The notion of a married couple dabbling in the kitchen is fun. Each partner brings their own flair to the table to give an old recipe a new, fresh life. One adds a pinch of spice while the other gets things sizzling. Guy Forsyth and Jeska Bailey didn’t record their new album Conspirators in the kitchen, but they did concoct something hearty for listeners. The husband and wife duo will be serving heapin’ helpings of the good stuff at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck on Halloween night. Forsyth likened the process of crafting those songs to using basic and proven ingredients to whip up something nourishing.
“It’s a really simple record, just acoustic guitar, voices and the tapping of the foot,” he said. “It is a real reaction to how dense a lot of media and our experience is these days. The dominant instrument of our time is the laptop computer, which is often used to make the densest possible recording. But this is something, it’s just Jes and I playing together, so it’s like home cooking.”
Forsyth is widely known as a solo artist and band leader, a founding member of the Asylum Street Spankers and Hot Nut Riveters. He’s toured the globe and shared stages with acts like Ray Charles, B.B. King and Lucinda Williams. Bailey has been singing since she was a kid. She was running a club in San Angelo when they met four years ago and the band she fronted was a San Angelo favorite for years running. The couple got married nearly two years ago and the original songs on Conspirators – seven of them, combined with five well-chosen covers – sound as if they sprung from intimate, important conversations the couple has shared in its time together.
“I find that things that occur in conversations show up in songs all the time and I think it’s also really important in music like this, that’s made of such simple parts, it really has to be what’s on your mind, it has to be honest,” Forsyth noted. “There’s no artifice to hide behind. It’s not pop music. There’s not a drum beat behind it, there’s not a string pad underneath it, you really have to have some substance to it, you have to say something that you actually want to say.”
To Forsyth’s point, the opening track is titled “The Things That Matter.” He takes lead vocals on that song, which eschews the glittery glitz of stuff for the substantive things in life. Bailey glides in on harmonies and it’s a strong start to the album, which released in July on Forsyth’s own Small and Nimble Records label. Another track, “Concrete,” comments on the fragile state of the environment and Bailey said Forsyth wrote it “in the park that I grew up playing in.”
“A number of the songs that we wrote on this record, they have very, very personal origins. One of the songs is about a friend of mine who died of cancer that I visited in the hospital before she died and the relationship that she had with her husband of 35 years. It was just super heavy, you know?” Forsyth said. “This is not pop music, this is not jingle writing. So, what is it for? It’s baring witness, and hopefully doing it in a way that is accessible enough that we can share the experiences, even if we didn’t have the conversations about the specifics, because the human experience, from person to person, is really similar. We all get older, we all see our friends age and die, hopefully we’re lucky enough to find someone to fall in love with and get to share our experiences. Whether you’re rich or poor or living anywhere on the planet, your experiences of these things are what makes you human.”
Anxiety and self-doubt are human emotions, too. Bailey said she experienced them fully when she started performing regularly with Forsyth after she’d moved to Austin permanently. Although she had experienced regional success and some nice moments, like opening for Los Lonely Boys and Los Lobos, this was something on a larger scale. The songs on Conspirators are her first professionally produced recordings.
“When I first moved to Austin, I didn’t just start playing with him – that was a really slow process of me getting up there – but I was terrified,” she admitted. “I’ve been a performer my whole life, I’ve been singing my whole life, but it’s a completely different ballgame compared to what I was doing, you know? They’re all just such pros, it’s not just Guy, it’s all the musicians that he plays with, too, and I was thrown in there. I just wasn’t sure of myself and I didn’t feel like I deserved it and I didn’t feel like I was good enough to do it.
“I mean, I cried a few times on stage, I asked people to let me leave the stage and they wouldn’t, but I would ask to go,” Bailey recalled. “It was a process of figuring out that I was actually good enough to do it and that I am good enough to be up there. It was scary.”
It’s a subject that’s addressed on the track “What I Should Be Singing.” Forsyth wrote the song but Bailey sings lead on it and absolutely owns it, stepping away from her gossamer backing vocals to sing lead with clarity and conviction. Teaming with Forsyth has meant finding her voice again, in some ways.
“Playing with your spouse, it’s really rewarding and sometimes it’s aggravating, honestly,” Bailey said. “We’re together all the time, we don’t really have times when we’re not around each other and usually whenever one of us is grumpy it isn’t until we play music that we’re fine again. It’s kind of something that’s soothing. And we actually do a really good job of getting along and communicating and we’re working really hard on that. I’m in constant awe of Guy as a musician and I’m so blessed to be riding on the coattails of such an awesome icon. Every time that I go onto a stage I realize it is because of my talent, I’m good, but it’s also because my husband worked so hard and he trusts me enough to share his legacy with me.”
The duo is creating its own professional and personal legacies, and those objectives are intertwined. They have a pair of daughters who are witnessing a small family industry at work, for instance. The couple is constantly working, writing songs as they carry groceries in from the car. They juggle at-home time with touring. The album began as a demo they could send to talent buyers at clubs and morphed into an LP. Bailey said she’s the hustler who handles many of the band logistics.
“I think this is my normal married life. I think this is normal,” she said.
“We try to live cheaply because we don’t make a huge amount of money, but we get to do what we wanna do the way that we wanna do it,” added Forsyth. “I really love my job because, if I do it well, it really makes people happy and I think that it helps. I don’t wanna overemphasize or inflate my importance because I know a lot of great singers, I know a lot of great guitar players, I know a lot of great musicians. We have an amazing wealth of talent in Texas. And, if you’re paying attention, there’s a transformational experience available to you almost every night of the week, if you go out and find it.
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“I love what we get to do, I love not having to separate my life into an external touring lifestyle and a family lifestyle. I like working hard to try and make it the same thing,” he said.
The duo is so true to that ethos it even included its “song” on the album. Many married couples have a favorite song, the one that soundtracked their courtship and marriage, and for Bailey and Forsyth it’s the Brandi Carlile song, “Wherever Is Your Heart.” It’s track nine on Conspirators and features Bailey singing lead, right from the heart.
“So, what type of music is this? It’s folk music because it’s acoustic guitar and voices, and it’s folk music because it’s not the sort of songwriting approach that is showy,” Forsyth said. “I don’t mean anything against that because I write a lot of the songs like that, too. But that’s not what this is. This is a home record. It’s close to the heart.”
Guy Forsyth and Jeska Bailey perform at 9:30 p.m. October 31 at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. $25-$28. Following that show, the duo returns to the Houston area November 24 for a set at Dosey Doe, 25911 Interstate 45 North in The Woodlands. $18-24.