The married music makers open up about new album Wassaic Way, working with Jeff Tweedy and keeping their family life in balance after 14 years of marriage
Alongside a two-lane back road in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts sits a solid, simple frame home.
Sited on what appears to be at least a couple of acres atop a hill, its nearest neighbor is farther than you can throw a stone, but not so far as to be out of sight.
The house is far enough from the main highway to provide a peaceful retreat, but with easy access to civilization — whether you consider that North Adams, Pittsfield, Boston or beyond.
The silence — at least outdoors, anyway — is broken only by the occasional animal noise or the air-horn warning and rumble of one of the freight trains that pass through on a regular basis.
Inside, it’s a very different story.
That’s where Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion are raising their kids — “counting the cousins, on any given day there are four to six. But normally, two: Olivia’s 11, Sophia’s 6,” Johnny told Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? in an exclusive interview.
And it’s home base for their business. Downstairs, in a studio-basement-rehearsal space, the married musical duo practice and record their music.
Things are really happening for Sarah Lee and Johnny. They seem like a duo on the verge of overnight success — albeit after one very long and ofttimes sleepless night.
But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s clear up something: While Sarah Lee and Johnny aren’t household names, there’s something about them that rings the bell.
It’s that Guthrie thing, right?
Guthrie and Massachusetts rings a bell. That’s “where I grew up,” says Sarah who, although you wouldn’t guess on first seeing her, is daughter of Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of Woody Guthrie.
Their new album, Wassaic Way, has just been released on their own Rte 8 Records label. It’s a gem of an album, full of great, listenable songs that speak of love, loss and the road. (Wassaic is the last stop on Metro-North Railroad’s Harlem Line.)
“We felt like Wassaic Way does say a lot about our lives in the sense of we spend a lot of time in cities, whether in Australia or Germany, and then we hunker back down here in the Berkshires and try and balance our lives,” Johnny said, explaining the choice of title.
The album’s sound is no major departure for the couple. It’s more of a further refinement of the lush, folk-based sonic world they created with their last release, Bright Examples, in 2011.
Wassaic Way features 11 songs with jangly guitars and harmony singing that can come only from two voices that are totally in sync. Johnny and Sarah Lee blend so well that they can sound like a single voice.
But it features some new touches, like the super poppy feel of the album’s opener, “Chairman Meow,” a place-name-checking paean to Los Angeles, where Johnny and Sarah Lee met. And the there’s a new, country-rock feel in the love-and-loss of “Probably Gone.”
“I think it’s the first time Sarah Lee and I have been really produced,” Johnny said. “I mean, we’ve worked with Gary [Louris of The Jayhawks] and Vetiver and those guys” on Bright Examples.
“But those guys, they kinda let us be ourselves and we were just kind of a band in the studio.”
The cast of characters, and the work ethic, was different for Wassaic Way.
The couple caught the attention of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who gave them a featured slot on the band’s 2011 Solid Sound Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — a 45 minute drive from their home.
What’s more, Tweedy and bandmate Pat Sansone signed on to produce what wound up as Wassaic Way.
And produce they did, in a gentle way.
“This was more like, ‘No, no, no, let’s take our time and let’s mull this over for awhile. What’s the big rush?’ “ Johnny explained.
Tweedy and Sansone made a huge impact of the couple and really helped them realize their own visions, Johnny said, because they share the same eclectic musical interests and influences
“It’s always like, wow, I love Sonic Youth, too, man. I love Black Flag, too. And hell yeah, I love Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers,” Johnny explained.
Along with the massive admiration came a little trepidation on the way to the recording studio in Chicago, Johnny allowed.
“I think sometimes with the way Jeff has been portrayed in the press and some of the movies and documentaries and stuff, you don’t know which Jeff is gonna show up. … And the Jeff that showed up to the studio every day was professional, on time, very direct and into it and, you know, blessed to be where he is and excited.
“And that just helped bring the music to a whole different level. “
Tweedy wasn’t afraid to speak up and say exactly how hey envisioned the songs, Johnny explained.
“He’s very creative. And he’s stern. You know, there were definitely times where I was like, really? And he’s like, yeah! And I’m like, OK.”
Sansone also brought sharp bridge-writing skills and a finely tuned ear for adding string parts in just the right places, Johnny added.
Sarah Lee shares Johnny’s enthusiasm for the new disc.
“I am so excited I can’t even sleep at night. And that’s unusual for me. I can usually sleep anywhere, anytime,” she said.
“But the last few days, especially … I’m just feeling completely buzzed off the whole idea. The significance of working with Wilco, and Jeff and Pat, is just finally catching up to me.
“It’s not just the legacy thing and the whole Woody-Wilco world. It’s really just the journey, for Johnny and I, to have made it this far. To have started from, really, just trying to get a gig you know for 200 bucks here and there. What we’ve been doing, traveling around for 12 years in a van, trying to make it happen, finally sorta comes to you. I feel like we’ve finally had enough success to work with somebody of that caliber.
“It’s awesome. … We’re just super grateful for all of it.
While it’s impossible to say for sure what any artist’s songs are about, it’s clear that this collection is very much influenced by 14 years of marriage and nearly as many years of musical partnership.
Asked if it’s possible to do the work they do and maintain a work-life balance, Johnny opened up.
“Not really. I think there’s a reset button,” he said before a long pause..
“I’ve actually been sober now for three months. After we decided to release this record, there were certain things that had to go.
“We both feel like we’re in a really good spot.
“I mean, 14 years of marriage, ups and downs, plenty of times where we both felt like we should be doing other things, doing things separately, that maybe we do too much,” Johnny reflected. “I think a lot of people ask that question.”
The answer has kept them side-by-side — and may have been right there in the album’s title track — which Johnny wrote “a couple years ago” — all along:
Love has a way of making you stay and going crazy…. But you’ve got to let love change.
But, Johnny explained it this way: “It’s a lot of back history that helped us continue to be who we are and keep us grounded. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do.”
So what’s Johnny’s big hope for this album?
“I really hope at the end of the day Wassaic stands as an album, you know what I mean: ‘You gotta get the album.’ If we did that, that would be the biggest success for me and Sarah Lee and I think everybody involved in the project.”
SARAH LEE GUTHRIE AND JOHNNY IRION ON TOUR
After doing a few gigs near home, including earlier this month in Wassaic itself at the Wassaic Festival, Sarah Lee and Johnny are gearing up to head out on the road for most of September and October. Find their full tour schedule here.
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny hit New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 17, when they play at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan. They’re on late, with music starting at 10:30 p.m. and doors at 9:30. Tickets, $13 in advance or $15 on day of show, are available online or at the venue’s box office, 217 E Houston St., New York, NY, 10002