Alex and Emily McCollum learned to harmonize in church. "Our mother sang alto, so she would always sing the harmony to church hymns," says Alex, who, along with his sister, is a member of the Columbia folk duo Stagbriar. "At age eight or nine, mom was singing one part, I was singing another, and Emily was singing another. That was part of the fun in singing in church."
With their father's active role as a Baptist music minister and their mother's choral and piano influences, Alex and Emily couldn't escape the world of worship music. That was something they had to evaluate and come to terms with later on. "Our parents are conservative Southern Baptists, and here we are playing in bars every night," laughs Alex. Their upbringing also inspired their first full-length record Quasi-Hymns, Murder-Ballads, and Tales of How the Hero Died. Needless to say, they've strayed from their devout earlier days.
"We're not your everyday Sunday attendees anymore," says Alex. "I don't choose to say how it's affected us morally — whatever that means. We have very particular feelings about it, and some of those we've expressed in songs. Our feelings about the world in which we grew up — we don't lament it or regret it — but we feel a very certain way about it."
Alex and Emily never really got to share those thoughts with each other when they were children. For the first 18 years of their lives, they lived under the cloud of sibling rivalry. "We hated each other growing up until we realized we were basically the same person," says Alex. "That took a while. We didn't know each other like we know each other now, but this collaboration has been a way for us to get to know each other in a new way."
The détente began when the pair both went off to college. Alex had left the nest before Emily, and they reconnected when she followed him to the University of South Carolina. She studied journalism at USC while he juggled music composition classes with his job at Papa Jazz Records. Emily played music around town on her own and was working on a solo EP when the McCollum siblings formed their first formal musical collaboration. "Alex started doing backup for my EP and helping out with it. That's when we decided we wanted to do music together," says Emily.
About two years ago, the siblings made it official and named themselves Stagbriar after the street the McCollums grew up on. "It was from a time when our relationship was completely different, yet an integral part to who we are now," says Alex.
When writing Quasi Hymns, Alex and Emily created a bond with their soul-searching lyrics and heavy, emotional sound. "A lot of our friends are in bands that are whimsical and not as serious, and they're great at it, but we don't play that kind of music," says Alex. "We play serious music and that's something you have to swallow after a while. If the people in the room were having a good time, they might not be having the same good time afterwards, but we have to take that role and embrace it. Our music might sober up some previously happy drunks, but that's what it does, and we accept that."
Though the first album featured only Alex and Emily, the duo has since added a drummer, bassist, and guitarist to help create something new yet familiar. That filled-out sound comes through on Quasi-Ballads' "Tom," a bluesy stomp-rock track that sort of presents Stagbriar as the Shovels & Rope of Soda City. The three newer guys add to both the live performance as well as the studio, though at times the extra noise can overwhelm gentler tracks — like their latest single "Parker O". Stripped-down with only the twosome's guitars, the melancholic folk ballad is strong enough with Alex and Emily's intense harmonies. "We've pulled the band out of a song that we just felt wasn't right," says Alex. "A lot of the writing is done pretty intimately between me and Emily. And with the new album we are working on, we are being way more patient, taking our time, and making it in a more delicate way. There will be more dynamic shifts, up and down, but also that softer sound from the first album. There will be no songs where we don't sing everything together. That's not changing."
You can listen to Stagbriar's latest melancholic folk single "Parker O" at stagbriar.com.