Sometimes change is pursued, sometimes it is imposed. For the music duo known as Victor and Penny, change arrived both ways in 2014.
A year that involved more than 250 shows and 100 days on the road was a mix of transformation and growth, trials and tribulations, renewal and recovery.
“This summer, I think we were on the verge of burnout, just sheer exhaustion,” said Erin McGrane, who plays Penny to Jeff Freling’s Victor in the ukulele-guitar duet. “But we made it through.”
They made it through a lot: an illness and surgery; some financial turbulence, including major car repairs; and the kind of income tax quagmire that is not uncommon for “someone who has been a self-employed entertainer since 2002,” McGrane said. The two are a duo onstage and off.
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All of that followed the dissolution of a project they’d worked on for a year: recording an album of unpublished songs by a writer they’d discovered during some “sonic archaeology,” as McGrane put it. Those songs became the focus of a four-week artistic retreat McGrane and Freling took in early 2013. However, unexpectedly, the songwriter could not be persuaded to approve the project.
“We were not able to secure rights to record the material,” she said. “It derailed the entire project and left us without an album to release and not sure what to do next.”
Instead of succumbing to burnout, they got some help deciding what to do next.
In July, they hired Kari Estrin, an artist manager and consultant, to give them feedback and advice and a sense of purpose and clarity. After three years, two full-length albums, hundreds of shows and tens of thousands of miles on the road, Victor and Penny were approaching a standstill.
So they turned to Estrin, whom they’d met in February at the Folk Alliance International Conference at the Westin Crown Center, where she’d been a panelist. She put them through the equivalent of a career enema.
“It was an exhaustive process,” McGrane said. “We sent her everything, including demos and stuff we recorded just for her. We filled out questionnaires. It took her weeks to work through it. But she had a really positive assessment and very specific advice: Here’s the kind of sound you need. Here’s what you need to do to attract bookers.”
“It was kind of like therapy,” Freling said. “Some of it got pretty personal. But she had a lot of really good advice.”
Estrin told them that one way of getting over the disappointment of the derailed recording would be to make another record, quickly, one that showcased the energy of their live performances.
“She recommended we put out a live album that would capture where our music is now,” McGrane said. “It had been almost two years since we released our previous record. This would give us something to offer our audience and give us time to write new material.”
Estrin also offered them something more vital: encouragement.
“She provided the answer to the question: Are we good enough to go out and tour nationally and do we have the skills to participate on a larger stage? She assured us we did, but here are the things we had to work on,” McGrane said.
Estrin also helped Freling and McGrane navigate the changes the duo was going through musically. Victor and Penny were founded as a duet. But bassist Rick Willoughby started sitting in regularly during shows, mostly in Kansas City. Then early this year, they started enlisting James Isaac as a clarinetist. A quartet’s dynamic is different from a duo’s, which required some sorting.
“She helped us clarify that,” McGrane said. “The duo is a more intimate experience, more story telling, more theater. The band is more a full-on, live dance band.”
They recorded “Live at the Living Room Theater” in late September before an audience of friends, family and die-hard fans. It was engineered by Ian Corbett and recorded by John Story. Duane Trower mixed and mastered it at Weights and Measures Soundlab. The album captures the verve of the live shows and it showcases both facets: the duo and the quartet.
“We’re proud of it,” McGrane said. “Ian and John and Duane all did great work. It far exceeded our expectations.”
“Live” includes a newer song, “Salt,” which McGrane said was an indication of the direction the band’s music is headed. Instead of quick, jaunty antique-pop songs, the newer material has a bit more gravitas.
“I write most of the lyrics, and the themes are maybe more sophisticated,” she said. “I don’t know if I want to say darker but … maybe contemplative is a better word.”
Freling had a more illustrative take on where the new sound might be headed.
“I’m trying to imagine what it would sound like if Thom Yorke and Hoagy Carmichael wrote songs together,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine, but I’m trying.”
The plans are to take the full band out more this year but to also refine the focus of the duo, which will remain the heart of the act. They received some advice about that, too.
At the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance in November, they met with Don White, a former standup comic who is now a singer/songwriter and humorist. He gave McGrane some feedback on the craft of telling stories and jokes. And he reminded them both what the most vital part of their performance is, especially within the quartet.
“He said the most important thing happening on stage is the duo, the interaction, that tension, between us two,” McGrane said. “That’s what people are most attracted to, more than the songs or anything else, whether we’re the duo or the full band.”
“It takes more awareness, on our part, of our connection to each other,” Freling said. “It’s more complicated. I have to be mindful of our (musical) relationship, our relationship to the band and our relationship to the audience … and still play diminished arpeggios correctly.”
Saturday night, Victor & Penny and their Loose Change Orchestra will return to the Living Room and give the “Live” recording a formal release party. It will be a celebration of the present and a declaration: More change is going to come.
“This album was such a joyful project,” McGrane said. “It freed ourselves to write new music and have something out that we’re really proud of.
“New material is on the way, but this is a great encapsulation of where we are now, a middle point between what we’ve been doing and where we’re going.”
Victor & Penny and their Loose Change Orchestra will perform Saturday at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. Showtime is 8 p.m. Admission is $10.