy the harmony on guitar and Alaina plays something cool on the mandolin. “And that’s like super metal. I said, Katy do you want to play the guitar harmonies, she was like sure I don’t care. I’ll play anything. I was excited—I totally nerd out around that.”
Personally, I hear it in the chorus toward the latter part of a song called, "Tennessee." Listen to this song from beginning to end and you will be taken on an epic journey through the sophisticated harmonies and the suspended quiet of the verses. It's a stunning song.
The 2015 “Audiotree Live” Session And The Fruit it Bore
By the Summer of 2015 Katy, Alaina and Kristen had performed and to some extent recorded song solo and they were settling in to their new group.
Around that time, an opportunity came up to do a video with a Chicago-based music video production company called, Audiotree Live (https://audiotree.tv) which, in part, films and distributes curated in-studio video performances on YouTube. Alaina Stacey was introduced to one of the members of Audiotree through one of the women who worked there who she knew growing up. “They were part of my community in Chicago. It was such a great thing for us.” Audiotree invited Maybe April to perform a set in their studio.
“Once the performance was posted on YouTube, people started emailing us and we got great shows and other opportunities out of it.” Alaina said. (The performance can be downloaded for iTunes and Spotify as follows: iTunes: http://apple.co/2lxdBy9 ;
Spotify: http://bit.ly/2lsmNHV For more information, http://www.maybeapril.com/music-1/ .
At first the full half hour session was on their website and then each individual song was released and marketed. In Dec 2016 they released the full session on YouTube, both individual songs and the full performance. Within a month it had over 185,000 views.
The exposure was just right to get them attention from fans and others in the industry and eventually led to coverage by Billboard, The Chicago Sun Times, and eventually this blog piece. But increasing their fan base was the most important aspect.
“That is way more [hits] than we’ve ever had on any of our videos,” says Alaina. “People really started to really pay attention to us.”
Alaina, Katy and Kristen could feel something special happening in the Audiotree studio sessions. “It’s really cool because, in terms of the performance, it was a magical day. We were on point; we felt really good about it.”
The Audiotree experience had an impact because at this point this was early on in their career and it gave them an opportunity to shine and be heard and seen on a larger scale than they had.
But Audiotree Live is not by any means the only way they have increased their fan base. They have played dozens and dozens of shows in many cities. From Chicago to Nashville to Southern California, they have hit on some of the best venues for an acoustic style band to play in.
Because the Community
[“Breaking Point,” by Maybe April]
From mentoring by award winning songwriters to words of support from Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson to opportunities assembled with the help of their management, It was clear that the rise of Maybe April is happening because of a supportive community and I asked them about the importance of developing that community.
According to Katy, it’s a piece-by-piece process, They have done everything from getting out into the songwriting and publishing community and talk to people to getting involved in the National Songwriters’ Association in Nashville.
“We apply for songwriting contests. We recently had an honorable mention in a songwriters contest. There are music publishing meetings. Every single person connects to each other if you try to get to know everyone it helps. Sometimes it is overwhelming because there are so many people. Also, it helps to book shows and make meetings with others. That can move us forward.”
They agreed that it’s important to understand the vision and target and keep in touch with those who share your goals.
“I think you get a read [on people] based on who they are surrounded by and just asking around,” according to Katy who is not shy to network and hear people out. “It is still a small community. You know people’s names. We just get a read on it. And maybe just meet to see how we like them as people.
Kristen values the mutual support of overlapping artist-supporting communities. “There are some people you maybe don’t mesh with musically but you really do get along as people and you just support each other in your own things. There are so many different ways that we have been able to make connections or friends or partners with people.”
The Songwriting Process Started With Trust
In just talking with the three band members, I hear each finishing the others’ sentences and the chemistry and respect that pours-over to their writing is evident. So, I asked them about their songwriting process and they say there is no one way to describe it.
“We write together, says Alaina. “All three of us sometimes and it might be, oh we have to write a song together, and nobody has an idea but we say, hey tomorrow 9AM were going to get together and write a song. All three of us will brainstorm and try to come up with something. Sometimes one of us will say, hey I got this song, I can’t finish it can you guys, and others will help. And sometimes just two will work on the song.
