Despite the fact that The Milk Carton Kids released their Grammy-nominated album The Ash & Clay in 2013, to Joey Ryan -- one of the Americana-folk duo's two singer-guitarists -- it might as well have been during the 20th century when he tries to recall what the band's mindset was like while making the record.
"It feels like an eternity ago!" he laughs. "I think we were, creatively, in a place where we really wanted to push ourselves as far as what we could do in the format of two guitars and two vocals."
This itch to push themselves in new directions and expand their horizons has been a constant presence in the band's life since forming in 2011. Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale were both solo artists before they met, and much of their output up to that point would have passed for standard singer-songwriter fare, focusing heavily on emotional, personal content. And while the duo has made significant strides in terms of songwriting and lyrics in their few years together, there was still a sense heading into Ash that they could do more.
"As a way of pushing each other, we agreed there's a lot more we have to say, a lot more we want to say beyond, 'Here's what I'm feeling about a particular thing at a given moment,'" he says.
And so they pushed out in new directions on Ash, focusing on the daily struggles of American humanity. The ambling folk track "Hope of a Lifetime" follows an almost nomadic traveler as he heads West in search of his place in the world, while the mournful Americana number "Snake Eyes" centers on someone who doesn't believe in God telling God-fearing folk not to worry about his soul. And then there is the title track, which laments the regrettable state this country is in and questions the role government has in our lives.
"We didn't set out to make a political record," Ryan says. "Many of the songs on the album are about fictional characters or are loosely based on a personal experience or the experience of someone we know."
Regardless of what the duo's intentions were for creating these songs, people have responded. The duo has become one of the darlings of the folk and Americana circuit, playing sold out shows across the world, and have performed live on Conan. In April, they released a concert DVD, Live from Lincoln Theatre, which demonstrates what all the fuss is about.
Their live show is full of their intricate melodies and swirling vocal harmonies, not to mention some witty repartee whenever appropriate. It shows the band at their best, and yet it also shows -- once again -- their desire to keep themselves from getting too comfortable.
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"It was about seven months after we released The Ash & Clay," Ryan says, "and we'd started to zero in on a show we were proud of, but at the same time were ready to move on from. We found ourselves getting set in our set list and the rhythms of the shows, because we had developed a program, almost like a play or a classical piece that progresses in movements, or even a comedy show where the whole thing is very tightly-knit and scripted.
It was a show that we were really proud of and it was really working, but we also wanted to stop doing it and start playing different songs in different orders, and getting back to being more improvisational," he adds.
This need to keep things fresh and interesting is what drives the band because, in a way, their desire to always be changing things up is pretty much the only thing that has not changed in their few short years together. This is their voice, so to speak, and once you are able to find that in the creative world, there is little reason to change it, if any.
"We found our voice when we found each other," says Ryan."That's all any artist is looking for: the way and the method that you hopefully eventually find to say the things that you want to say. I think we were both searching for that identity, and when we started working together, we pretty quickly, pretty instantly, found it."
Milk Carton Kids perform at 7 and 10 p.m. Thursday, May 29, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.
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