World Cafe Nashville: The Reckless Electric
Mary Bragg and Becky Warren are nursing beers and comparing notes on their conscientiousness.
"I don't think I've ever parked in a fire lane," Bragg says in a chipper Georgia drawl.
"I've never parked in a fire lane," Warren shoots back, in her even, unruffled timbre. Then she adds, "I do the crossword puzzle every day, and sometimes, if I get stuck, I do Google [the answer]. I feel that's probably cheating."
"But you always try to not cheat," Bragg protests.
One of the songs the two Nashville-based singer-songwriters wrote and recorded together under the name The Reckless Electric was a droll, punkish ode to feminine striving called "Straight A Girls." The message behind it, Bragg says, is that "it's cool and attractive to be nerdy and work really hard on something you love."
Warren and Bragg have each spent years building modest, yet respectable solo careers in Americana and alt-rock scenes, the former gaining notice for viscerally compelling narratives of a marriage disintegrating beneath the weight of post-traumatic stress disorder and the latter for her refined, sumptuously, melancholy take on Southern storytelling with the song "Lucky Strike."
The pair seems a little surprised at how easy and enjoyable they found it to assemble 10 tousled, tuneful songs with overachieving, offbeat female protagonists for Comeback, the debut album as a duo. Trading snippets of memories and perspective, Warren and Bragg explained to World Cafe how they forged their playful solidarity in the first place.
How similar are your backgrounds?
Becky Warren: Pretty different, I'd say.
Mary Bragg: Very different, yeah.
BW: We both grew up in Georgia, so that part's the same. I grew up in Atlanta.
MB: And I grew up in a really small town called Swainsboro. My experience the first 18 years of my life was so incredibly small-town. And Becky actually migrated a little bit.
BW: Yeah, we moved to North Carolina when I was a teenager. But I was also an only child.
MB: And I'm the youngest of four.
BW: My mom is Jewish. In terms of being Jewish in the South, that was a weird thing at that time. ... Whereas Mary grew up very involved in the church.
MB: I think our differences, both in the way that we were raised and also our musical influences, even though they do intersect at some points, they completely inform how what we do turns out.
Did you cross paths before you each moved here?
BW: No. ... We were kind of in different worlds. I was kind of doing a rock band thing.
MB: I was definitely doing a solo singer-songwriter thing. More of the quiet rooms, and [Becky was] always playing rock rooms. Also I wasn't at the point yet where I had learned the true value of co-writing.
How did you come to see each other as kindred spirits and potential collaborators?
BW: From my point of view, Mary is sort of the consummate Nashville professional co-writer. She does two co-writing appointments some days ... whereas I don't really do that much. That's not as much my thing.
Well, you do come from the alt-rock world.
BW: Yeah, that may be why. I don't tend to reach out to people and ask them if they want to co-write, but Mary asked me.
MB: Honestly, I'm lucky that she said "yes."
BW: Well, we knew each other already and I knew that I liked you.
MB: But you say "no" to a lot of people you like. It might have been that on that particular day she was [feeling] a little weak and said, "Alright, fine."
BW: I had a great time and I loved writing with Mary and that doesn't happen to me that much. ... It turned into a standing appointment. And then we did a couple trips together to Folk Alliance International [Conference]. We were roommates and we drove there together and we had a fantastic time. ... On the way back we started joking around. I had been in bands, and I was like, "How come bands aren't like this? This is easy and we have fun and we're not arguing." So it started as a joke.
MB: I'd never been in a band before. ... I've just always, always, always been a solo singer-songwriter. I'm married to a freelance bass player. I've hired freelancers my entire career.
How did this duo concept get serious?
BW: One of the first things we did was sit down and come with a framework for what kinds of stuff we would write about. ... We just wrote down a bunch of [key] words. We wanted it to be fun. We wanted it to be empowering. We wanted it to be danceable and rock and roll. Catchy.
MB: It was real nerdy [brainstorming], I'll say that. We spent so much time on the primary vision for what we wanted this to be. And the name itself we also spent quite a bit of time on, with spreadsheets and everything.
BW: We came back to those a lot. Every time we would start a new song, we would come back to that original list we wrote.
And see if it measured up to the template?
BW: Yeah. The very first song we wrote for the album is one called "Come Around." We were like, "OK, so it's about this relationship that didn't quite happen, and maybe it could still happen. But we don't want her sitting at home pining for him." Every time we would think about what to do for the chorus, we'd be like, "Wait, is it empowering for her?" We wanted it to be clear she was fine and she wasn't gonna go chase after him, but if he wanted to see what would happen, he was welcome to come by and she would open the door.
