Tres Chicas - Not just whistlin' Dixie
"Ain't no liquor in London, it's forty pounds of flesh; We're goin' down to the local, for a pint of Scrumpy Jack." Seated around a dining table, Tres Chicas -- Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm -- were in the midst of reconstructing the mad and merry month of musicmaking in England last year which resulted in their sophomore album. Among the many challenges that came with the daring decision to record in London was dealing with the high cost of spirits, particularly for visitors undercut by the weak American dollar. Scrumpy Jack served as a sort of compromise under such economic duress. A dry alcoholic cider, it costs a good deal less than hard liquor, though as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. The internet reference source Wikipedia advises, "It is easy to drink, but large amounts tend to cause hangovers." Think an English equivalent of Boone's Farm, perhaps. That a trio of struggling singer-songwriters would resort to drinking cheap booze while making an album is hardly a revelation. But the magic in this particular passage from our interview was not the admission, or even the quaintly folksy verse they'd composed to commemorate the experience. Rather, it was all in the delivery. Lamm had casually commented, "Something that really cut into my drinking in London was just the fact that liquor is so expensive over there" -- when suddenly, spontaneously, she, Cary and Blakey joined voices, spot-perfectly, to sing their little ditty in three-part harmony. In that moment, it was crystal clear just how much of a band these women have become. Their unity is equally evident on Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl, released March 7 on Yep Roc Records. Though all three have brought distinctly different personalities and experiences to the table -- the dining room of Cary's south Raleigh home, in this case -- somewhere along the line a bond has formed that runs deeper even than good friendship. Indeed, when asked if Tres Chicas still seems primarily like a side-project pursuit, Cary simply answers, with a sincere smile, "No. This is the band I'm in." It hasn't always been that way. The first Tres Chicas record, 2004's Sweetwater, wasn't necessarily ever destined to be a record at all, just as the band hadn't really intended to be a band. In the beginning, it was just a handful of impromptu shows between friends during down time between their other musical endeavors. Cary's landmark alt-country band Whiskeytown was on its last legs in 1999, with Ryan Adams poised to break out on his own behind his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker. Blakey was between projects with her regional pop band Glory Fountain, which issued albums in 1997 and 2002. Lamm's big-in-Europe band Hazeldine was in the process of splintering from its New Mexico base, with Lamm settling in Raleigh to be near her ailing mother (Lamm had grown up in Wilson, about an hour east of Raleigh). They'd all gotten to know each other gradually during the latter years of the '90s. Lamm and Cary recall crossing paths at South By Southwest in Austin in 1996; the following year, Whiskeytown and Hazeldine toured together on a couple of occasions (including a month-long jaunt in the spring sponsored by No Depression). Blakey and Cary met in the summer of '97 when Glory Fountain (then based in Charlotte) shared a bill with Whiskeytown. Around the same time, Blakey attended a Hazeldine show in Chapel Hill, and left an impression on Lamm that still lingers: "I remember I was like, 'Did anybody meet that girl with the beautiful hair and the big eyes? She was really nice!'" Lamm recalls. By 1999, all three had become good friends and had begun casually to collaborate with low-key gigs, though initially in duo pairings. Cary and Lamm played a couple of shows together, and when Lamm went on a European tour with Hazeldine, Cary and Blakey teamed up. One night they all encountered each other in the ladies' restroom at a show by another local band. As Blakey told ND's David Menconi in a Town & Country article from July-August 2000, "I accosted the two of them at a Backsliders show and said, 'We have to do this.' So yeah, I horned in, and we were conceived in the Brewery women's room during a Backsliders show." Shortly thereafter, Raleigh club owner Van Alston booked the nascent trio and dubbed them "Las Tres Chicas" for the sole purpose of having something to list in the newspaper. The name (minus the "Las") stuck. A busy summer on the local scene led to studio time with renowned producer Chris Stamey, a longtime friend of Blakey who had also worked extensively with Cary during Whiskeytown's heyday. By early 2000, the Chicas had made some rough demos, which they passed along to industry folks at South By Southwest in Austin that March while playing a couple of packed shows. Much momentum seemed to be building for the band. And then...nothing happened. Well, plenty happened, but only in ways that served to pull the three players in separate directions. Lamm not only made one last record with Hazeldine (Double Back, released in Europe in May 2001), she also became a mother. Cary, encouraged by the modest success of her 2000 five-song solo EP Waltzie, began working with Stamey on a full-length disc (While You Weren't Looking, released on Yep Roc in March 2002). Blakey gave Glory Fountain one more try, recording The Beauty Of 23 (which came out in June 2002). Tres Chicas inevitably shifted to the back burner, and at the time, that was fine with them. "We were playing too many shows locally, and people were 'over' us or something," Cary says. "We were all like, 'Oh my God, if I have to sing these songs one more time, I'll die.' And we