Alaina mentions that on "Paper Heart," "...Kristen wrote on her own and Katy and I really thought it was a beautiful song and she was nice enough to let us do it.”
Kristen adds, “Last Time” Alaina and Katy wrote together. And “Pieces of You” we all wrote together.”
“Especially when we used to live together songs would just come out of nowhere,” Alaina adds, “and we would be sitting in the kitchen making breakfast or dinner or something and one person would be noodling.
“Breaking Point” was written by Katy and Kristen that way.
Trust, lack of ego and non-judgmental attitudes seem to be at the core of their creative formula. “When it’s just us, we don’t really care—we don’t filter in as much.” Katy says if anyone has an idea that is imperfect, good humor trumps irritation.
“They’re not going to think I am dumb …they will just think it’s funny.” When you are writing with other people it can be difficult sometimes because you might think differently than they do [or it may be hard to explain what you are looking for]. “That is when I get more self critical.”
“ It’s easy because we all know everything about each other. Instead of having to explain why.. for five minutes, we know why,“ says Kristen.
Alaina likes this about co-writing. “Sometimes it can be awkward. Eventually you find people you go back to and feel a hundred percent comfortable with. The three of us—we know that we love each other and we also have been writing together so long that we can finish what the other is trying to say.”
I asked the trio about their individuality and the fact that they each give something different to the song and I asked if they are conscious of those fine distinctive sounds.
“We are definitely conscious of it,” according to Alaina. “We were all doing our own solo things before we met and coming from different areas of the country. Kristen was a little more indie pop—cool people music. And I was a little bit of an outsider in Chicago because I was doing country music. But it was more folk-Americana-country. And Katy grew up coming to Nashville every year so she had a really good sense of the pop country music but had her own soulful take on it.
Kristen says she has the quieter voice “I like to sing more folk ballads. Katy is a super strong singer, and she helped me sing stronger and Alaina is different.”
Maybe April tends to use experimental beats, arounds and time signatures and creativity in the way the lyrics hit each measure.
“Sometimes this approach is inadvertent such as in “Last Time”: I was really angry when I wrote it so that’s how it came out. We all went home for thanksgiving. I was basically saying, oh crap, I gotta write a song and it just came out. Then I got the others to help me finish it. It wasn’t something we thought about.
“I think different time signatures are cool. Keith Urban wrote one in 7/8 and I remember the first odd time sig was 5/4. It becomes its own groove.
“’Loving you still’ is in 6/8 time which is an unusual time signature for soft music and country music.
I tell Maybe April that "Pieces of You" is one of the sweetest songs I had heard in while and the perfect pace and locked in pop lyrics reminded me of Everly Brothers.
Kristen responded with a particular influence: "I was into Ingred Michaelson and that Indy pop world and was playing on my guitar and started the beginning I think Alaina started singing and we got stuck and Katy’s a genius when it comes to lyrics. She helped us fill out. It’s kind of a bitter sweet song. We started the song and had the idea and said Katy you gotta help us out here. I think she came up with the [lyric] “Pieces of You.”
“I like that song,” says Katy. “It’s just real and the in between feelings of everything.
Alaina says, “As far as arranging it. It’s one of the songs we each sing lead on at some point.”
Some have compared Maybe April to a softer version of Dixie Chicks, or Nickel Creek. The group closely follows artist Laurie McKenna who writes songs for Tim McGraw and keeps most for herself.
“Her own music is out of this world. She is a gem in Nashville. Everyone knows her name.”
“We also got influenced by The Civil Wars. We loved them and thought they were doing something unique and different while speaking to the mainstream a little bit.”
They also listen to and find inspiration from Kacey Musgraves.
What I enjoy about them is that clearly they are not setting out to sound like anyone else. They set out to write great songs with interesting arrangements. These are gems from the heart flowing from artists they already are and aspire to be. There is innocence at the core of these songs, these three voices, that reminds me of the best I’ve heard.