by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
The San Francisco-based duo of Quiles & Cloud (Maria and Rory, respectively) reflect the whimsical, bohemian nature that their hometown once embraced and embodied. A mix of folk, jazz, rock, and more fills the airy spaces on their recent release, ‘Beyond the Rain,’ creating a collection of hippie-gypsy songs for the urban hipster generation.
Kelly McCartney: San Francisco has long been a hotbed of creativity and music, though usually leaning more toward the rock side of things. How do you guys fit into the local scene?
Rory Cloud: Well, one of the most compelling aspects of the San Francisco scene for me is its diversity, which I think largely comes from its somewhat transient nature. It’s almost rare to find people that were born and raised there — not that they don’t exist. In fact, Maria is actually a dyed-in-the-wool child of the Bay Area, but people have flocked there from all over the world and brought their cultural heritages with them. Those different influences really meld together and transform into endless variations of style, which is what San Francisco is really known for, I think. It’s a place of innovation and collaboration.
Our music, even though it is largely presented in an acoustic roots type of setting, is a combination of influences from all sorts of musical traditions. You know… jazz, soul, bluegrass, funk, rock, Latin, classical, Celtic, anything really. The list keeps growing as we continue exploring music from all directions. A lot of artists we look up to are similar in that way, and so are many of our peers in the San Francisco scene. As long as it’s good music, we’re into it and it inevitably makes it’s way into our sound, in some way or another. The bands we know that play more electrified rock music have that same spirit behind them, as well. We’re all just trying to keep ourselves moving forward, in whatever direction we feel drawn toward at any given moment. That, to me, is the San Francisco scene in a nutshell.
Maria Quiles: We’ve found a very supportive and engaged fan base in the Bay Area which is growing all the time. The feeling I get is that many of the people who are attracted to settle there, or who are brought up there, have a generally open-minded attitude and can dig a variety of styles. They like good music, you know? Any style. They seem to resonate with genuine art, and aren’t necessarily picky about the genre, which is how I feel about music, personally, as well.
In a world filled with pomp and circumstance, what is it about simplicity and sparseness that is so appealing to you guys?
Rory Cloud: [Laughs] That’s a good question. Something we’ve always focused on in our music together is nuance. Space is really important in that. There is so much distraction in our daily lives, and we definitely struggle with it like most people. Constant access to information via our cell phones and what not can often take us out of the moment, which is the opposite of what music does, for the most part. This also touches on the reason we are more at home in listening rooms than noisy bar environments. Festivals are somewhere in the middle, I think, in that they can be noisy, but they are also community-oriented and really do bring people together in a place and time in a special way.
But there is something uniquely moving about performing in a space that really holds the music and gives it a container in which to settle and permeate the air in a certain way. In those places, something as simple as a single note or subtle harmony can send shivers through a crowd. When we’re at our best, and every note we sing or play is coming from that place somewhere between intention and spontaneity, it’s the little things that often have the most impact. Leaving room for those moments in an arrangement is part of the idea behind that sparseness. There’s a lot of power and connection there, allowing for space to exist and to really settle in it. I think there’s not enough of that in our culture right now and so, in some way, I think it’s a natural response to feel a strong pull toward that in our music.
Maria Quiles: The music business is interesting because it’s one of those artistic worlds where people really get caught up in the idea of fame, of fitting a certain mold, of embodying the image of success instead of working on the art form itself. You can lose track of what’s important. One of the things that appeals to me about a simplistic aesthetic is that it can be a very supportive canvas for displaying lyrical content, which is my main focus in the creative process. I like space and breath; I like to feel the words and the sonic landscape. I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed music that allows for that space. The secret sauce that songwriting offers, for me, is the mix of poetry and music. Instrumentation can really provide that extra depth of feeling that is sometimes so hard to completely express through words.
Did you guys have a sound or style in mind when you started, or did you just start writing and let the muse lead the way?
Rory Cloud: We’ve never made much of a conscious decision to sound any particular way, really — besides choosing to stick with acoustic instruments and record live, I suppose. Even that is a somewhat loose structure. When I first heard Maria, my immediate thought was, “I could play with that.” The two of us came from pretty different backgrounds, but there was a strong chemistry and blend the moment we started working together.
Since then, we’ve really developed something together that is different than what either of us originally brought into the project. In that regard, I think that saying we let the muse lead the way is pretty accurate. Our sound and writing style is inspired and influenced by our experiences, both musical and personal, individually and as a group. The more we travel, the more we listen to other styles of music, the more our sound develops.
