Harmonies are back.
Many independent and alternative artists—from singing duos to so-called freak-folk bands—have re-infused popular music with the musical values of two- and three-part vocal arrangements. The all-female Silver Thread Trio is one of the most exciting purveyors of vocal harmonies in the Old Pueblo.
The 3-year-old group has recorded one praised album, Silver Thread Trio, which was released by Old Bisbee Records in December 2008. Since then, the three women of Silver Thread—Caroline Isaacs, Laura Kepner-Adney and Gabrielle Pietrangelo—have become a mainstay on local stages; in fact, the trio has two gigs coming up in the next couple of weeks.
The music of the Silver Thread Trio usually comes from eras and cultures previous to ours.
"A lot of the songs that we do are at least 100 years old and go back to the old country, whether it's here or overseas," said Kepner-Adney.
"These are songs that were from English folk tunes that changed to fit the cultural traditions of the New World. One of my favorite pastimes is buying old songbooks on Amazon and singing folk songs from all over the world. We do a lot of research to find the right material for Silver Thread Trio."
All of the songs on Silver Thread Trio are arrangements of traditional tunes, or standards by the likes of Johnny Mercer, Mississippi John Hurt and the Carter Family, with the exception of one original by Kepner-Adney. Her tune, "Danny," sounds like a recently rediscovered baroque gem. The trio already is working on other originals for a follow-up album.
In addition to those breathtaking harmonies, the music of Silver Thread Trio incorporates subtle instrumentation such as guitars, banjos, washboard and spoons. And the album includes several guest musicians—like Sean Rogers, Stuart Oliver, the Rosano Brothers, Rudy Cortese and Jimmy Carr—on horns, keyboards, percussion and other stringed instruments.
The arrangements by Kepner-Adney and Pietrangelo, whether for instruments or voices, make the Silver Thread Trio's music sound simultaneously traditional and contemporary.
In that spirit, the Silver Thread Trio plays gigs with folk artists, soul and country acts, garage and jam bands, and jazz groups. The trio has proven to fit into almost any bill.
"We opened a show for the Sand Rubies and Gila Bend," Kepner-Adney said. "And there was one guy who came up to me after that and said, 'You know, your music isn't my thing at all, but I thought you sounded really tight.' That was a huge compliment."
Exposure to a wide range of musical contemporaries also has broadened Kepner-Adney's musical tastes. She said she studied opera in college, but before Silver Thread Trio, "What I was listening to was mostly country."
Pietrangelo worked as a singer-songwriter in the late-1990s, and released a solo album as a result. Isaacs and Kepner-Adney play in the country band Dirty Me, and they are the backup singers for various incarnations of the Michael P. Big Band.
Each of the members of Silver Thread Trio has other pursuits outside of music. Kepner-Adney designs jewelry for her business, Wingflash Designs (www.wingflash.etsy.com), in addition to tending bar and refinishing furniture. Pietrangelo teaches music and art to elementary school students, and is working to create a music curriculum for teachers, while Isaacs is the director of the Arizona branch of the American Friends Service Committee.
The three women came together for the first time in the large vocal ensemble Old Soul Sisters, which Pietrangelo directed for several years.
"That was a trip," Pietrangelo said. "It was organizing 12 women to rehearse, to perform, and then getting them all the material. I ran it very democratically, so it was a lot of cooks in the kitchen. It was a lot of energy running that group."
When Silver Thread Trio formed from the ashes of the Old Soul Sisters, the three women knew they wanted to sing together, but they weren't sure what form it should take.
"At first, we sort of had this vision that never came together," Isaacs said. "We were going to do weddings—you know, make a little money on the side."
They also thought it was time to start challenging themselves vocally, she said.
"Old Soul Sisters was pretty basic folk stuff—you know, call and response—and with Silver Thread, we wanted to do some harmonizing," Isaacs said. "We three had a little more musical background, and Gab and Laura really had a lot more musical background."
Pietrangelo described the Silver Thread Trio method as being "so much more anal than a lot of our other musician friends."
Isaacs added: "It's rare that you can hear a song and bust out with three-part harmony just like that. It takes serious construction and writing. The two of them put a lot of time and effort into that."
It starts at the piano, Pietrangelo added. "Then I'll take the main melody and work out harmonic variations and the parts from there. Every three-part harmony has to be thought out."
The payoff comes when the three voices blend, and the Silver Thread Trio creates and hears something they wouldn't have experienced singing apart, Pietrangelo said.
"We all have unique voices: Each of us has a different color in our voice. But we have been singing together for so long, something happens with our voices, and somehow, they start locking in. It's just so much fun."