Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome have been singing together for 15 years, and are releasing MATERIAL FLATS, their debut(ish) album together. The album will be the first release on Tawny’s imprint Fine Alpinist Records, out October 9. It is a now-or-never plunge into the unknown with two performers who’ve been everywhere else. Born out of the pandemic, protests, and a fierce desire to learn to do things for themselves, Material Flats is a chance for them to lead together.
The album’s bombastic opener “White Balloon” keeps an eye out for the danger that hides in clear sight when you’re up in the middle of nowhere. “‘White Balloon’” is about staking your claim and keeping your head in spaces where the thin veil of racism has long been lifted,” notes Bethany. “I listened to the entire White Stripes discography in one long morning,” adds Tawny. “Then I read a distressing story on twitter about white supremacist groups gaining traction through increasingly insidious online recruitment tactics. I did my (daily) calculation of how long it would take me to escape up the trail that runs behind my house if a hate group rolled up my road. Classic rock and roll anecdote, huh?” Listen to “White Balloon” via Bandcamp and Youtube now.
STREAM “WHITE BALLOON” VIA YOUTUBE
Recorded with Nate Urbansky on (drums), Patrick Martin (guitar, bass, vocals on “Carry Something”) and Chicago mixmaster Packy Lundholm (keys, effects, banjo, guitar solo on “Bubbly”, “Dinosaur (Desert Edit)”)–who co-produced the album with them, the album also features guest appearances from friends including Ted Leo, who performs vocals and guitar solo on “Carry Something.”
The album’s eight tracks explore themes of isolation, unrest, self-realization and reassessing one’s surroundings, which are certainly prevalent during any era but were not ignorable and easily synthesized while Tawny & Bethany wrote/recorded. Tawny & Bethany note, “Material Flats is an album that had to happen but couldn’t have worked out in any other timeline — the time, the space, the energy and the inspiration all finally came together the summer of the pandemic. The process was swift, maybe a bit more rudimentary than we’re used to, but I think that served us as we were not able to overthink anything.”
Bethany & Tawny’s partnership started with a poorly attended musical about sex workers (it wasn’t great), and soon turned the two of them into backing-vocalists-for-hire for every cover, tribute and bar band in Chicago. The email from Bethany to Tawny about a new gig would usually read, “Do you wanna backup these guys sometime? No pay, but there’s free beer and they’re cute.” They backed up a lot of dudes off and on for three years, but also became formidable arrangers and honed an impossibly seamless vocal blend.
Meanwhile, Bethany pursued a legit career in musical theater, headlining regional houses like Court Theater, Milwaukee Rep and Chicago Shakespeare. Tawny simultaneously joined The Second City–touring the country doing sketch and improv–and UK punk rocker Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers)–touring the country singing strange Welsh sea ballads and Viv Albertine covers)
Their first shot at not-being-backing-singers came when they, along with Langford and producer Norbert Putnam, went down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This time, it was Langford who emailed them, saying, “Let’s be three leads on this one. I don’t like the 20 Feet from Stardom-thing.” So they made this big, eerie record in the shadow of legends, every day having to insist to some 19-year old intern setting up the mics that no, the two Black women in the band were not singing backup. ’Four Lost Souls’ is a weird record. David Hood played bass. Trump had just been elected three days before. They hung out in Fame studios until after midnight, looking up at signed pictures of Aretha, Bobby Gentry, and Wilson Pickett.
It was a weird time. Now, four years later, it’s even weirder.
Blending garage-punk, soulfully sung folk, and influences as diverse as Talking Heads, The Pixies, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston, they finally made something entirely their own. They even recorded and engineered it themselves in Tawny’s home studio in the Mojave desert.
Making Material Flats was a longtime dream immediately turned clear and attainable goal once Tawny and Bethany said “fuck it” and seized the opportunity to set it up for themselves. They wrote the songs, they bought the beer, and they know how to work the mixer. Time to stand in front!
‘MATERIAL FLATS’ TRACK LISTING
1 – White Balloon
2 – You’re Still Up
3 – Time To Rewrite
4 – Juneteenth 2020
5 – Dinosaur (Desert Edit)
6 – Pincushion
7 – Bubbly
8 – Carry Something