Something about the term "singer-songwriter" is synonymous with solitude. Whether it's Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Johnny Cash, the solo artist stands as a monolith even when surrounded by other musicians. Although lead singers may be nothing more than pretty faces in tight pants, the singer-songwriter carries the weight of the bard, the poet and the prophet inside that acoustic guitar case.
Two local singer-songwriters, Cassie Morgan and Beth Bombara, are solo artists in their own right: The latter released the Abandon Ship EP in 2007, while the former made her recording debut in 2008 with the five-song Pine So Sweet EP. (Bombara also released a more raucous self-titled CD last year with her band, the Robotic Foundation.) But the women have developed a close musical and personal relationship, which has led to fruitful collaborations. Under the mantle Cassie Morgan & the Lonely Pine, Bombara adds harmony vocals and miscellaneous instrumentation to Morgan's languorous, blues-flecked folk songs. This project's first full-length, Weathered Hands, Weary Eyes, will be released this week.
Morgan, 27, and Bombara, 26, found that their musical and personal lives began to intersect while they were enrolled at Greenville College in Illinois. Though they weren't there at the same time, a series of mutual friends and chance meetings kept them in one another's spheres.
"I was in Greenville before Beth, and I didn't know Beth when I was in Greenville. I think I first met you when you were playing a show or something," Morgan says, conferring with Bombara on the particulars. Over drinks at Riley's Pub in the Tower Grove East neighborhood, the two musicians displayed the easy rapport they've developed onstage. In conversation, their laid-back but articulate discussions often overlap, not unlike their musical interplay.
"But before that, I had heard of Beth as a cool rocker chick," Morgan continues. "We met at one of those shows, and it was not too long after that that Beth moved to St. Louis, and we were in the same circles."
Bombara, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, moved here after living in Oklahoma and playing with the acclaimed Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers; Morgan drifted to town after college. Her initial time in St. Louis was a bit formless, and an abundance of free time (and lack of funds) helped spur her into writing songs.
"I was done with college, and I didn't have a job," Morgan says. "I was just sitting around in an apartment, reading books and playing my guitar all the time, because those things didn't require having money to go out and do anything. I started writing at that point."
A few open-mic night appearances and small gigs followed, at which time Morgan decamped to Chicago to record Pine So Sweet. For her new record, she returned to the Windy City and again worked with former St. Louisan (and member of the band Berry) Joey Lemon.
"[For Sweet] I took two long weekends to record five songs over a period of six months, and there was a lot more time to just sit with the songs," Morgan says. "This time around, we [Bombara and I] went up to Chicago together with nine, ten songs and just wanted to record as many of them as we could in one weekend."
A significantly different technical aspect colored the recording sessions as well: Lemon had procured an analog tape recorder prior to the Weathered Hands sessions. (Pine So Sweet had been recorded digitally.) While tape is revered for its "warmth" in recordings, it also is more difficult to manipulate than point-and-click software.
"We recorded 90 percent live to tape, as opposed to the first time around," Morgan explains. "It was a decision made when he got the analog machine that that would be a good match for what we were going to do."
Both Morgan and Bombara speak of the pressure of recording with few overdubs but found that the results are in line with the Lonely Pine's aesthetic. "It gives it more of a...not realistic, but earthy vibe," Bombara says. "Nothing is perfect, but there are lots of things in the recordings that add some character to it, that if you were recording digitally, you'd just say, 'That wasn't perfect; let's do it over.'"
For Morgan, Weathered gives a fuller picture of the relationship she and Bombara have developed through playing together. "It made it more of a representation of what we are live," she says. "And that was part of the goal of it, too. The Pine So Sweet EP was an entirely different project from what we do now. So I wanted to be true to that, in a sense, because I feel what Beth adds to the live performances is good stuff, and there should be a recording representative of that, too."
Weathered amplifies the folk overtones of Morgan's earlier release; her acoustic guitar strums are simple, and Bombara's close harmonies and percussive flourishes keep the mood breezy but never lightweight. Opening track "His Hands Are Tied" saunters with the humid, slow-drip drama of an early Cat Power song, while "Beginendbegin" adds some experimental whimsy with the help of tape loops. Overall, the album takes the closely whispered, sparsely accompanied story-songs of Morgan's first EP and cuts a wider swath through more pronounced roots-music influences.
Still, she resists stereotyping. The bucolic, harmonica-aided "Gonna Be a Long Day" is a snapshot of farm life. In lesser hands, the song would come off as a trite example of rural color. But Morgan grew up in the southern Illinois town of Bonnie — a township of 400 people — which lends credibility to her more folk-derived songs.
"We had creeks on both sides of our house, and they would flood, and you couldn't get to the bus," Morgan recalls. "I spent a lot of time outside with plants, and I know how to drive a tractor and all that sort of stuff."
Her authenticity may not be in question, but as a songwriter, Morgan chooses not to fetishize her background or overly romanticize what could be termed "country living." "I feel like it's been awhile since I wrote a song that goes back to my upbringing," she explains. "I think I go back and forth because I feel like if I stay too much with one thing, everything will sound the same, so I want to challenge myself to try other things as well."
As the Lonely Pine record is ready to be released, Bombara has begun working on a new set of demos, which she describes as "a little more folky, a little more bluesy" than her last album. For now, Cassie Morgan & the Lonely Pine proudly remains a two-woman operation, though the musicians haven't closed the door to augmenting their sound.
"We're pretty laid-back and easygoing," Morgan says. "If the right person came along and the right type of thing, we would try it out and see how it goes. We've talked about how it would be really nice to have a cello in the band, but cellists aren't that easy to come by.
"It's not like anything is nailed down, you know?"