As Banshee Tree, Kalyn Pembridge and Thomas LaFond make a surprisingly original and enticing mix of gypsy jazz, folk pop and swing. They moved to Colorado from upstate New York four years ago, and can be seen seemingly every night of the week along the Front Range, playing a mix of standards like "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and mellifluously joyful originals. And after they play, they drive into the mountains west of Boulder to the 100-year-old mining cabin they have called home for the past several months. The tiny house is divided in half; there's a greenhouse on one side and a single room on the other. It has no running water, and the only electricity comes from a solar-powered generator. There's a wood stove and a sink that drains into a bucket. "We don't have enough power for our coffee grinder," says LaFond, "but we have enough to record our music."
The cabin is actually situated in a small town, which, in an effort to bring in young artists, is allowing the pair to live there rent-free. Still, the town's officials have asked the band not to divulge the exact location, fearing it will become "another Nederland," which they see as overrun with transplants. When they moved in, one distinguished local memorably told them, "We pride ourselves on not letting other people know we're friendly."
Pembridge and LaFond have been happy to keep quiet. "It's a special place that we want to keep secret, because the opportunity is so rare," Pembridge says.
Still, the lifestyle has required some adjustment. "I haven't talked to my mom in a month," she says. She's sitting on the steps of Sanitas Brewing in Boulder before a gig there in late October. The act's musical versatility has ensured plenty of bookings: Banshee Tree will play License #1, a cocktail lounge in the basement of the Hotel Boulderado, every Saturday in November, and at Oskar Blues's "bike cantina," CyclHOPS, later in the month.
Pembridge plays washboard, and LaFond is an outstanding percussive guitarist. They share lead-vocal duties, but Pembridge's voice and stage presence are the heart of the duo, emanating talent and a spirit that turns every head in a room. "Most of our shows are for people who like to swing-dance in speakeasies," she says.
But Banshee Tree has ambitious musical plans, part of which involve working with an electronic-music producer. "We've been writing a lot of folky songs and recording our swing covers while working with our experimental music [a combination of swing and electronica] behind the scenes until we're ready to share it," says Pembridge. For now, she and LaFond are working to build their musicianship and resourcefulness into a sustainable career.
Despite their remote address and career focus, they're also interested in helping foster a music community and have begun work on founding an artists' collective. "We want to call it M.A.D. -- Mountain Artists Division -- and make it sort of an artists' union for people who live in mountain towns like Lyons, Nederland and Estes Park," says Pembridge. "People who are secluded from the mainstream and can't afford to come down [from the mountains] -- we want to help make them known; they'll have a profile on the M.A.D. website. We'll try and help each other as a group [and] make sure everyone can make it as an individual."
They've had to juggle time spent planning the collective with the daunting task of preparing for their first winter without many of the modern conveniences most Americans take for granted. "We've canned about 100 quarts of food so far," says LaFond. When asked how Banshee Tree will continue its rampant gigging, knowing that each night will end in a journey deep into the snowy mountains, he doesn't miss a beat: "Four-wheel drive."
Even things that seem simple require planning. "We went to a friend's house to borrow YouTube to learn how to tie a knot," he says. "It's not easy, but you can get everything down to a rhythm with practice."
"We love it," says Pembridge. "We have more luxury than the lifestyle we had before." That lifestyle involved living out of their car in Boulder. While some artists are helped along their career paths with outside financial support, many more must choose whether to split their time between jobs and music or find ways to focus on music by sacrificing things like, well, having a home.
"People should know that a lot of musicians are sleeping in their cars," Pembridge says. "They think [that kind of sacrifice] is worth it, and we do, too. When you're not born into money, you gain so much more in return when you have to give up certain things."
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