For the past quarter-century, Minnesota-based Red House Records has provided a home for acoustic musicians and talented singer-songwriters. Three such songwriters met last year at Red House's 25th anniversary tour and have just released an album together. Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky call themselves Red Horse, and their self-titled album features songs written by members of the trio alongside other classics.
Gorka says he loved the idea of singing each other's songs. He sings lead on Kaplansky's "Don't Mind Me."
"I love trying to inhabit someone else's lines and trying to make them come to life with my voice," he tells Liane Hansen, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. "It's just a fun thing just to be the singer, rather than the writer."
Kaplanksy says she loved hearing Gorka sing her song, and although she typically sings lead, it wasn't hard for her to switch to harmony.
"Lucy is one of the great singers and one of the greatest harmony singers ever. We have a little running joke. … I refer to Lucy as the dominatrix of folk harmony," Gorka says, laughing.
A Harmonious Dynamic
Kaplansky admits she is very bossy when it comes to harmonies. They worked on their parts long-distance — Gorka in Stillwater, Minn., and Kaplansky in New York. They say they sent thousands of e-mails and dozens of MP3s to get the tracks just right. Kaplansky doesn't have a home studio, so she used her iPhone instead. She sang parts into her phone and e-mailed them to Gorka and Gilkyson.
The two switch roles with "Blue Chalk," on which Kaplansky sings the song written by Gorka. He says he fully trusted both Gilkyson and Kaplansky to sing his songs well.
"I had total trust in their musical choices, their lyrical choices," he says.
In the spirit of Red House, the record's instrumentation is sparse — elevating the harmonies and emphasizing the vocals.
"I think the idea was the guitar and vocals at the center of things and the harmonies as the glue," Gorka says. "With certain songs, we added more things because it seemed to serve the song better."
"Wayfaring Stranger" closes the album. It's a traditional song, which Kaplansky says they all have loved for many years. Although it's a somber song, she sang it at her wedding. And in one of their many e-mail correspondences, she remembers Gorka writing that it would be nice to do a familiar song in these tough times.
"It just seemed like the perfect way to end the album," Kaplansky says.