Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion

Nearly a decade after folk-rock duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion put out their first album together, the husband-and-wife pair feel like they've finally hit their stride on Wassaic Way, a collection of 11 new songs to be released August 6th on Rte 8 Records.

Produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone at the Loft in Chicago, Wassaic Way finds Guthrie and Irion pushing further beyond the folky sound they established on 2005's Exploration, their first studio LP. After Irion's solo album Ex Tempore in 2007, the live album Folksong in 2009 and the children's collection Go Waggaloo in 2009, the pair began expanding their sonic horizons on 2011's Bright Examples, an album that drew praise from American Songwriter magazine for its "lush, dreamy sound."

"This record is a departure from a folk duo," Irion says. "I think this is the best example we've been able to present that shows the many facets of what we can do. There's loud guitars, there's soundscapes, there's a lushness to it, there's a popness, an edge. But that can be difficult sometimes to bring it all together and present it."

Wassaic Way is also the latest entry in an ongoing creative relationship between the Guthrie family and Wilco. Sarah Lee is the daughter of Arlo Guthrie, and the granddaughter of the iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose unfinished songs Wilco recorded with Billy Bragg on a pair of Mermaid Avenue albums in 1998 and 2000. Wilco also invited Sarah Lee and Johnny to perform at the band's Solid Sound Festival in 2011, and the duo had toured with the Autumn Defense, Sansone's project with Wilco bassist John Stirratt.

After recording most of Bright Examples live with a band, the duo credits Tweedy and Sansone in helping them put the new songs together in the studio. They had plenty of material to choose from: Before convening in Chicago last year, Guthrie and Irion sent along nearly 50 demos for Tweedy and Sansone to sort through. Once they got to the Loft, Tweedy pushed them to revise and tighten up the tunes they had decided on.

"We actually ended up rewriting a lot of these songs with Jeff in the studio," Guthrie says. "We would powwow on a song before we got going on it, sometimes for two hours at the beginning of the day, just me and Johnny and Jeff, making sure it was lyrically sound and there were no musical loopholes."

You can hear it throughout Wassaic Way, in the buoyant pop of album opener "Chairman Meow," the wistful melody threading through an enveloping beat on "Not Feeling It" and the moody atmospherics underpinning "Nine Out of Ten Times." Guthrie and Irion also haven't abandoned their folky roots, as demonstrated by the harmonica and Dobro on the lilting acoustic number "Hurricane Window." Tweedy and Sansone played on the album, along with multi-instrumentalist Charlie Rose and drummer Otto Hauser, which they recorded in bursts over a period of a few months.

"It was the first time we'd ever taken our time with a record and really gotten it right," Irion says. "When I listen to the album, there's not much I would change, and that's hard to say with other records we've made."

Although Guthrie and Irion perform as a duo, they rarely write that way. With all the time they spend together on tour, and at home raising their two daughters, writing songs is more of a solitary pursuit for each of them. As studio dates approach, they share what they've come up with and offer suggestions and ideas.

"Writing is kind of an escape from the work that we do together as a family and on the road," Irion says.

"It definitely echoes exactly who we are," Guthrie chimes in. "Johnny's full of melodies and really creative chord structures. He's constantly working on a song that's better than the last one. I tend to be a lot simpler, and sometimes songs tend to flow through me, rather than me crafting it as much. I'm a lot lazier than him."

Irion adds, "I end up writing a bunch of songs, and Sarah Lee will write two, and one of them will be the single."

Any of the songs on Wassaic Way could be a single, which speaks to the strength of the songwriting, and also to Guthrie and Irion's underlying goal: they wanted an album that moves them one step closer to getting at the heart of who they are as writers and performers.

"Every record has been a huge learning curve, and you get pushed beyond your limits, and then your limits are way bigger," Guthrie says. "I think we're still at the beginning of what we can do as recording artists. I think we're just starting to carve a path that we can walk on."

Janet Emma & Seven West

Janet Emma
Ghostfields - Produced by Walt Wilkins, Jumping Dog Studios, Austin, TX

I don’t always know, with great certainty, what is best for me. And I rarely know what’s best for anybody else. I’ve spent the past couple of years washing colors that were untrue from the "painting"....the work in progress…that is ME. Some of the stains were washed out against my will. I got used to them, was afraid how dull I’d be without them…perhaps I feared they defined me. I’ve been blessed to be loved by artists who have brought new color and taught me how to use it, to blend it, to apply it. The dark splotch that has marred my painting is shrinking. I’ve got mentors.. artists.. who, even when I didn’t want to paint anymore, came and shined light on my painting and pointed out what was good, and encouraged me to keep on. I can hear….see…feel God through them when I am in the dark. By the time you hear these songs, I probably won’t be living in them anymore. I will have moved on, because I wrote them down and let them go. I want to be a painting that tells a story when I grow up….a human story… hopefully a story that ends peacefully and leaves this world a little better than I found it. There is a believer in me somewhere. No matter what happens, that believer gets up every day, goes to bed at night and dreams, and wakes up and follows that dream again. I’m lucky like that. I hope you are lucky, too. Thanks for listening. Hug your kids...or somebody elses kids. Make Peace. Coexist. Recycle. Slow down. Play outside. Breathe. Give Thanks.

Janet Emma & Seven West - Hella Band o' Musicians

Things often start out small, and then grow into bigger things..like Sunflowers. :). Janet Emma's music project is no exception.

Produced by Austin's revered Walt Wilkins at Jumping Dog Studios in Cedar Park, TX, Janet Emma's 2009 release Ghostfields drew 3 WAMA nominations in spite of having been made in Texas with a helluva list of musicians hailing from the Lone Star State. We thought that was very generous of WAMA DC, so thanks WAMA!!

Some of DC's finest heard the call, and have joined to become Janet Emma & Seven West, delivering a rollicking, swinging dose of original and hand picked dance tunes. Angus Mackay keeps it rolling on upright bass, while David Kitchen & Colin Thompson nail down the rippin-est of guitar slinging virtuosity. The inimitable Robbie Magruder keep time like a human metronome. Ariel Francis recently joined in to round out this fantastic dance hall style Virginia based band. And they are having a helluva good time doing it. Special guests Jill Barnes & Susan Gaeta weave angelic harmonies - and.make the stage look a lot prettier in the process.

David Kichen - Telecaster Monster Man

If you have not caught the The David Kitchen Band and/or the Thrillbilly's show, you're missin' out. Stop missin' out and go see. www.davidkitchen.net

Angus Mackay - Big Upright Bass Fiddle Slinger

Go catch Angus w/ his swinging groups Hang Over Royale & The Atomic Swing Club. We are damn happy to have Angus rockin' the big upright bass fiddle w/ us. He's on FB, ya'll. Stop by and see where he's playing.

Robbie Magruder - Human Metronome

Robbie doesn't talk much, especially about himself, so you'll be loathe to find him on FB, etc. Soooo... just come shake his hand and tell him yourself how rockin' he is on his drums. We LOVE Robbie Magruder!

Ariel Francis - Mad Rhythm Guitar

Go see Ariel Francis on FB, or better yet, playing bass in the David Kitchen Band and then some. We're pretty excited he's slingin' with us.

Colin Thompson - Bad Ass Guitar Boy

He's the real deal at 21 years old. Look out Derek Trucks. www.colinthompsonband.com

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Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion with Janet Emma & Seven West

Wednesday, October 30 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:30 PM at Gypsy Sally's