When Rachel Simring was looking to replace her ex-boyfriend guitarist back in Georgia, in 1993, she almost passed on Andy Ard. Two other musicians had already offered to play with her, so when the perennially shy Ard approached her with a hesitant "I don't know if you remember me," she politely took his number, not expecting to ever make the call.
Then she did make the call. After the other candidates failed to gel with her in the way she'd hoped, Simring invited Ard over to jam. The session, as she remembers it now, was chaos, through no fault of Ard's: Simring spent most of the time caring for a lost dog she'd found that day. "I was calling all these people, trying to find the owner, and we were supposed to be practicing," she says. "It was psychotic."
But the music that ensued -- Simring and Ard harmonizing to the plaintive strum of his acoustic guitar -- seemed to make perfect sense. Their voices blended well. They got along. After a few more practices, the pair decided to play a show together, though Simring had yet to decide if Ard was the partner she was committed to.
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"What really sold me was at the end of the show, Andy gave me a hug, and he said, 'This has been fun. Thank you so much. I'd be happy to play with you again, because without you, I'm a dime a dozen,'" she explains. Sensing that she had found not only a musical peer but a friend, Simring decided Ard was a keeper. So the two cleverly christened themselves Rachel & Andy, began playing more frequently, and eventually became a popular local act in Athens, Georgia, then Atlanta, and now Denver -- where they officially relaunched last year. Their sound harks back to the sweet harmonies of groups like the Everly Brothers and more recent ones such as the Rembrandts.
"Automatically, when we say we're a duo and we say we're acoustic, people have [an idea] in mind of what that should sound like," he says. "We tilt more toward the Ramones than the Mamas and the Papas or Peter, Paul and Mary. My background's gritty rock and roll, and Rachel's voice adds a really cool dynamic to that."
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While she's not so sure about the Ramones comparison, honey-alto-voiced Simring is quick to expand on misconceptions that plague the group. "When you tell people that you're an acoustic duo, they immediately want to stick you in coffeehouses," she says. "But whenever we play in coffeehouses, we have to turn ourselves down so much that we almost don't need our P.A. I've got a loud voice, and our act is very energetic. It's not necessarily the best act to stick in the corner of a coffeehouse when people are trying to read and have discussions amongst themselves."
In the early days, the two found diverse audiences in college bars, at fraternity parties and on the festival circuit, eventually establishing a sort of home base at the City Bar, a local Athens hangout. At the time, they played mostly covers, from Fleetwood Mac and Concrete Blonde to the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival, eventually crafting their own material with Ard at the writing helm.
Damon Krebs, the bar's manager, remembers the duo's appeal to everyone from college kids to doctors and lawyers. "We don't do a lot of acoustic music, but Rachel & Andy had enough energy to keep everyone happy, drinking and dancing," he says. "They're talented, and she has a great voice."
The duo played at the Athens club and other local hangouts pretty consistently for three years before picking up and moving to Atlanta. Though the two didn't quit their day jobs (and still haven't, for that matter: Rachel runs Club Amigos, a company that brings Spanish classes to local elementary schools; Andy does Web site flash design and audio consulting), they continued to play in both cities, and they got the occasional positive review from local papers: "More damn fun than a barrel of naked monkeys" was how one local critic described the band's shows.
Sometimes the commentary wasn't so positive. On one return trip to Athens, Andy stopped to pick up the college rags, "just to see if they wrote anything about us," he explains. One publication, Red & Black, had given them some ink, though the journalist didn't share the fun-monkey sentiment. "Rachel should kick Andy out," the piece read. "All he does is sit and play that acoustic guitar and sing his little dittys [sic]. She's the real talent."
"I was more or less amused by it," says Ard, laughing as he thinks back, "because obviously they caught us on a bad night, or it was one person's opinion of the show. But Rachel was just furious. She was like, 'How dare they say that about you!'" Even now, the comment is enough to get Rachel's dander up a bit. "It was complimentary of me, but I wasn't flattered by that. Okay, I should kick Andy out, all he does is play his little ditties. Well, somebody's playing the little ditties, and it's certainly not me!"
