When they formed the Milk Carton Kids in 2011, Californians Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale immediately drew lofty comparisons, thanks to the glowing, lockstep harmonies that elevated their acoustic folk songs. Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers were regularly cited as vocal influences; so were Gillian Welch & David Rawlings.
The Kids, however, established their own identity by writing refined songs that steered folk into other terrains, musically and lyrically, embellishing them with sophisticated guitar interplay. They also dressed up their stage shows, literally and figuratively, performing in suits and ties and trading jokes and witty banter and telling stories between songs.
Sunday night, the Milk Carton Kids perform at Liberty Hall in Lawrence. Joey Ryan recently talked to The Star about his duo, its songwriting, its rise in popularity and collaborating with country and folk artists like Emmylou Harris.
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Q: What was the objective when you started the duo five years ago and how has it changed since?
A: I’d say today we are about right in line with what we were trying to do very early on. We decided we wanted to explore how much could be done with two guitars and two voices. That was our creative mantra or whatever. After that our goal was to stop playing in dive bars and start playing in theaters. Once that happened we felt like we pretty much did what we had set out to do.
Q: When did you realize how naturally your voices blended?
A: Our voices sounded compelling together the first time we played together. What was not obvious to me was the overall way we played together, mostly the way we played guitars together. I remember very clearly the first time we played together and I actually thought it sounded really bad. I thought we sang harmonies fine, but our sense of tempo is very different and our sense of dynamic was different and it felt like we were pushing and pulling against each other the whole time.
But Kenneth had put up a microphone, and when we listened back to it, that pushing and pulling and the way we were approaching the songs differently made it kind of exciting. It had this tension to it, which was cool.
It felt really weird for the first six months or year we played together, and I had to take it on faith that it sounded good. It felt like we were trying to find each other but never really getting in sync. But when we’d listen back, whatever it was that was making me feel that way actually sounded good.
But as far as our voices go, it’s easy to tell when the harmony is blending properly, so that came very naturally. There is a natural way about the way we articulate words and think about vowel sounds and think about the pitch and tonality of our voices.
We don’t really have to do a lot of work to get the voices to blend that way. I realize it doesn’t always work that way, even with two people who are good singers, the way they think about words and pitch and phrasing, it doesn’t always line up naturally or blend perfectly and you have to work at it. I’ve had that experience with other people.
Q: When you performed at the 2014 Folk Alliance festival in Kansas City, there was a buzz and hype about you. When did you first notice the momentum building behind you?
A: It was pretty gradual, kind of like biological evolution. … It started with some opening tours, then an appearance on Conan O’Brien and other things along the way that boosted our profile. But then there would be periods of time we were just kind of cruising and coasting, even declining a little bit, and we’d start to think, “Oh, maybe it’s over.”
But invariably something that would happen. I don’t remember a single moment, though, which I think is good because I was nervous about that particular Folk Alliance you saw us at because it did seem like people were anticipating our performances there, and I never feel comfortable in those situations. Our greatest enemy is high expectations. I’d much rather be the underdog, which we were for so long and still are in some situations.
The one exception to the very gradual thing was when the movie “Another Day, Another Time” came out, the concert film that T Bone Burnett and the Coen brothers made. It features us for like 10 minutes. That was a big turning point for us. It happened about a month after our Grammy nomination and month before the first time we were on “Austin City Limits.” That moment was sort of like a demonstrable change in magnitude. We had a 55-city tour on sale at that time, and within a week every show was sold out and we had to move to bigger venues.
Q: How collaborative is the songwriting?
A: It’s completely collaborative, but it happens in different ways. Some songs are entirely written by either one of us, but we never consider a song done until the vocal harmonies and the guitar parts are written. So in the end there is always some amount of collaboration. We try not to sit down together with a totally blank page and write a song for the hell of it. That usually yields bad songs.
It can be everything from, “Hey, I’ve got a chord progression or a melody that I really love or I have a stanza of lyrics I really love” to “Hey, I think I’m 95 percent of the way through this song. Let’s finish it.”
Q: Harmonies are so integral to your songs. Do you keep the harmonies in mind when you’re writing songs?
A: Definitely. We modify melodies all the time in order to accommodate more interesting harmonies. We will realize, like, if the melody for these two notes moves down this way, which actually wouldn’t make as much sense if you were hearing the melody alone, it allows the harmony to do this cool thing that’s much more compelling.
So in that sense, yes, we definitely write melodies to accommodate more interesting harmony parts and we try not to just mash up the harmony part a third above the melody part and call it a day. We’re always pushing ourselves to do something more thoughtful and engaging.
Q: Your rapport between songs is also an important part of your performances. How did that evolve and is any of it scripted?
A: Most of the presentation grew from a survival instinct. When you play in dive bars and rock clubs and you’re trying to do this really quiet show and they couldn’t really turn the sound up over the din of a chatty crowd, talking to the audience — to the extent there was one in those days — was a big part of it.
So was dressing up for the show. Wearing a suit to play a show in a dive bar and putting out rows of folding chairs for people to sit in so they aren’t mingling about, drinking and talking: All of those things were part of an effort to create an atmosphere that was different from what the surroundings would suggest. It let people know ours was kind of a different show. And we needed that because our show can fall flat on its face if the sound of other people talking is louder than our show.
The rapport between us and the stories and jokes between songs has developed into a part of the show that’s as important as the music. That’s another area where I feel a little uncomfortable about the expectations, for obvious reasons. But it’s one of the most fun parts of the show for me. Getting a roomful of people to laugh is just as satisfying as getting a roomful of people to sing along or cry or however they react to songs they love.
As far as being scripted: We’ve never sat down to write anything, but people who have seen us more than once will recognize certain stories and jokes because certain things just seem to work. They always came out naturally or improvised from some sort of moment. And if it works, we refine it and hone it and then after a few weeks or months we have certain things that we like to repeat.
Q: Do you step out of the duo mode and collaborate with other people or bigger ensembles?
A: We’ve done a bunch of collaborative things. The most recent was “Shovels & Rope: Busted Jukebox,” a collection (Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst) put together where they collaborate with people they like. We did a cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience” as a four-person band with Shovels & Rope. It was great.
We have this kind of recurring show we do called the Milk Carton Kids Revue, the focus of which is collaboration. We put together a house band, and Kenneth and I are in the house band, and we have four or five guests come up, and each will do their own songs and a cover song, and then we do a set in the middle.
The good thing about the type of music we play is people want to get together and see what happens when you put your egos aside and work together. We were part of a remake of an old Johnny Cash album called “Bitter Tears,” where we got to collaborate with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle separately. So we sang three-part harmonies with Emmylou with this great house band put together by Joe Henry, who produced the album. And we sang and played on Steve Earle’s version of “Custer.”
The great thing about traveling with two guitars and one mic is we can pretty much do our thing anywhere with anyone.