sort of said, 'Well, look, we'll take a break.'" Before the hiatus, they'd essentially finished a full album's worth of material with Stamey, though there wasn't much sense in trying to find a home for it at that juncture. But after Cary's While You Weren't Looking made a very respectable showing for an indie release, Yep Roc expressed increasing interest in rescuing the Tres Chicas record from the shelves where it had been gathering dust. Everything finally fell into place in summer 2004. Other projects had run their course, at least for the moment, and Lamm had gotten past the demanding first couple years of motherhood. Tres Chicas' debut, Sweetwater, was released on Yep Roc in late June, and it garnered attention right out of the gate. In early July, National Public Radio aired an interview with the trio that significantly raised their profile; if only fleetingly, Sweetwater rose to #1 on the Amazon.com sales charts immediately after the NPR spot. Perhaps more importantly, waiting a couple years to release the album helped each of the Chicas to reconsider the band's place in their lives. "I think it changed everybody's perspective about what this ought to be," Cary says. "I mean, it was always just this side-project thing, and I never put a whole lot of weight to what we were doing....But then once it came out, we'd had all had a break and reassessed how we felt about the songs and ourselves and each other." The positive public reception to the record also helped rekindle their aspirations. "We knew we had made something that we liked, when we did it," Lamm says. "So for it to come out, and for people other than us actually to like it, was validating. It gave us a little bit of a fire to sort of put ourselves behind for a little while." Still, it easily could have ended there, as a well-received one-off, a signpost in their respective separate journeys. Cary's output has continued to expand and diversify; in addition to a second solo album (2003's I'm Staying Out), she also did a duets record with country singer Thad Cockrell (2005's Begonias). Lamm, meanwhile, has gone in a different direction, focusing on raising her daughter rather than pursuing other musical opportunities. In fact, some of the touring Tres Chicas did behind Sweetwater did not include Lamm, but the shows still served their purpose of furthering the band's following. A handful of fellow North Carolina Triangle players joined them in supporting roles, most notably bassist Dave Bartholomew and multi-instrumentalist Sara Bell, both of whom helped cover Lamm's vocal parts when she was absent. "Our shows were really well-received," Cary comments. "They weren't huge shows in big places or anything, but we have this great average where I think we sell a CD to 25 percent of any crowd that we play in front of. So that made us sort of get more serious, I think, once we realized that not only was the record well-received, but that we really liked touring together, and that we were reaching people somehow." Even so, there were no plans initially for any sort of timely follow-up to Sweetwater. "I think we probably always thought that we'll always make records together," Cary allows, "but I don't think there was any feeling like there was any urgency to it." Fate, as it often does, found a way to intervene. In September 2004, the band shared a bill at Raleigh's Pour House nightclub with English singer-songwriter and piano player Geraint Watkins, who'd recently issued an album on Yep Roc. Watkins' gig was a one-off in the midst of a tour with Nick Lowe, for whom he was playing keyboards; also on the road with them was Neil Brockbank, an accomplished producer whose credits include several albums for Lowe and Watkins as well as records for Bryan Ferry, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, and Tanita Tikaram. "We loved Geraint," Lamm recalled of Watkins' performance that night. "He's an incredible musician and singer and songwriter." After the show, Cary and Blakey went out for drinks with Watkins and Brockbank. "We talked about music and making records and the kind of philosophy that Neil had behind it -- to make it alive, make it organic." Blakey remembers. "It just sounded like a great way to make a record. "I walked out that night saying, 'We're going to make a record with them.' I was just sure of it." Fate, of course, is also often obliged to drop a serendipitous hint. "He [Brockbank] was talking about his studio and how it was called Gold Top, and he gave me his card," Blakey says. "And I asked him why it was called Gold Top, and he was like, 'Not because of the guitar; because it used to be a dairy, Gold Top Dairy.'" "Lynn knew right then," Cary interjects, "because she lives on a dairy farm." "I'm always looking for signs," Blakey concurs. "And I was just like, this means something....I just loved the idea that they were music and life guys, and they weren't gear and guitar guys, you know? They are great with their instruments and stuff, but it wasn't about that." There was one small catch. Making a record at Gold Top Studio meant somehow coming up with the cash for the Chicas -- plus Lamm's daughter Sofia, and a nanny -- to spend a month in London. Travel and lodging alone would be a major expense for an indie-label band (to say nothing of the Scrumpy Jack tab). Yep Roc president Glenn Dicker proved surprisingly receptive to the idea. "We went and talked to Glenn about going on tour later on, and this idea came up again," Blakey says. "And I was like, 'Gee, I wish we could go to England and make a record with those guys.' And thinking that Glenn would go, 'Ha Ha Ha! You silly child!'" "'For every dollar we spend, it's like two!'" Lamm chimes in. "Right," Blakey continues. "And then instead he said, 