Some voices are just made for one another. That's not to say they can't beautifully intone alone, but there's just something about when voices fit together. The Everly Brothers come to mind. And so does Wisewater, the string-centric duo of mandolin player Forrest O'Connor and fiddler Kate Lee, a Webster native. The two musicians are also part of the O'Connor Band, the Grammy-nominated vehicle of Mark O'Connor, Forrest's father.
After being introduced in 2013, Forrest O'Connor and Kate Lee converged on Nashville. The duo's debut EP, "Demonstration," came out the following year to a plethora of Music City accolades.
The group plays Americana in the purest sense of the word, gentle and sweet like a life-sized music box. It's lovelorn but not weary; the duo's innocence remains. And despite the lack of flashy flush, Wisewater is a study in pervading elegance. It's simply wonderful to watch and listen to. We could go on and on, but CITY wanted the skinny from the duo. Here is what they said ... in harmony. And edited transcript of that conversation follows.
CITY: A 2017 Grammy nod ... how does that feel?
Kate Lee: We are so honored and excited to be nominated for Best Bluegrass Album as part of O'Connor Band. We've been very proud of the album, "Coming Home," since its creation and release, and we've always felt it is such a special project. But of course, you can't plan for such an honor, and we're so touched that people have been inspired by the music. The album consists of original songs that Forrest and I have written or co-written and instrumentals that Mark has written and/or arranged and a few interpretations of bluegrass standards.
Give me some background. How did the band come to be?
Lee: Wisewater, our duo, came to be when a string arranger in Nashville, Kris Wilkinson, recommended that Forrest and I start singing together. We found that we had really similar musical intuitions right off the bat and we also discovered that we had a lot of personal chemistry, and now we're getting married.
O'Connor Band is a duo of duos. Forrest and I had our duo with Wisewater, and Mark and Maggie O'Connor had a violin duo. All four of us performed together for the first time on one of Mark's annual "An Appalachian Christmas" tours, and we all decided after that that the group should make music together all year around. Mark added Joe Smart on guitar and Geoff Saunders on bass to round out the group. And after recording "Coming Home" in January 2016, we've been on the road as O'Connor Band for the majority of the time.
How did you both first pick up your instruments?
Forrest O'Connor: I was a little bit of a late bloomer. I picked up the mandolin at age 13, although I'd played a little guitar and piano before then. I kind of dabbled in it throughout high school and became more serious in college. Kate started playing fiddle at age 9 and singing pretty soon after that. She spent a lot of her childhood playing shows with her own band, Kate Lee and No Strings Attached.
How do you write?
O'Connor: We actually don't write a whole lot together, since we have very different processes. We'll help edit each other's songs and give each other feedback. I usually need a lot of time and silence to envision a particular scenario, environment, or perspective and write in an appropriate headspace. I don't do as well in a co-writing situation in which there's a lot of back-and-forth. Kate, on the other hand, thrives in that kind of situation.
When do you know a song is done? When it needs work?
Lee: That's a good question. I guess you don't always know. I definitely feel like a song is done, at least for the time being, when there are no lyrics that feel unnatural to sing and when I'm not questioning the meaning behind any of those lyrics. A song feels done to me when the lyrics and music seem to fit naturally together and one doesn't seem to be harming the other.
To be completely honest, though, the song usually isn't done until it's recorded. We're always tweaking music and lyrics and arrangements to the very last minute, sometimes to the last second before one of us puts it down on the recording. Forrest and I do help each other a lot by editing each other's songs as well. That also helps give you confidence that a song is done because someone you trust has listened to it with fresh ears.
All that said, we have even changed lyrics and melodies from recording to recording of the same song. Forrest even has some melodies that he's written that he has rewritten entire new lyrics to many times over in hopes of finding the perfect combination, so for us, I guess, our writing is always evolving, and a recording or a performance of the song is a snapshot of that song's life.
What's on your wish list or bucket list?
Lee: Bringing our music to more places is on our bucket list. We're going to begin fulfilling that dream in a few weeks when we perform in Scotland for the first time as the O'Connor Band. We definitely want to travel more.
I've been so fortunate to perform at the CMAs as a backing musician, but performing there with our own material as leading artists is on the bucket list for us. Having mainstream radio hits would also be on the bucket list for us. I guess our bucket list is pretty long, but we're gonna work our hardest to check off as many items as we can and add more.