By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
As heard on last spring's Ala.Cali.Tucky, Brightblack's resulting aesthetic is minimal but not monochromatic, slow but not staid. The songs are anchored by reverb-laden, low-end undulations compliments of Hughes' Rhodes and Shineywater's drop-tuned guitar, gently jolted by Wilson's minimalist drumming. With the sonic bed in place, Hughes and Shineywater layer in their secret weapon: a warm bath of vocal harmonies, sleepy and whispered.
"We like to find the pocket in our harmonies," says Hughes. "You know there's the pocket in anything you do. With harmonies there's definitely a pocket. There's a close relationship with two people who can sing, finding the breath that's the same, so you can pull off a good sound, a sound that's gonna carry out and reverberate."
It's sweet, syrupy stuff, but an acquired taste. And that fact at least partially explains why Brightblack hasn't followed friends like Banhart and Newsom into more widespread success. But there's more to it than that.
"One thing that's important to us is we don't play shows with people we don't know or don't have a kinship to," explains Shineywater, hinting at the beatnik ethic that, for better or worse, keeps the band well below the radar. In addition to handpicking the lineups of their shows (which, as a result, are always splendid, down-home affairs), Shineywater and Hughes rarely manage to hold down real jobs, have spent long stretches living out of their respective cars, and currently live together in a small cabin in Lagunitas. "It looks like it used to be a chicken coop," says the guitarist. "It's smaller than a one-car garage; we sleep on bunk beds."
The pair grew up in Alabama, Shineywater in Birmingham, Hughes in a small town outside Montgomery. At their initial shows together they called themselves Rainywood; the act's first gig was a benefit for the Alabama Green Party that drew 15 people. Among the small group of writers, artists, and musicians living in Birmingham, however, was a gentleman named Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, aka one of the most respected and revered folkie types in the country. Oldham took a liking to Rainywood and invited the group on tour with him. He remains one of the band's mentors to this day.
"[Oldham] showed us touring doesn't need to be this laborious, taxing, hell-on-wheels scenario," says Shineywater. "It can be laid-back. Like, the second tour we did with him in the Southwest, we scheduled our shows around hot springs."
Brightblack has done three tours with Oldham, the last of which was a West Coast stint in 2002 that eventually landed the group in Lagunitas, where it's stayed ever since.
"We don't have plans to leave," says Shineywater, "but I don't like to stay anywhere for too long."
Despite the fact that Brightblack finds itself in the middle of, or at least a mere 20 miles north of, San Francisco's so-called "freak-folk" movement, its chances of following in the footsteps of peers like Banhart, Newsom, and Jolie Holland are low in light of the subtler, more challenging nature of its sound. Still, considering how nonchalant the group is about its career (says Shineywater, "If I want a career, I'll go be a dental assistant"), it has had some notable successes of late: Composer Rachel Grimes of Rachel's will be assisting with arrangements on some upcoming songs, and Brightblack was recently invited by a reunited Slint to play the vaunted All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England in February, which will be the first time that Shineywater has ever left the United States.
"Slint's taking Nay-bob out of the country," chuckles Hughes. "I think that's great."
Before that happens, however, there'll be the second annual installment of the Quiet Quiet Window Lights series, this year featuring an even more diverse lineup, including Banhart, Vetiver, psychedelic singer/ songwriter Entrance, local crooner Peggy Honnywell, and more (Bonnie "Prince" Billy was on the bill as of last week, but now his chances of showing are slim, according to Shineywater).
After Window Lights and after Brightblack returns from England, the band plans to seek out a label to help it record a new album. With Grimes involved -- and the possibility of having other name artists contribute (Brightblack has nothing if not a loyal set of talented friends) -- the follow-up to Ala.Cali.Tucky might put the group on the map. Until that time, though, Ray-bob and Nay-bob are keeping their priorities straight.
"The other day Ray-bob told me she wanted to live more primitive, like the Native Americans," Shineywater writes in an e-mail in response to a follow-up question about the band's future goals. "Each summer we sleep in tents because our cabin is so small. Now here in the winter we have to sleep inside. I think that disconnection from sleeping with her back on the Earth's dirt is making her sad. So maybe a goal would be for us to spend next year completely outside when we sleep."