January 16, 2013

The Softly Explosive Sound of Cicada Rhythm

The thing that most impresses about Cicada Rhythm's sound is how big it is, even though it's not. Cloaked in sleepy sweetness—all ringing acoustic guitar and sliding upright bass, cooed vocals with snug, Welch/Rawlings-style harmonies—the Atlanta-based duo's music lands with an impact you didn't quite see coming.

Neither, actually, did they. "We never really considered playing together, since we came from very different backgrounds," says guitarist David Kirslis.

The story of how Kirslis met bandmate (and eventual love interest) Andrea DeMarcus is an almost too perfect folk tale—train-hopping blues wanderer meets classically trained bassist in sleepy, sunny college town, and beautiful music flows forth.

But that last part didn't happen immediately.

"She almost joined a metal band," says Kirslis. Laughing, DeMarcus recalls, "I told them that I wasn't what they were looking for."

Instead, after a months-long series of conversations about music, the pair decided to try writing a few songs together. The four brief tracks that comprise Cicada Rhythm's demo—the only thing the band has released to this point—do a fine job of showcasing Kirslis and DeMarcus' talent, though the band must be seen live to be fully appreciated.

Early training and a stint at Juilliard (which, she notes, "kicked my butt") gave DeMarcus an understanding of form, but also inspired her to rebel against it ("I decided I wanted to be a little more creative"); her playing is adept and adaptable and exhibits a rare purity. Kirslis, who cites Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin' Hopkins as heroes, is an understated player and a skilled finger-picker. Both are blessed with instantly classic singing voices that seem designed to be heard together.

Their chemistry is true. In conversation, they answer questions for one another and laugh convincingly at one another's jokes. Onstage, they are locked in and loose, at once all business and all pleasure, in love with each other and the music and the room. Still, it's far from cloying.

"We very strongly try to avoid the kind of She & Him love songs about the other," says Kirslis. "We try to write about either personal issues or things that matter. Things that people can relate to in their own everyday lives."

Cicada Rhythm's Kirslis-penned songs cast a wide net and tug at hidden heartstrings. Deforestation never sounded so tragic ("Do Not Destroy"); nor has the issue of whether or not to set a trap for an unwelcome animal intruder been approached with such existential weight ("Mouse Song").

In contrast, DeMarcus' tunes are more personal in nature. "A lot of my songs are immediately about different things," she says, "but I think, mostly, I write about being OK with yourself—trying to be OK with myself, and overcoming my personal struggles. Everyone can relate to that, I think."

The juxtaposition of their two styles creates the tension that is at the core of Cicada Rhythm, that underlies the softly explosive style that lends the music its breadth. It is real, earth-worn music, where recognizable fragments of time-tested styles provide a support system for something slyly innovative. Kirslis notes that some have described their sound as "Appalachian Jazz," which is an apt, if simplistic, label.

A full-length album—one the band hints will feature an expanded musical approach—is in the works, and has been for months; no date has yet been set for its release. In its constant quest for substance, Cicada Rhythm takes its time.

"We wrote [a] song together… called 'Looking Glass,'" Kirslis says, "and it's kind of about society's perception of musicians nowadays, and how some people really don't value it in any real-world sense."
With his partner DeMarcus, Kirslis aims to recapture—and reveal—that sense of worth.

"I hope to continue writing songs that I'm happy with, and most of all, that people can relate to," he says. "If I can make an impact that way, that will leave me satisfied."

WHO: Greensky Bluegrass, High Strung String Band, Cicada Rhythm
WHERE: New Earth Music Hall
WHEN: Wednesday, January 16