'Well, that's not out of the question.' And I think Caitlin and I went home and shared a bottle of champagne after that." Even with Yep Roc's support, crunching the numbers was no small task. Much of the travel budget was covered by the distinguished Netherlands roots-music festival Blue Highways, which paid for the band to come overseas and play their event in April 2005. The band built a European tour around that date, then went to London to make the album. None of which was as simple as it might sound. "We have to give credit to Lynn for having a buttload of faith that we could make that tour work," says Cary, who had played in England enough times -- as had Lamm -- to be wary of the costs. "We both were just like, Oh, this is never gonna work!" "We sat around this table," Blakey recalls, "and both of them were like, 'We can't do this.'" "We sat with a notebook writing down money..." Cary chips in, then Blakey continues her thought: "...and the whole budget and the touring and the baby, and how are we gonna go to Europe and tour and how are we gonna do a record afterward, you know -- how can this happen? And I thought, it can happen, I know it can!" Lamm cuts to the essence. "You know, there's one thing that I have learned in this band is that when Lynn feels it, you gotta go with it, because she's usually right. She has really great intuition." The result of the sessions validated their trust in Blakey's instincts. Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl marks a significant progression for Tres Chicas, taking them in a direction that their debut might have hinted at, but couldn't have realized. For starters, the approach between the two records was entirely different. Sweetwater started as relatively casual demo sessions in Stamey's studio and gradually took shape over the course of more than a year, with little bits added here and there as band members had time. Bloom was a much more focused project: The entire album had to be recorded while the Chicas were in London, so there was a finite starting and ending point. Furthermore, the backing crew was from an entirely different realm. Anchoring the band were Watkins on piano and organ, Robert Trehern (who co-produced with Brockbank) on drums, and Matt Radford on double bass. Hired hands included Nick Lowe on bass, Penguin Cafe Orchestra mainstay Bob Loveday on violin and viola, legendary pedal steel player B.J. Cole, and hotshot roots-rock guitarist Bill Kirchen. "When the guest stars started rolling in, it was sort of like, 'Oh my God,'" Cary summarizes. "I love the people I've played with," Blakey adds, "but I had never played with people particularly like this. And it made me feel like I could play, like I was good. Maybe good people raise you up as a player. But it felt really great to play with them." It wasn't so much the players' star-studded credits as the way their style and ability affected the Chicas' songs. "The notion was that the band would wrap itself around the singing, that the singing would absolutely be what drove everything," Cary explains. "We had sent them really rough demos, so they knew the songs, but I don't think anybody was coming in with preconceived notions of how things were going to sound. It was more like they wanted to hear how we played and sang them, and then fit themselves around it. And they certainly ended up creating the vibe of the way things sounded because of the way they play, and the way that they play together." Blakey picks up the thread. "I remember thinking that no matter what happened, we'd probably get to the heart of the songs with them," she says. "I didn't know how that was gonna happen, but I think because they were so soulful that even though we entered into the situation never having played with those guys before, it instantly felt like I was playing with my cousins that I'd just never met, or something. It wasn't like we hired a band we didn't know. It was like we knew them before we even walked in the door, playing with them felt so comfortable." Musically, the contrast between Bloom and Sweetwater is plainly apparent. Whereas their first record benefited from the careful roots-pop precision Stamey has honed over the years with some of alt-country's finest acts, Bloom is a much moodier disc, steeped in shades of sultry soul and jazz. "Stone Love Song", a Cary/Watkins co-write, smolders with the kind of lounge cool that has permeated Lowe's recent records. "Still I Run", which Cary wrote with Nashville songwriter Anthony Crawford, could easily be covered by Norah Jones. Blakey's "Sway" swings gently and sweetly on the strength of the trio's heavenly harmonies. "There were some things that Neil did, though, that surprised me," Blakey observes. "Some of the songs got slowed down so they could be more soulful, which was interesting." "Like 'Bloom' was our rock hit," Lamm notes, "and now it's our jazz hit." Which brings us to the song -- or, rather, songs -- that inspired the album's title, taken from lyrics contained in the disc's third, fourth and fifth tracks. Lamm sings lead on a cover of Geraint Watkins' "My Love", Blakey is front-and-center on her own "Shade Trees In Bloom", and Cary takes the reins for "Red" (which she co-wrote with Blakey). Not that one should read too much into those vocal assignments. The Chicas give no definitive answers as to who may or may not answer to the nicknames Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl. "One of the things that we thought about," Blakey clarifies, "is that all of us are all three of those at various times." That said, the lyrics of "Shade Trees In Bloom" are classic Blakey. "Sometimes what you think is the end/Is the beginning," she sings in the song's opening verse, revealing her predominantly