MB: [Laughs] And that's it. She wasn't gonna go any further than that.
You've said you wanted to make an album that you wish you'd had in junior high. Did you feel let down by the music you listened to back then?
BW: I had some good stuff. I actually was a huge Indigo Girls fan and they certainly didn't let me down. But also because I was into rock music, I listened to a lot of guys doing rock music and I didn't know a lot of women doing that kind of music. And a lot of the pop music at the time that had women in it was a lot of girls wishing for boyfriends.
MB: Or being objectified. It was never about strong women kicking ass.
But didn't the riot grrrls do that?
BW: I didn't really find that stuff until college. In high school I didn't know that stuff. I did listen to Liz Phair in high school. Exile in Guyville is still one of my favorite records. I knew it felt awesome to hear a woman being so bad ass and vocal about her feelings and sexuality, but I also knew I couldn't listen to it around my parents. But mostly I listened to a lot of guys, and I didn't even really realize it at the time.
MB: That's the thing that strikes me: I didn't really find myself as a fully developed woman with her own thoughts until I was, like, 24 or something. ... In hindsight, had I been exposed to music that wasn't so much about boys chasing girls and girls being the object of some dude's affection, maybe I would've found myself at 18 or 21 or something.
Becky, you've toured with the Indigo Girls and put out a band album. They're singer-songwriters with two distinct voices and personalities. Did you look to them as a model for your duo?
BW: I thought about it a lot while we were making our record.
MB: We even thought at one point, about vocal parts: 'What would the Indigo Girls do?'
BW: They do such intresting things [with harmony], two women in a song but not exactly what you'd expect. ... It was Amy [Ray] who signed me to a record deal and who's been a mentor to me for a long time. And she comes from more of the rock and punk world. ... I got to go on a solo tour with Emily [Saliers] late last year. I opened but I also sang the harmonies on her stuff, becoming intimately familiar with where she was coming from too. They're huge role models for me, even the fact that they've been together as a duo for as long as they have: 30 years. ... But they also do manage to keep their own identities. ... They were an inspiration for me a lot as we were thinking about what this would be like.
Speaking of vocal arrangements, how did you work out how to use your voices together? Your vocal arrangements sometimes move in unexpected ways, like when you sing in unison, then split into harmony.
BW: I never thought about unison singing ever before this album. I didn't really think of that as a legitimate option. I don't have any training in singing, but Mary has quite a lot.
MB: A song like "Like Her" literally was each of us writing a verse about the other one, so it made sense for each of us to sing the ones we'd written. Becky is the antithesis of sappy. If we get sappy, she's running out the front door. That song in particular, I don't know how you got through it. We wrote it right before the election and literally first played it the day after the election. So, it was totally about one another but also totally about Hillary Clinton. I was proud of you for leaning into the cheese.
BW: [Laughs] Thank you!
Each of you bring a lot of emotional heft to your solo work, and your serious subject matter has contributed to you being taken seriously as artists. What was appealing about doing something deliberately lighthearted?
BW: I've always had a great appreciation for really fun pop music. One of my favorite songs ever is Britney Spears' "Toxic." I think that's a great song, and I think that if I wrote that song, I would be so proud. It doesn't have any emotional heft, but the melody is brilliant. It's catchy as hell. I've always thought I would love to write stuff like that if I was confident at it. Unfortunately, I'm not that good at that. But Mary's quite good at writing catchy melodies — better than I am. The first couple songs we wrote were fun, but they weren't really silly. And then we wrote" Ice Cream and Liquor." The first time we played it for anyone, people loved it so much we were like," Maybe it's OK to just be silly. It's way more fun for us, and people seem to get it." ... So we just kinda gave ourselves permission to do it.
MB: This has been a real gift to me, because I have tended to spend too much time on those craftier, emotional hefty songs. ... Writing in this unabashed, fast way has really brought the joy back to writing for me because even though I love writing autobiographical, emotional songs, it's exhausting. I mean, I love it, but it's emotionally exhausting. ... In this context, it's not even hard work because we're throwing these little creative elements in that we've been honing for years.
BW: I always hear people in improv [talk about] how it's like the "yes and" thing. We did a lot of that with each other. One of us would be like, "What if it's a song about how she won a jelly bean-counting contest and she got a trip to France and she met her soul mate, then she had to go home?" ... We were down to try anything.
What's it like striking such different postures than you're used to in your writing and performing?
BW: The thing that makes it not a difficult transition is that these are still songs that I'm proud of. Even though they're kinda goofy, I think they're really well crafted.
MB: It's kind of outrageous how people get behind up-tempo, empowering, sometimes ridiculous songs. ... What it makes me feel is like I could do anything.