I like to think that Molly Ledford (of Lunch Money) and Billy Kelly (of Billy Kelly) met in the comments section of my NPR piece on Billy Kelly's "People Really Like Milk," but the truth is, they met some time before.
The duo's friendship has produced a wonderful new album, Trees, which will be released next month, on March 20, the first day of spring. They chatted with me last week to talk about their friendship, recording the album, and a little bit, just a little bit, about trees themselves.
Zooglobble: Normally I'd start off an interview with the question, "What are your first musical memories?," but instead, let me ask, "What are your first arboreal memories?"
Billy Kelly (BK): We had a mimosa tree in front of my house growing up. I'd climb my tree, and I remember my grandma sitting in a chair with a white afghan in her lap, saying that I climbed "he's like a little monkey." And then my dad cut it down -- he said mimosa trees were dirty, so he cut it down. Not while I was in it.
Molly Ledford (ML): That's the origin story of why Billy is now very flip.
BK: "They cut down his first tree…"
ML: We had a magnolia tree. I was never a good climber -- I could climb on top a fence nearby, and then get onto a branch, and that was as far as I could climb. So in "Angel Oak," I could climb that tree, but it's illegal [to do so]. The song "By the Roots" my brother and I would roll Matchbox sportscars around with all these exposed roots.
BK: So that's what that song's about! I pictured you crashing an actual Lamborghini into the tree… I remember we also had a big oak tree. I'll tell you at the beginning of the story that Dad cut that one down, too, a couple months ago. It had a big branch that had a horizontal branch that he hung a climbing rope for that. He'd say to us, while we were climbing, "You don't want to fall, right? So you won't." That dispelled fear of heights that I had as a kid. Too much, really. It came back to me when I was 35, and I won't go any higher than a stepladder. So I'd use the tree to hide from people. Somebody would come over who I didn't want to play with, and I'd climb 50 feet in the air while my mom was calling, "Billy, your friends are here…." I should write about that for Trees, Volume 2. She never takes the bait every time I mention it.
ML: Hey, I've already written a couple songs!
How did the two of you meet?
MK: Well, we met because you posted a clip of the video in progress of "People Really Like Milk." I thought, "Hey, that's really cool, I'm going to say 'hi' to that person right now" and I reached out to him and bought his record and he thought of me as a nice, crazy fan until he figured it out and we've been talking shop ever since and enjoying each other's sense of humor.
Fast forward a few years, he said he was writing an album about trees. I've often along the way as work-avoidance behaviors, messed in other people's business instead of doing what I need to be doing. I said, "Here's a trees song" and I wrote "Standing By You, Sapling," and offered it up to him… He said, "Hey, you want to do this with me?" and I said, "Heck, yeah!" Before that we wrote "Pen Pals" together,
BK: I sent some lyrics, then she wrote a verse in about ten minutes. So I asked, "Do you want to record this with me?"
ML: And I was just having fun writing the words, but I said, "Sure!"
BK: Molly bought [Thank You for Joining the] Happy Club and the e-mail came in with the subject "Lunch Money" -- I still have it. That's all it said in the "from" line in the e-mail. It was the first album I ever sold to a stranger. At the time, I thought it was weird. It was an adult e-mailing, buying it and not making any mention of kids and it says "lunch money" for no reason.
ML: It was just the address...
BK: Which I know now as I see about 42 e-mails in my inbox that just say "lunch money." About a week later, I started snooping around and I realized who this was, and I reached out to her… You know, you [Stefan] tried to introduce me once to someone else via e-mail. It didn't work out at all. I think he was too similar to me. Molly knows everybody in the kindie scene For a while, I kind of fancied myself the Howard Hughes of kids music.
What was the genesis of Trees specifically?
BK: I had written the opening song called "Trees." We moved into our new house about 4 years ago and there's this massive, massive tree in our yard, a silver maple. When you walk past the tree -- it reminded me of that big blue whale that's hanging in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. That awe-inspiring feeling you get walking under. So I wrote that song, "Trees," and then I afterward wrote "(It's Just a) Dumb Ol' Stick" and "Bonsai." And that was as far as I got. Molly was so encouraging. I hope I'm encouraging to her, but mainly I hope she's encouraging to me. But I didn't get anywhere . I put "Bonsai" out [on Again!] because I wanted to get it out there. Then Molly wrote "Standing By You, Sapling"… And I said, "We should do this." I should do it with my pal Molly who lives in South Carolina and maybe we'd get to spend time with each other.
