Rehearsals had to be a bit reserved with the baby in the room; snares, kick-drums and electric guitars aren't ideal for a newborn's lullaby.
But somehow it worked. In fact, Baby James (Dustan Jr.) would get fussy most when the music of his mother and father's band, Eleanora, stopped; when the sweet somber purr of Julia Stephenson's violin or the soft rolling thrum of Papa James' bass or the crackle of Dave Schultz' guitar would fade between rehearsal songs, that's actually when their one audience member would softly erupt.
Poor Scottie Stone, ...back there by the air-conditioner in James/Leah's Hazel Park living room, challenged to drum-delicately, the "garage-rocker" trying to find his way in what started as a "folksy" band; he had to put pads on his drums and play with brushes while mama Leah cradled the baby in her arms, his head on her shoulder as she sang out her soothing, soulful ballads. Can't blame the lil' guy, mom's voice, along with Stephenson's, are the kind of airy, ethereal wonders that one would ideally be whisked away to... Perhaps he just wanted them to keep singing...
...or he needed to be burped.
"It's been realistic," Leah says, swaying with baby-in-arms at the arch of her kitchen, gazing at her assembled bandmates, her extended family, really, seated circularly with instruments in her living room. It succinctly sums up Eleanora's past six months; with mom carrying and delivering a baby through a Michigan winter while also helping dad, James, (a scholarly-trained audio engineer) build a studio in their basement, thus that the rest of the band could finish recording their first proper full length album, (Some Happy Accidents - out Aug. 25).
Leah, daughter of a professional jazz singer and a scholarly-trained clarinetist, has been in some bands before but this one, Eleanora, is different.
"We come together," and she says this with a gravity where you feel the period point at the end. "We plug in and we work on songs and we take in this breath, together, and there's this electricity, this overtone in the room, ... of feeling like a real thing, now."
She says, "I would have missed that."
She almost did, as she admits there were days she wasn't sure of the band's, or at least the album's future, with the baby coming on the cusp of their final tracking and into the mixing sessions. Plus there was the inherent irk of not being out and playing live on local stages in the past eight months.
But Scottie, of Ferndale, says that didn't have any effect on his commitment. "Not to me, no. Actually, not to anyone in the band."
Leah sits down, cooing to the baby. "We all have this enthusiasm; that's irreplaceable."
Let me tell you a little about how this band formed.
Scottie met Leah roughly 30 seconds before they were to perform together. They were the latest collaborators performing with the band, The Boyfriends, recruited by esteemed poet / talented songwriter / charismatic-local-music-spark-plug David Blair (who passed away a year ago last month). This was 2009, though, down near Wayne State University and the Boyfriends were performing for the annual Dally in the Alley arts/music fair.
One thing leads to other things:
Leah was soon introduced to Scottie's girlfriend, Julia, a singer/songwriter/artist in her own right and the two women developed "this twin-sister bond," as Leah puts it. Julia still recalls Leah exclaiming to her that they were going to be best friends forever, with a cosmic certainty, after just their second-time jamming together.
Julia, who also plays acoustic guitar and sings, comes from musical roots as well, but from another pole. "She (Leah) gets the soul and I get the folk..."
And that's where it started, when singer/poet Blair took The Boyfriends on a world tour, Julia and Leah stayed home (for their day-jobs), finding time to start working on music together.
Two girls on acoustic guitar, Julia said, could tend to be, in those initial sessions, "so..." (she lowers to an airy whisper) "...soft."
But then James (the elder) came in on bass, intertwining, on occasion, with both girls playing cello. James subsequently invited his best friend, Dave, a singer/songwriter in his own right who plays with James in Maunder Minimum.
Scottie was the final piece to the puzzle. "Scottie drives the band," James said.
"It was too folksy at first," Scottie teases. "I had to change that."
But Scottie enjoys the engaging creative challenges traversed through Eleanora's song-crafting sessions.
There's little self-consciousness over playing this kind of music, whatever-you-wanna-call-it: folk, or "orchestral," or acoustic, ...or autumnal baroque-pop, in a city known for "garage-rock."
"I am one of those garage-rock guys," Scottie said, "and it's challenging me to play this music. That's why I get a lot of enjoyment out of it; I can't just go up there and play as hard as I can."
"I'd rather be trying to do Eleanora in Detroit," said James, "than, say, L.A."
"Plus, I like to challenge listeners," said Scottie. "It keeps it interesting."
And that's just it. Eleanora are inherently eclectic - blending an avant-garde sensibility to the folk format; their songs have movements, strings are sawed with gusto, vocal melodies wind with a whimsicality at points and those drums and guitars keep a fire under it all, simmering at the sweeter/softer points and roiling up when the cathartic kick is necessary. Some of their stuff is heady, even haunting, not quite jazz or not quite soul, but definitely not what you'd call "folk," either: a dark, dreamy stir of detached rhythms, occasional fits of experimental ambient-noise. And there's the allure of the ladies' intertwining vocals; sweet, syrupy, soaring.
"I would say," Leah searched a way to describe their new album Some Happy Accidents, "it's...modern. It's a new interpretation for me of what this nu-rock-folk-band is turning into..."
"Very lush," Julia adds.
"And full," Leah responds, "plus there's more electronic influences this time."
"This whole process," said James, the building of the studio, the birth, the recording, the mixing, the lullaby/practice-sessions...and continuing forward to their next set of live shows, "was a validation more than anything else."
They took the harder road, that's for sure. But they're closer because of it all. "Because we've been doing it so D-I-Y," Julia said, "so much of it is just from ourselves, here," (she gestures to James/Leah's house), "that it feels like an island sometimes. I have no idea what other people are gonna think of this or what they do think of us already..."
"It's been a crazy year," James said, looking over at Leah, who recently hosted a one-year memorial / get-together for friends/admirers of David Blair, likely the most influential force in bringing Eleanora together.
She's holding Baby James, still.
"It's like death and now birth..." Julia says.
Some Happy Accidents comes out for Eleanora's show at One Eyed Betty's in Ferndale on Aug. 25. Detroit Americana/folk-rockists Tone & Niche will open up the celebration.
Meanwhile, they'll be performing at the Ferndale Public Library at 7 p.m. Aug. 10, part of the First Stop Fridays' local music spotlighting program (free).