The name hints at an artful simplicity, of humility and humanity, and of an earthy folkiness – and Eb & Sparrow, the vehicle for assured 30-something Wellington singer/songwriter Ebony Lamb, live up to the billing. Their newly released album ‘Eb & Sparrow’ confidently embraces a wide variety of genres, times and places, the band’s intelligent ‘new-folk’ providing a versatile wardrobe for Ebony’s hazy and nuanced Americana-inflected vocals. Heartbreak at 50 paces, no shots fired. Briar Lawry talked with Ebony about this delightfully self-assured debut.
“I’m just one person,” Ebony Lamb says, after a comment on her success and achievements to date. “I’ve done big things, but I’m just a person.”
Considering that she has only considered herself a musician for five years, ‘big things’ is an understatement. Her band, Eb & Sparrow, have released three EPs, opened for a wide variety of acts (including big names like Beth Orton and Rodriguez, as well as Kiwi music stalwarts like Anika Moa and Tami Neilson) and, most recently, have launched their first album. It’s self-titled and it’s a thing of beauty.
“I’d call it new folk,” says Ebony, noting that it’s part of a broader musical movement – one that in her experience is very inclusive and welcoming. While creating their new record, Eb & Sparrow have joined Home Alone, the Wellington-based record label that brings together a variety of artists. Other label-mates include French for Rabbits, City Oh Sigh and Urbantramper – all of which share the same underlying feeling of bringing something new to their genre, while still maintaining a sense of accessibility for the average listener.
“Isn’t it a nice thing to have on offer?” Ebony muses.
That ‘average listener’ is, however, a hard thing to pin down. Between their supporting slots at venues including Auckland’s Trinity Cathedral and Old St Paul’s in Wellington, to more intimate city gigs and small-town performances, Eb & Sparrow cater to a wide demographic.
“My 83-year old grandmother loves the record. ‘Bonnie, your music’s so relaxing, it really calms me down!’”
Family road trips were a fundamental part of Ebony’s musical development.
“There’s no stereo in an old Holden, she explains. “We’d sing folk songs while we drove up from the Hawke’s Bay to the Bay of Plenty.”
Raised by a solo father with varied music taste – “…everything from The Beatles to Captain Beefheart to Jimi Hendrix,” – Ebony’s own interests continued to evolve, influenced both by time and place.
“Then Nirvana happened, and The Pixies.The Pixies changed my life! If I could be Kim Deal… she sighs. “The songs don’t wear thin.”
She also cites PJ Harvey and Throwing Muses as teenage influences, as well as classical music by way of years of ballet dancing and singing.
“It pulls you in, and I soak it all up like a sponge.”
Time spent overseas introduced her to gypsy music and electronica – and returning to NZ she discovered jazz.
“I moved back to Wellington, and my neighbours asked me, ‘Are you coming to church?’ I told them I don’t go to church, and they said, ‘We mean jazz at the Lido’.”
Her introduction to country music came later, by way of an ex-boyfriend, who started to teach her a few chords.
“I loved the powerful simplicity, how heartfelt it was, reaching all the way back to Appalachian music.”
Since the first Eb & Sparrow EP was released in 2010 Ebony’s songs have grown and expanded – in sound, scope and size.
“They are soundscapes, encompassing everything from country to contemporary. It’s cinematic. We use instruments that have been around for years, but with a fresh attitude.”
The resulting ‘new-folk’ encompasses a huge variety of sounds and genres, with roots in folk, country and Americana.
“I write in a way that is simple in structure, but it’s a great base – when you add all of the other elements, it becomes a complex painting.”
The other elements are currently Bryn Heveldt on lap steel and guitars, Nick Brown on drums, Jason Johnson bass and guitar, and Chris Winter on trumpet, guitar and percussion. Nick and Jason also contribute vocals, while Chris is the man behind MrWinter Audio, responsible for mixing the record.
Ebony waxes lyrical about her love for the lap steel in particular, explaining how Bryn’s instrument was bought for a song (pardon the pun) on TradeMe, and after some TLC on the electrics, a fresh and functional instrument emerged, now bearing the signatures of all the musicians the band has played with. It’s become both a symbol of their sound and of their ongoing success as a band.
She also praises Jason’s talents – “He’s an experimental man” – while Chris “pours soul into his trumpet playing” and Nick is “a very attentive drummer.”
Eb & Sparrow recorded their album at The Sitting Room (Ben Edwards’ Lyttelton studio) over Easter 2013.
“Family comes first for the band,” Ebony says, in explaining why the creation of the album took longer than perhaps would be expected. She’s quick to point out that despite being the lynchpin of her band, “It takes work, it takes lots of people.”
The record itself is beautifully crafted – Ebony is right when she talks about a varied sound, though her vocals and lyrics tie everything together. Quietly We Tread, the first single drawn, manages a quiet beautiful balance between mellow and dark. Deadbeats is a grand and slow start to the 10-track album, promising great things to come, and the more uptempo tracks like Big Train pull no punches when it comes to the instrumental section.
As we wrap up our chat, she quickly requests acknowledgement of the input of guest musicians on the record, as well as the help from Home Alone and distributor Southbound Records. In her words, the new-folk world she inhabits “… isn’t a music business, it’s a music community.