Conway admires the mournful vocals of Amy Winehouse and Fiona Apple.
A lineup change for an existing band can be just as exciting as the unveiling of a fledgling act. Just ask Blair Clark and Leah Brooke Conway of the Sills. Conway made her Sills recording debut on the new album The World Was Wonderful, taking the band into sublimely shadowy territory with her dark, enchanting vocals. The group sound more melancholy and menacing than they did on previous recordings, such as their self-titled 2012 debut.
Clark and Conway aren't new to Madison, but their collaboration in the Sills and the two-piece Elks Teeth & Rabbits Feet is a fresh addition to the scene. Local punk fans may recall Clark's work in Underculture, while Lourah devotees are likely familiar with Conway's powerful pipes. Fellow Sills Chris Moore, Jim McKiernan, David Ross and Ken Keeley provide the rhythm section and influences ranging from jazz to blues.
Conway joined the Sills about a year ago, after Clark watched her perform at the Wisco. He immediately sent her a message to see if she'd like to sing with the band following the departure of the former singer and bassist.
"When I saw her sing, I knew she was exactly who we wanted going forward," Clark says.
In addition to serving as lead songwriter, Clark provides vocals and guitar, tapping into the deep tones and gravelly textures of artists like Tom Waits.
"I really love Tom Waits, and his style has been a big influence as I've moved away from loud, loud punk music to something where people could hear what I was saying or singing," Clark says. "I've learned to write in a much different way, and I'm pushing myself a little more than I did in the past."
Clark's punk roots shape the music in understated ways.
"Punk really changed my life. It blasted everything else away and said, 'We're going to do whatever we please,'" he says. But that critics-be-damned attitude is present in other artists he admires, too, from Waits to Nick Cave to Johnny Cash.
Though Clark sometimes describes the Sills as modern purveyors of "Up North music," Southern country songs from the 1950s, like Cash's "Cry! Cry! Cry!" and "Folsom Prison Blues," have shaped the band's sound in important ways. After all, some of the most enduring country artists from this decade found clever and daring ways to comment on the era's repression, restrictions and double standards.
Classic crooners, Frank Sinatra in particular, have also made a mark on Clark.
"That's what American music is about, bringing in all these different styles, whether it's punk or big-band music," he says. "That includes some of the music my parents listened to, like Sinatra. And then there are people like John Doe from X, who has this wonderfully warm singing voice that he uses in punk songs that people wouldn't always call warm."
Conway looks to strong female singers with a prominent dark side -- Fiona Apple, Amy Winehouse -- for inspiration.
"I like their big voices but also their smart writing," she says. "I don't just like them; I study them."
In the Sills, Conway, Clark and crew use these influences to craft folk and Americana tunes with an ominous film noir vibe. The World Was Wonderful displays many shades of darkness, including playful gothic twang ("Blood Off My Hands"), dramatic fusions of jazz and blues ("My Lullaby"), and driving duets laced with menacing chords and double entendres ("Sycamore").
Conway and Clark create simpler instrumentation for Elks Teeth & Rabbits Feet, but the tunes often have a Sills-like pitch. Sometimes they hint at the political topics Clark's punk bands have tackled, too.
"We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who we are as a duo in Elks," Conway says. "I always come back to the idea that we are what we are when we're writing our songs. No matter what styles the songs are, there's continuity at the root of it all. The songs are all coming from us, and I think we know ourselves pretty well."