optimistic, silver-lining outlook on life. Not that she doesn't have her vulnerable moments: "Keep a close watch on me/I might fall apart," she warns a couple verse later. Blakey is the Chicas' hidden gem, to the extent that both Cary and Lamm have previously spent some time in the spotlight. Cary's tenure in Whiskeytown and her solo excursions have made her the group's most recognizable name; Lamm's time with Hazeldine brought fair attention in Europe, where the band had a couple of major-label releases. Blakey's band Glory Fountain, meanwhile, never really ventured beyond regional notice, though their records -- particularly The Beauty Of 23, produced by southern pop svengali Mitch Easter -- warranted a broader hearing. (That album's exquisite title track resurfaces on the new Chicas album, retitled "Slip So Easily".) And yet Blakey has a considerable and intriguing pedigree. She spent most of the '80s ensconced in the storied Athens, Georgia, scene, including a stint in the band Oh OK (with Michael Stipe's sister Linda). She also played briefly with Easter in his alternative-pop outfit Let's Active. Glory Fountain brought Blakey's considerable vocal talents into full focus, and the harmonies of Tres Chicas have magnified them. Her soaring soprano is the trio's most immediately arresting feature, though ultimately it's the way all three voices swirl and swing in and around each other that creates a singular musical magic. For Blakey, such musical magic is something that manifests itself in an almost cinematic manner, as this comment about working with Brockbank illustrates. "I would describe to him how I thought he managed to make a certain song that I wrote feel, and he was always so happy with that," she says. "Like, you know, 'You managed to make "Bloom" sound like the leaves on a tree in the summertime in the heat haze and the wind blowing, and they're shimmering.' That's how I talk about records. And he understood." "Really? You're weird," Lamm deadpans, with perfect timing. Her sardonic response speaks volumes of her place in the Chicas' picture. The balance and variety of their humor is no small part of how these three relate to each other, and Lamm finds herself in an interesting position these days. While she no doubt would be voted "most likely to make a wise-ass comment," she's also the one presently in the midst of the most wide-eyed experience as a result of her young child. Motherhood clearly has turned Lamm's world upside-down, and she seems genuinely blessed by the opportunity, even if it's a challenge trying to be both a mom and a musician. She recalls, for example, a show in Berlin last year, when her former Hazeldine bandmate Anne Tkach was along to assist as Sofia's nanny. "We launched into 'Sweetwater', and three seconds into the song, Sofia's screaming on the side of the stage," Lamm says. "And I'm just looking at Anne, and Anne's restraining her. Sofia's like, 'Brrraaaaagghh!' And so we're like, 'OK, I guess we'll just get a little chair for her. So we got her a little chair, and we sat her beside the amp. And people were taking pictures; she totally upstaged us. People were standing on their seats to take pictures of Sofia." It's hardly an ordinary life, and yet Lamm was more than happy to step into the narrative role in Watkins' "My Life" lyric ("I'm not Jesus Christ/I'm just an ordinary girl"). "I aspire to be ordinary," she contends. Moments later, Cary wants in on that action, too. "All I want right now is to be the ordinary girl," she offers. In the album's title sequence, however, she sings the role of "Red". Musically, the song fits Cary to a T; it's a traditional waltz that sounds straight outta the ancient English folk pantheon, much like the songs that dominated her debut solo EP. Lyrically, though, there's something much darker going on: "I don't wish you well and I'll see you in hell," she sings at one point, later asking, "What is the shade of a promise? What is the color of a lie?" Like her recent collaboration with Thad Cockrell, rejoining Lamm and Blakey affords Cary a kind of camaraderie that can have meaning in a way that doing your own thing might not. Cary seems in some respects to be the consummate team player; she's one of the few musicians to have worked extensively with Ryan Adams without ever having some sort of falling-out. (In fact, Adams invited Cary onstage last June when he played in Raleigh for the first time in almost five years.) "It was very very vital to me to do those solo records and know that I could, and know that that's who I was, and that I wasn't only a sideman to Ryan," she concedes. "I won't say that I'm a better collaborator than a solo artist; I think both are viable and operative for me. "It's kind of the same with Tres Chicas operating as a side project for a while -- at some point, that becomes unsatisfying and not viable. If you're putting in the amount of work that it takes to do something like this, you have to throw yourself into it and believe in it and invest in it." Cary does acknowledge that "I think there will come a time relatively soon where I'll reinvest" in a solo outing. "I'm due to make another record and I'm writing for it, and I write songs for myself and hoard them away. But right now, I don't have time to do that. "I read this article on Ryan in my parents' local paper, where he just refused to apologize for being too prolific and too busy, and I feel the same way. It's like, you want to hear more Caitlin? Wait a couple years, I'll get there, you know. But right now, this is what I'm doing. And I'm not gonna do it half-assed." ND co-editor Peter Blackstock is enormously indebted to his wife, Lisa Whittington, who transcribed the long and winding tape of his interview with Tres Chicas.