However, as Rachel & Andy's fan base widened, praise was more common than criticism, with listeners responding to the symbiotic way that the two musicians communicated on stage. They decided to commit that live energy to a recording and, in 1999, they released a debut CD called So Much Left to Say. A varied collection of twelve tunes (most penned by Ard), the release took place right before Simring made the big move to Denver to launch Club Amigos. Her teaching job in a private school had pretty much run its course; when her family decided to head west, she went along, feeling she needed a fresh start. So, for her, the title of the CD felt appropriate on several different levels.
"I knew that I was moving to Colorado, and it was the whole idea of when you leave any situation, you always feel like there's so much left to say," says Simring. "How many songs have been written about things that you should have told people?" she adds. Her bandmate agrees with that take, but more from the musical perspective. "In any situation like that, you always feel like you never get the whole message in," says Ard. "That whole album, the songs that are on there are just scratching the surface of what we've got waiting in the wings."
If So Much was a goodbye letter of sorts to the Georgia community, it was quite a farewell, indeed. The album contains the duo's now-trademark harmonies and runs the gamut of subject matter to touch on themes of love, change, redemption, social strata, dreams and bitterness. The CD is reminiscent of back-to-basics rock and roll with a poet's lyrical touch of the sort captured recently by Billy Bragg and Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue collections. On "Bridges Burned," the album's soaring opening track, Ard croons raspily about jealousy and loss: "How do I apologize/There were things I didn't realize?/We'll rebuild the bridges on the way/Oh, girl, there's so much left to say." The vaudevillian "Dr. & the Mrs.," which the pair describes as the "Oompa Loompas singing to the parents of a spoiled brat," is a sing-songy look at highfalutin' rich folk and their "not so very nice" but oh-so-cute offspring: "Well there's dimples in his cheeks and a sparkle in his eye/Never mind the fact that he's telling you lies."
Tracks like "Will You Tell Her?" highlight Simring's husky alto and recall other female singers like Baby Animals' Suze DeMarchi and Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano. Originally written as "Will You Tell Him?" and sung by Ard, the tune now unveils the story of an obsessed woman who asks her ex-boyfriend if he's going to tell his new girlfriend the same lines she once heard: "Will you leave her if she's not just what you need?"
"It's creepier with her singing it, and more haunting," says Ard, though Simring adds that she now takes the heat for the song's Fatal Attraction-esque underpinnings. "It's about this bitter lover, and it's funny because everyone thinks I'm so bitter, but Andy wrote the song."
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Bitterness isn't something the duo is feeling much of these days. In fact, since Ard joined Simring in Denver last July, they've quickly been accepted into the local music mix. Currently, the two are hard at work in their very own home studio finishing up tunes for a second CD. They aim to put together a full band so that the next release will be much more "ambitious as far as instrumentation and arrangement," says Ard. The planned addition of a drummer and a bass player will "really make the songs rock" and go beyond the three-minute lengths that have characterized the tunes so far.
Rachel & Andy are also carving a niche in Denver's music scene, thanks in part to contacts and connections they've made through the Colorado Music Association, or COMA. While Ard is spearheading a February 28 benefit for kids' music programs (known as Maestro) at the Soiled Dove, Simring is producing a local-music compilation CD for Denver-area venues to play in between sets. Featuring twenty bands, ranging from the New Texas Troubadours to Kristina Ingham and Eric Shiveley, the CD should be done by mid-February. "Some club owners contacted COMA and said, 'Look, if you can make some sort of compilation of local music, we'd play it.' We can't think of better music to play than local music," Simring says of the project's origins.
Further upping the sweetness quotient of their semi-saccharine grouping, Simring and Ard have made their musical partnership a marital one, as well: The two were wed in a New Year's Day ceremony in Estes Park. But according to Simring, romance was not part of what brought them together in the early days. "When we first started singing together, everyone kept saying, 'Wow, the chemistry between you is just phenomenal. Are you guys, you know, going out?' I was like, 'No, no, no.' We just thought the other was a dork, respectively, and definitely not each other's type. And then, after singing for a while, we developed a close bond, and we shared some experiences that really brought us closer together."
Although he's hesitant to delve into the personal, Andy offers a glimpse into what makes the group's music so, well, harmonious. "Obviously we had grown very close over the years," he explains. "On a musical note, it was very strange and actually depressing, somewhat, to go from gigging regularly for seven years and then [to not have that] from July 1999 to this year, basically. I played a little bit here and there by myself, and with other bands half-heartedly, but it wasn't the same thing, I could feel it. There's just something that happens when we start playing together."