Sparingly strummed mandolin and delicate French horn introduce ‘High-Brow Blues’, the debut album from Auckland alternative folk trio Tweed. From there it’s all meaningful lyrics and shared vocals to the fore in a part-rollicking, part-reflective, always thoughtful 10 track offering. Briar Lawry spoke with the Tweed three; acoustic guitar/bassist Nancy Howie, mandolin-wielding Steff Werman, and Devin Ashton who looks after the percussive bits.
A business manager, an academic equity administrator and a piano tuner walk into a bar. Or a home-based rehearsal space. Or an open-air folk festival. Wherever they go, this trio are more importantly musicians to the bone. Meet Tweed, an alternative folk band weaving together harmonies and lyrics in new and exciting ways.
For five years, they’ve been playing together in this current configuration – ‘they’ being Nancy Howie, Devin Ashton and Steff Werman. The trio decided on the name Tweed with the idea that the intricacy of the fabric reflects that of their combined sound. With all three providing vocals there is plenty to pay attention to. As Nancy points out, getting to a name that suits your sound, even as you evolve, can be a fraught task.
“Coming up with a band name is difficult. It’s one of the first things that you do, you choose them really early on and you might turn into something else, but the name is still there.”
“It’s like having your intermediate school-era Hotmail address on your CV,” Steff interjects. “Like ‘westliferules’ or something.”
With luck, although Steff’s ukulele has been swapped for a mandolin and Devin’s drum kit for a cajón, the essence of the band has remained the same. In the summer of 2017, after years of honing their sound – and cramming in as much music as possible around their day jobs – Tweed release their debut album, ‘High-Brow Blues’.
Rewinding a little first, Steff says she played a bit of piano and guitar while growing up.
“But when we started Tweed I played ukulele – it was a bit of a joke because I had such tiny fingers that I needed a tiny instrument. And then I switched onto mandolin – no training or anything, I just started bringing it along to practices.”
It’s created something of a unique technique, according to Nancy.
“Whenever we play for a folk crowd, especially an older folk crowd, we get people saying, ‘You play that very interestingly…’”
Devin’s background is more classical.
“I was a boy soprano – but that’s going back – and then lots of musical theatre.”
“None of us have any formal training in the instruments we play in the band currently,” says Nancy, the band’s songwriter and guitarist. “I play a Taylor GS Mini, which I love. It’s a slightly miniaturised version of a Taylor guitar – not scaled down very far, but enough that it makes a difference for me, making it so incredibly comfortable.
“I used to be a bassist, and when we went travelling with the band I didn’t really think there was much point in taking a bass and an amplifier and all that. So when I went to LA, I bought a guitar, since you can get instruments for nothing in the States, and I really started trying to write originals.
“I suddenly had a whole lot more time on my hands so I could really start to focus – and then when I got back to NZ I could really start to get into it. I think having a band helps too. It helps you hone your songwriting a bit more, and you’re being depended upon and held accountable.”
Steff found her mandolin in a pawn shop and Devin’s cajón playing is the result of pure chance. Created by local manufacturer Tukituki Instruments, Steff and Nancy bought it as an experiment, of sorts, but it’s ended up working perfectly for Tweed’s need and sound.
“Turns out, carrying around a plywood box is a lot easier than bringing a drum kit!”
Portability’s important when it comes to managing to create a sound that can align the live and the recorded performance.
“I think it’s so important to be able to hear an album and then see the band live and actually hear something close to what you first heard,” Devin explains. “With us, what you hear is what you get.”
With five years of playing together under their belt, it’s fair to say this first album has been a long time coming.
“Ages,” Steff offers. “Too long,” adds Devin.
Whatever the case, the three of them are delighted to have gotten to the point of actually releasing ‘High-Brow Blues’.
“We went into the studio at Roundhead and recorded it about a year ago,” Steff explains. “Prior to that, we were workshopping material, arranging – organising when we’d go to the studio for about 12 months.”
“And the year before that, the songs were written,” Nancy continues. “It’s pretty incredible how much of a time lag there is, especially for independent musicians.”
“So we’re really excited to finally get it out in the wild and see what people make of it,” Steff concludes.
“I think we’re all pleased with how it came out, it’s a fair representation of what we were setting out to try to achieve. And it also means that we can finally get started on new stuff. It’s exciting to be able to move onto something else,” Nancy adds.
According to Steff they already have some ideas in the works and want to keep the momentum going so that they’re not always playing songs from a few years back. Harking back to the band naming dilemma, Nancy points out that being able to create more new music is vital in keeping the band’s direction.
“The more you play and create, the more time goes by, the closer you get to that essential sound that defines you as a band.”
One of the major changes for Nancy as a songwriter over that time has been a move from wholly introspective lyrics to a more outward looking, political approach.
“A lot of it has been autobiographical, musing on the human condition. And recently, it’s started to take a more political tone, in the wake of the US election. As a musician, I feel like I have a responsibility to give a voice to some of the opinions.”
And in turmultuous times it seems incredibly appropriate for a folk band – alternative or no – to be part of that voice of dissent. In the modern era, bouncing between homespun memoir and politically charged opinion is an essential part of what folk music has presented to the world – and with a team like Tweed at the musically vanguard, we should count ourselves lucky.