This record is about a band that found each other and also found a home. It’s about a couple of magic nights SistaStrings and I spent, crammed into the back of a listening room called the Cafe Carpe — jammed full of people, joyfully playing the songs we’d learned over our few years of becoming an ensemble, all happily unaware that the world was already changing, that because of the pandemic already underway the entire world of listening rooms and intimate live audiences was about to disappear for who-knows how long.
I started playing at the Cafe Carpe when I was a kid. At the time, I thought it was the coolest little venue I’d ever seen. After thirty years of international travel I realize that it’s one of the most soulful, deep listening rooms in the world. I’ve developed a reverence for the place, a camaraderie with the characters who work there. I’ve slept in their home above the venue (it’s an old brick building on the Rock River in the small Midwestern city of Fort Atkinson) countless times. I’ve come to love the people and the room, to curate a tiny winter festival there, to visit even when I’m not playing a gig. I’ve bonded with artists who were a generation older than me, played countless song-swaps with my peers, and begun mentoring the next generation.
I met my fellow Milwaukeeans SistaStrings a few years back, and we clicked instantly, and began playing together with my old friend, the drummer Nathan Kilen. The sound immediately made sense: Chauntee and Monique play with tremendous intuition, technical ability, and (impossible to teach) spaciousness. They never bump into each other, or into me. They’re utterly deft with harmony and space. And Nathan’s tiny drum kit, which he developed so he could travel with me on my bicycle tours, rounds the quartet out perfectly. My acoustic guitar holds down the low end, Nathan and I become the rhythm section, Chauntee and Monique become the harmonic architecture, and all I have to do is ride the wave and deliver the songs.
For their parts, Chauntee and Monique had this to say about the album:
“Playing with this group of musicians feels like linking up with my favorite cousins. The love and respect we have for each other definitely affects how we interact with each other musically. The time spent on this project was surrounded in love, laughter, and wanting to bring our best to the listener.” — Chauntee Ross
“WOW! I am still astonished at how much work we did in such a short amount of time! I couldn't imagine this experience with a different group of individuals. The vibes continue to flow while the love continues to grow. looking forward to sharing this music with the world and looking forward to creating more music with my forever family.” — Monique Ross
The Carpe embraced SistaStrings immediately: the audience sensed, correctly, that they were encountering a national treasure. Nathan and I feel the same. As grizzled, mid-career veterans, there is nothing that revitalizes your love of music like playing night after night with virtuosos who are hungry and playful and just keep getting better.
The songs on this record are the strongest things we could come up with — a few of my older tunes, a few of my newer co-writes, some unreleased tunes, and then of course Woody Guthrie, Iron and Wine, the Jayhawks, Daniel Johnston.