ML: There was talk of working with Dean [Jones, producer of Trees]. Normally I'm making records at home with all the other responsibility… Almost like a retreat of song recording sounded like the grand prize.
I've come to decide that a good part of the benefits of vacations -- even working ones where you're just working away from home -- is that you don't have to do all the routine things you'd normally do at home. You don't have to worry about the garbage or the dishes or the laundry or making sure the kids get off to school OK in the morning.
BK: This is why the staycation will never take over the vacation.
How did the recording process for Trees work?
ML: Robert Drake from WXPN and Kids Corner and KindieComm heard we were doing Trees and asked us to do 15 minutes at KindieComm [in 2014]. I went to Lewisburg to practice some songs with him, so it wouldn't be all be new when we got up on stage.
We left the possibility of working together on the songs on the table, but I don't write much with other people. So we were sending stuff back and forth, supporting each other's songs.
When we recorded, we brought people out of their comfort zones. That was where the fact that Dean and Billy are really good musicians helped.
BK: Yeah, that's where the collaboration came in. I'm flip, Molly's emotional. For the song "Here Come the Trees," for example, [there's a spoken-word part, and] they tried to get me to talk in just a normal voice. Molly turned off the light [in the recording studio] and just used a flashlight to help encourage me to be myself. Or on "The Dichotomous Key," which has a really fast, high-pitched part for Molly to sing.
ML: It was like we were all leaning over the same car engine. All three of us are bandleaders of our own projects, so we'd bring in our own ideas on arrangements… It was suggested that everybody should sing together, like at a funeral, for "Count Your Rings." That was weird.
BK: We were literally standing together, like at a funeral. We were so serious.
ML: There were other points where we were dancing around [Billy], on "I, Wood."
BK: While I was doing my Tom Jones impression...
ML: We were feeding off each other.
BK: The whole week was so fun. They'd be dancing around me, trying not to make the floorboards creak. It really was a three-way split.
How much did you know about trees before writing and recording the album? Did you check out a book on California? [That, readers, is a shout-out to "Coniferous Trees."]
BK: Hah! Yes, we checked out some books. Years ago, I was a birdwatcher, and so learned some about trees through that. I had a casual interest in trees, but by no means was I am expert. My songs [on the album] were more info-driven and on things that I didn't know [when I started].
ML: I don't really know much about trees -- I thought I would learn more when I started this project.
It's funny, when we announced the project, we'd get letters or posts from people who, in all seriousness, would say things like, "I'm sure you're going to do the birch."
BK: "The willow!"
ML: So on "Trees," which leads off the album, Billy gave me the more dreamy, less technical lines, which really set up the whole structure of the album… On "Coniferous Tree," his instructions when he gave me the lyrics were that I should make it as difficult as possible for him.
BK: She was supposed to be the Fozzie Bear to my Kermit
ML: So there was the script, and I was really sick that wick. We stayed with Rachel Loshak (singer and wife of Gustafer Yellowgold creator Morgan Taylor), and she took care of me and was such a mom to me and would send me with concoctions. I was in a bit of a daze. I'd kind of lost my place in some of the songs.
BK: I'd get a little frustrated with her interruptions, and then I'd remember that my instructions to her were "Try To Ruin The Song."
ML: I like to think of it as, "That's Molly, daydreaming" and there's Billy, trying to provide real information.
So what from this experience do you take away into the rest of your recording life?
BK: I want to be first and I want to be sincere? Can I? I love my studio here, working with my band, but the experience of this was one in a million. The whole week was great, Dean was on point the whole time. The takeaway was something like this might not happen again -- it was magic and creative. We talk often about working together on other things, but I don't know if we could recapture it. Even if we didn't record anything, the week was worth it.
ML: For me, it's the power of working with other people who are also writers of words, of melodies. It was kind of electric.
It had to happen fast. Sometimes there's the danger of taking a song and everybody knows it so well, it's lost that brand-new magic. I've learned that the first time you sing a song, that's the take you want. Redoing it, you can't recapture the magic, you lose touch with the magic. I'd tell Dean, "This isn't practice… let's record the vocal just in case."
BK: Half the album is probably first takes.
ML: We did one take "Angel Oak," Count Your Rings," "Acorns" -- the first takes had so much of what they had to have. We did those songs live. On "To the Woods," we learned the song together… It was so fun what I want to take away from it in [other] times is to do my best to have that live quality in recording and not get too bogged down in click tracks and having everybody taking their turn.
BK: It was really interesting have three leaders… and no fights.
Photo credits: J.P. Stephens (Lumos Studios)