Wes Montgomery has always been a hero of mine, and something he said in an interview once really stuck with me… something about how, the more he played the music of other people, the more he discovered himself in those songs. I think one of the most crucial elements of developing your own sound is allowing yourself to continue absorbing new influences and experiences and translating them through your own perspective. Adapting to new ideas and integrating them with past experience, I guess. It’s really all about growth and exploration. Who we are now is very different from who we were five years ago, and I hope to continue that trend as long as I’m still breathing.
Maria Quiles: I don’t think we necessarily had a style in mind when we started, though we are certainly influenced by specific artists. For me, it was people like Townes Van Zandt, Ani DiFranco, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, Aoife O’Donovan, and others. I think those influences have helped shape the direction we’ve moved in, and I love that. It feels natural. The thing that strikes me most about those artists is how they’ve taken the evolving American styles of music and made them uniquely their own. That’s the take-away for me and what inspires me when I’m engaging in the creative process.
Probably the biggest influence these other artists have had on me is seeing someone else, especially strong female voices saying, “Hey, I’m gonna do it. This is who I am. This is what I see and feel.” It’s that courage to be genuine and vulnerable that gives me strength to follow my gut, artistically, and how it comes out musically is always changing.
What did Alison Brown bring out of your sound that wasn’t there before working with her?
Rory Cloud: We went into the recordings with Alison much in the same way that we did in the past with our first two albums, in that we rehearsed and dialed in everything with the intention of recording live. Something that was immediately different in the sessions for ‘Beyond the Rain’ was Alison’s pre-production style. Instead of just throwing up the mics and recording the songs as they were, we would spend time before every tune away from the mics examining the arrangements and opening them up to new suggestions. Alison has an incredible ear and a very different set of experiences under her belt which allowed her to hear things that we wouldn’t have thought of on our own. Something as simple as an added chord here or there, or an extra chorus, or a call-and-response line, and all of a sudden we had an arrangement peppered with new flavor. A lot of the changes were so subtle that they might not be immediately noticeable unless you were deliberately comparing the old way to the new. Kind of like looking at two versions of the same image with one tiny alteration, like a missing balloon or extra glass of wine somewhere.
She and Sean, the engineer, were also incredibly focused. If fatigue ever did set in with them, they hardly showed it. We spent four days in the studio, 10 hours a day, and I didn’t see them break a sweat. It really pushed us to maintain our composure and work through the challenges of tweaking arrangements and putting them directly into place. I think, by the end, we had a much greater appreciation for that process and a realization that nothing is ever really finished, if you allow yourself to explore new possibilities.
Maria Quiles: We went in there with our arrangements rehearsed and Alison threw us a bit of a curve ball. She sat down with us and listened thoughtfully to the tunes before even setting foot in the studio. She had some really good ideas about changing the arrangements slightly that we ended up taking on for almost every song. It was a challenge. We would make these changes day of and then go in and record them live. It was a mental workout, for sure, and we were exhausted at the end of it, but very pleased with the outcome.
How does it feel to move from the fan-funded projects to working with Compass Records, having that kind of support and infrastructure?
Rory Cloud: The most noticeable difference, for me, is the kind of reach and weight that the team at Compass has in the industry. As independent artists, we’ve felt firsthand what it’s like to be one in a million, so to speak. Sending unsolicited emails to radio stations, online publications, venues… you name it. When it was just us, with little to no name recognition, even getting our foot in the door in most places was a constant battle of breaking through this huge wall of sound coming from every indie artist trying to do the same thing. It’s exhausting for everyone out there in that way — artists trying to be heard and industry folks trying to weed through an insurmountable volume of content in the market.
At this stage, we’re still relying heavily on fan support, as far as keeping us afloat monetarily, but the way Compass has brought us into view of the professional music world in such a short time has been invaluable to us, really. They’ve spent over 20 years building a solid reputation in the roots music scene and taking us under their wing has had an immediate impact on our own reputation within the community. We’re still the new kids on the block, but we’re the new kids with a reputable partnership, and in any line of work that’s huge.
Maria Quiles: It feels great! We’ve only been working with Compass a short while but, so far, it’s helped us connect with the music community in ways that would have taken a lot longer on our own. Alison and Garry really understand the business from the artist’s perspective, which is refreshing and reassuring. They have a well-earned reputation and we’re honored to be working with them. We were just at Folk Alliance recently and we’d give our CD to someone, some radio person or something, and they’d turn it over and read “Compass Records” and go, “Oh, you’re on Compass. I love everything they do. I’ll definitely check this out.” It’s helped us cut through a little just to be associated with them. The record is definitely getting more attention, as a result.