Trying to encapsulate Columbia band Stagbriar's sound in words makes one realize how futile it can sometimes be to write about music. The group — based around the nucleus of siblings, singers, and multi-instrumentalists Alex and Emily McCollum — isn't strictly acoustic enough to count as folk music, or heavy enough to count as indie rock, and there's no real genre-hyphenate like "folk-rock" that properly describes their music.
Perhaps it's best to instead talk about the individual elements. On their first full-length album, Quasi-Hymns, Murder-Ballads, and Tales of How the Hero Died, the McCollums deliver stunning, shiver-inducing vocal harmonies that seem so deeply intertwined that they're almost one voice. There are unkempt electric guitars and delicately strummed acoustic ones. There are propulsive rock songs and shimmering ballads and haunting songs that seem to hang in the air like mist or clouds over the mountains. There are banjos and cellos and atmospheric drones and all sorts of angular, unexpected production flourishes that take seemingly conventional song-structures and cast them through a funhouse mirror.
It's Americana music as played by musicians who don't especially care for Americana music.
And it's also a sound that the McCollums call a "happy accident," the result of Alex sitting in on one of Emily's solo recordings back in 2011.
"Emily was making a solo EP with (producer/engineer) Kenny McWilliams, and I sat in for a few of the sessions," Alex says. "I ended up writing one of the songs for the EP, and we made it a collaborative effort."
It became a collaborative effort because when Emily sang with Alex for the EP, she realized it was something she'd been missing.
"Alex and I sang together a lot when we were younger," she says, "but when I became a songwriter, the first time I heard us sing together I realized it felt more natural than just me singing behind a microphone. It was something I wanted. I thought, 'Oh, man this is something that could stretch me as an artist and a writer. That's pretty rare and something I think we should continue with.'"
It was also something that took time to come to grips with. At first, the McCollums didn't really have a grasp on what, exactly, Stagbriar was, or even how many people they wanted in the band.
"At that point I don't think we were entirely sure what we were trying to go for," Alex says. "It fleshed itself out in the course of the year after that. But even as we went in to record the first full-length album, we were just a trio at that point with a drummer; we were not super open to the possibility of having a full band."
In fact, guitarist Jared Pyritz, bassist Brett J. Kent, and drummer Steve Sancho came into the band permanently only because Kenny McWilliams did such a good job arranging and layering the songs on Quasi-Hymns.
"When we finished it and decided we wanted to play around live, we realized that if we wanted to play any of those songs live and make them sound anything like the record, we were going to need a band," Alex says. "But I think ultimately we were super happy to go the full-band route and have a band to back our ideas."
Unfortunately, as it often does, life got in the way of one of the most promising and talented bands in the area. Stagbriar's first LP came out in 2013. They haven't released anything since, and they didn't play any live shows from 2014 until November of last year.
"We were going into album number two," Alex says, "and right around that time we went through some family stuff. Our mother was diagnosed with Crohn's disease; she spends four out of five weekdays every week getting infusions so that we can keep her as healthy as possible. That weighed heavy on us; while we were trying to become adults, we were watching our mother dealing with so much pain. That made it tough to get together."
"It made it tough to be creative," Emily adds. "It made it painful."
While their mother is still undergoing treatment for Crohn's, the duo decided after a long break to start playing shows and writing again, if only because they were motivated by their mother's courage.
"We're trying to take inspiration from our mom and continue to live life," Emily says, "which for us means writing music together."
But first they had to actually play in public together again, which they did last Thanksgiving as a favor to their bassist.
"He was doing a Thanksgiving show and asked us to be a part of it," Emily says. "Even practicing for it we didn't know if it was going to be starting up again, but after a couple of practices and bringing in new material, we were like, 'Hell yeah, we're doing this again.'"
So now there are shows and new songs, and a long-awaited follow-up album in the works, perhaps giving Stagbriar the chance to continue along their fascinating musical path with a new sense of perspective.
"For me, it's not that I didn't appreciate or value what we were creating years ago," Emily says, "but just giving us four years of time to grow as people and musicians, all of that has made this project something I'm even more proud of."