When the husband-and-wife duo the Grahams were first beginning to craft their debut album Riverman's Daughter, they went on a 2,500-mile trek up and down the Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to the Louisiana delta, playing little juke joints.
"We played all along the river and some really sketchy places," says Alyssa Graham from the New York City apartment she and her husband Doug call home. "We ended up renting this houseboat in the Atchafalaya Swamp to sort the stockpile of stories we'd come across or things we'd learned and experienced and wrote most of the record there."
However, their plans soon changed. They got a call from her husband's mother. She was ill and didn't have long to live. So Doug and Alyssa Graham packed up and went to care for her. Over the course of that six weeks, the pair offered Doug's mother, Gigi, a preview of the album.
"Those last couple days we'd sit in her room and play her music all day because that kind of soothed her even after she couldn't talk anymore. 'If You're in New York' was her favorite," she says. "When we played it, even after she couldn't speak, we'd watch her flip back to it. We knew she was there."
They began recording just six weeks after she passed, and the album ends with a song dedicated to Gigi, the pretty and haunting "Goodbye Babe (B.C.)." This spare little ode showcases the pristine beauty of Alyssa's voice, which rings crisp as a bell on a cold winter morning. It's a versatile weapon.
Powered by Alyssa's galvanizing voice, Doug's understated strumming, and fine production from producer Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Kaki King), Riverman's Daughter is a wonderful effort. The album was recorded live in the room with no headphones and no real sound isolation, giving it a very organic, in-the-moment feel that harks back to the old bluegrass records where everyone crowded around one microphone.
"When we first sat down with Malcolm, we sat at the kitchen table and played these songs to him just acoustically, and that's what we wanted to capture," she says. "He's famous for laying these incredibly elaborate beds of sound that you have no idea where it came from. I think it was a fun challenge for him to work in such a simple, sit down, old-fashioned way."
While the album is the first from "The Grahams," it's not Alyssa's first album or even their first album together. In fact, Doug and Alyssa's friendship goes back to childhood. They played in a variety of bands together through and after college, including the Ithaca, N.Y.-psych jam band Blindman's Holiday. They even had major label interest, which they passed on.
Instead she went back to school for a music degree, studying jazz. The style informs her 2005 solo debut, What Love Is and 2008's Echo with noted jazz musician/producer Jon Cowherd. Both explored a jazzy singer-songwriter vibe not far removed from Norah Jones. The 2011 follow-up, Lock, Stock & Soul, peels back the jazzy overtones in favor of quiet, singer-songwriter fare.
Still, they didn't know what they really wanted to do until they got together with another childhood friend, Bryan McCann, and penned "Riverman's Daughter." "When we were done, it was the first time in years we felt like we did sitting in my parent's basement in a circle with all our friends playing acoustic guitars singing Neil Young songs," says Alyssa. "It felt really natural and Doug started harmonizing with me and I started playing guitar and it was really like the old days of just throwing caution to the wind and not having to be perfect. It was nostalgic for us, so we decided this was where we wanted to be and really propelled us down the Mississippi River in search of this made-up riverman and his daughter."
The pair are already making plans for a trip to begin writing the next album. "In order to write a story you need to have experiences," she says. "I don't think we'll ever write a record any other way. I think we'll always try to surround ourselves with the environment that inspires the kinds of songs and stories we're telling.".