"We like to work on the soul of our music, not just playing the songs," says upright bassist, naturalist and claw-hammer-style banjo player Natalie Spears about the acoustic project she shares with Lizzy Plotkin, who plays fiddle, guitar and mandolin.
Plotkin and Spears came together through their mutual appreciation of and connection to Grammy-winning bassist Victor Wooten, who is widely known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones as well as for his own musical projects. Both had attended Wooten's nonprofit music camp, Victor Wooten's Center for Music and Nature, in Tennessee, where the curriculum includes exercises intended to sharpen students' listening skills and increase their ability to be present in the moment.
"We were both girls from Colorado who had gone to Victor's camp, and we both do a lot of songwriting about the natural world," explains Spears. "We met when Victor played a show in Pagosa Springs that we both went to see. He was like, 'Hey, you two should play together.' So we started talking, and that's how we connected. We're also both musicians and teachers in environmental outdoor education. Our interest in the natural world is a big part of what helps us move forward in this project. It might sound a little woo-woo, but the spirit of nature and trying to tune in to it is really important to our intention as a creative entity. There's more to nature than just what we see."
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Spears knows all about tuning in to her surroundings. The 29-year-old musician makes her home in the mountain town of Carbondale, where she has been living since 2010, while Plotkin, 30, resides in scenic Crested Butte. The two collaborate via cell phone and voice messages when not making the two-hour journey between their respective high-country footholds.
"It's a long-distance relationship," says Spears, who grew up in urban Washington, D.C., before moving west in 2007 to attend Colorado College, where she studied for a while before moving on. "It's a lot of showing up and playing gigs. We stay with each other, so I've spent a fair amount of time with Lizzy and her dog in her little apartment. Crested Butte is a beautiful place that I really relate to."
The two women first played together in a band called Free the Honey, which was a bluegrass-oriented group started by Plotkin and based in the Gunnison Valley. Spears eventually left the project to return to school at Naropa University in Boulder, where she earned a degree in music. As a duo, they tackle a variety of old-time music, including the work of quirky Americana fiddler and banjoist John Hartford.
"Lizzy takes a lot of inspiration from Hartford," says Spears, who also resided in Lyons for a while and worked as a farmer and builder of straw-bale homes before settling into music. "His work made a big impact on her. I really like it, too. We recently played the John Hartford Memorial Festival, so we learned a whole bunch of his songs, which we delve into when we perform together. Our live shows are a mix of instrumental pieces as well as songs with lyrics. Sometimes I'll play banjo and then switch to bass, and Lizzy might play guitar or mandolin in addition to her fiddle. It all depends on the song. "
Both Plotkin and Spears tackle the songwriting for their duo, and they co-arrange the music. They hope to eventually release a few of their tunes as a short EP.
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"We write our own songs individually and then work out the arrangement with each other when we meet up," Spears explains. "We hope to do some co-writing in the future. Lizzy and I also share a strong connection with our fathers and their music. Lizzy's dad is an amazing fiddle player who taught at the Berklee School of Music and who played a lot in Nashville. My dad is a jazz piano player. So we also find influences from those relationships."
Spears says the two play to a mix of audiences at venues that range from intimate rooms to smaller festivals, where there might be as many as 500 people.
"When we played with Free the Honey, we played bigger fests, but when it's just the two of us, we like to play smaller venues and listening rooms where we can develop a connection with people. We like to share the history of the songs with the audience and tell them about where we learned the tunes."