The bluegrass duo Sugar Moon is a rising star on the Front Range folk scene, and the reason for the pair's popularity is clear on its first album, Special Shade of Blue, a collection of gorgeous songs backed with melancholy bluegrass instrumentation.
While the album is almost ready to go, Kyra Holt and Elli Varas are facing some big obstacles getting it out: Live concerts are canceled, Colorado's summer bluegrass festival season is mostly scrapped, and most community jams are being pushed back. Even the printing of the record, which was scheduled to drop in May, was delayed, so the release was moved to June. Yet like many musicians in these odd times, the two carry on.
Westword caught up with Holt and Varas to talk about their album, their history in Colorado bluegrass, and what it's like to release new music during a pandemic.
Westword: How did you two get your start in bluegrass? What drew you to the music, and how did you learn to play?
Kyra Holt: I was lucky. Both my parents were musical and piped into the early Colorado bluegrass scene. Growing up, my mom owned HB Woodsongs, an awesome acoustic-music store in Boulder, and both had connections with Planet Bluegrass. I picked up my dad's banjo in middle school after spending the summer attending my first festivals in Telluride and Lyons, starstruck by Béla Fleck and Tony Furtado,
Elli Varas: Colorado is home, but I spent some time in the deep South and developed a real love of traditional music-making. I picked up a washtub bass and musical saw during that time, started playing banjo and going to jams. Songwriting has always been my focus, though — so my guitar playing was always in service of wanting to express something or tell a story.
Why do you think Colorado's bluegrass scene is so strong?
Varas: It's such a joyful place to be, and I think that comes out in the music. The bluegrass culture here is so strong, so there's just this constant pool of awesome musicians bubbling up and forming great bands.
Holt: The festival culture, with its welcoming bluegrass jams and workshops, seems to have literally grown the Colorado scene.
Tell me about the songs on this album. What themes are you interested in exploring?
Varas: Well, we like being outside, so there's a lot of natural imagery: "Limb by Limb" is a fun love story about two trees growing in the forest next to each other. I think there's an underlying theme throughout of women overcoming adversity; I like the image in "Green Corn Moon" of this very feminine, round moon, solo, just bravely charging across the cold night sky. Sometimes I relate to that feeling. Just keep moving, put one foot in front of the other. Parenthood shows up in my songwriting, as well; "Special Shade of Blue" was written when I was wrestling with the idea that something can be so special but also so fleeting. It seemed appropriate to make that the title of the album, because I think it's a feeling we're all sort of struggling with right now: this sadness that feels profound and important and kind of beautiful.
Holt: I agree with Elli about the feminine theme. My two originals on the album were actually written while playing in an all-female band in North Carolina. Both songs, "Great Divide" and "Two Timer," are stylistically more aligned with the traditional driving bluegrass sound, but written from the woman's perspective. We joke that "Two Timer," a song sung from the dueling perspectives of a lover and wife who eventually team up, is a murder ballad for the 21st century.
What's it been like to try to release an album from quarantine?
Varas: It's been an interesting challenge! Thankfully, we got all of the actual studio recording done in February, but all of the post-production has been done remotely. Eric Wiggs engineered the thing and has been awesome to work with. While of course we're sad not to be able to have a release party and really capitalize on that momentum, we're thinking of this as an opportunity to dig in and be creative. I'm writing a lot, and we've had a few socially distanced rehearsals with new material. I have this hope that one of the silver linings will be a creative boom from so many cooped-up musicians who don't usually have the mental bandwidth to just write or practice their instrument or be creative in new ways.
Do you see any unique possibilities with folk styles in the face of COVID-19?
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Varas: Folk music is like the fundamental kind of music-making. Historically, it's just people making music in their everyday lives, with whatever instruments they had on hand. The requirements are minimal. People are so desperately craving music right now, and craving human connection, and I think this kind of simple, earnest, authentic music can really fill a need on both fronts. I'm also excited to hear about how many people in quarantine are picking up instruments.
What's next for you?
Varas: It's a big unknown. Right now, we're trying to focus on the opportunities: refining our sound and writing more. We toy with the idea of expanding into an all-gal four-piece group, so maybe you'll see Sugar Moon take up a little more space in 2021.
Hear "Limb by Limb" from Sugar Moon's upcoming album, Special Shade of Blue.