The Tuscon-based Americana duo adjusts to their place in what's left of a record industry.
Last year, Ryan Alfred played Jazz Fest as part of Calexico’s band; this year it gave him and his Americana duo Sweet Ghosts an excuse to tour.
“I had been to New Orleans on tour a bunch of times,” he says. “Katherine [Byrnes, the other half of Sweet Ghosts] and I went down last year with Calexico to play and took the opportunity after the show to take a little vacation and hang out and we loved it. We rented bikes and biked around. [Sax player] Derek Huston invited us to a crawfish boil. We had the most magical time, so somewhere around January or December, we said, We’ve got to go back to New Orleans. How’re we going to get there? We’ve got to go back during Jazz Fest. The idea congealed from there. We’re going to be putting a record out; let’s just tour. We don’t have label or any backing, so those decisions all come from us.”
Sweet Ghosts plays Siberia Sunday night.
For Alfred, that freedom makes it possible to merge the music and their personal lives. Later this summer, they’ll also do a West Coast tour timed so that they can attend a friend’s wedding in the Northwest. Alfred has played with and tour managed for Calexico, The Jayhawks, and other bands, so he’s aware of the costs of touring and the choices they’re making. “We may lose money on this run, but it’ll be way less than we’d have paid to go to New Orleans on vacation,” he says.
Alfred and Byrnes share Tuscon as a home base with Calexico, but for him it’s a recent home. “I’ve only lived here for coming up on five years,” he says. “I was living in New York, and I was like, I’m over it.” He’d enjoyed Tuscon whenever he had passed through it in the past and decided to check it out.
Sweet Ghosts’ album Certain Truths shares some of Calexico’s spacious sound, but the songs are smaller and more autumnal. Their voices define the songs, which are framed by a disciplined acoustic guitar and colored by discreet synths, pianos, strings, and other instruments that coo, hum, and yearn in the background. Unlike Calexico’s songs which invoke the desert, Sweet Ghosts’ songs on Certain Truths sound like late afternoon songs when winter’s coming, and Alfred sets the lyrical tone for the album with the opening lines of “Detroit,” the album opener:
There’s a crazy old homeless woman
with more fingers than teeth.
She’s got headphones but no radio
doing a rain dance down the street.
She points her hand at me and says
“Boy, I’ve got my good eye on you.”
Certain Truth isn’t always that ominous or descriptive, but the songs are often narrative or have narrative elements that are employed with plainspoken earnestness. Moments of musical and lyrical epiphanies come when Alfred and Byrnes sing wordless passages together, their voices rising like sparks off a fire a night.
“Detroit” was written while Alfred was playing in his first band after he finished at Berkee College of Music - “a cheeseball fusion band playing lots of sixteenth notes.”
“That band had a relationship with a bar in Detroit and we went through a few times,” Alfred says. “I wrote scenes from it in the spirit of wanting to process for myself, What did I just experience?” He’d lived in New York, Baltimore and Boston to that point, so visiting a city in staggering decline was startling. The lyrics don’t embellish, though, so there are few lines throughout the album that romanticize situations, whether to make them bleaker or more beautiful. Americana audiences tend to value that sort of clear-eyed writing, which suits Alfred just fine. “You’re not reliant on discernible trends,” he says.
Alfred is similarly matter of fact about the business and the improbability of blowing up, partly because of his experience. He attended Berklee during the heyday of Napster. “It’s also the era when Usher sold 2.5 million copies of that album Confessions in a week. To come out of school and have an awareness of those numbers, then have them almost immediately drop off and have everything we knew about the record industry become completely invalid within years of graduating was interesting.”
Alfred doesn’t see the changes as necessarily bad. “Maybe there’s a little more realism now,” he says. “It seems infinitely easier to be a working class, self-managed touring musician. The tools are there.
“The idea of being the professional entertainer is such a young idea. It’s only a hundred years old,” he says, and the era from the 1970s to the 1990s of musicians making crazy money were the result of a specific set of record industry, touring and radio circumstances that don’t exist anymore. “I think it’s healthy for musicians at my level to readjust their expectations and not aim for that.”