Evan Murdock has been blazing a trail through Madison's music scene for nearly 13 years. Before striking out on his own in 2011, he played in acoustic duo Kentucky Waterfalls and bluegrass band the Lonesome Rogues, which was a fixture at Wonder's Pub, Alchemy Cafe's predecessor. But when it came to making his first solo album, Feel Bad No More, he was uncertain which direction to go.
Fortunately, the musicians he picked for his backing band - Count This Penny vocalist Amanda Rigell, North Country Drifters drummer Ben Wolf, bassist Patrick Logterman and accordion player Aaron Jossart, collectively known as the Imperfect Strangers - made that task easier. They'll unveil the new album with Murdock on Feb. 26 at the High Noon Saloon.
"Chemistry is what drives everything we do," says Murdock. "That was one of the big drivers for me in doing the album, to capture that chemistry."
The group drew not only from Americana, country and folk influences but also Delta blues and soul. To a customary guitar-and-drums setup they added banjo, mandolin and horns.
But if you ask Murdock to pick the most commanding instrument on the album, he'll probably choose Jossart's accordion. Jossart hasn't played or listened to much Americana or country. Though this could have spelled trouble, it turned out to be an asset. His fresh perspective has taken the band's sound into exciting new territory.
"He's a keyboardist for the most part, and he comes from more of a funk and soul background. So he brought a very different ear and a very different style to what we do. I don't think that would have happened if we went with just a honky-tonk guitar player or fiddle player or something like that," says Murdock. "Some of the counterpoint singing and countermelodies, a lot of that is his influence."
The resulting sound complements Murdock's lyrics, which tell stories that combine despair and hope.
"If I write something dark, it's got a hopeful edge, but if I write something hopeful, it's got a dark edge," says Murdock.
To capture the energy the songs have in concert, the band decided to record in a 100-year-old barn about 30 minutes from Madison. But this wasn't just any barn. It's where Butch Vig recorded Wisconsin Hayride, an EP by the New York band Gumball, in 1992. After watching the barn fall apart for years, the owner recently decided to make it into a performance venue. Murdock and his band arrived just as the owner was finishing the renovations.
"We spent three days playing," says Murdock. "The basic track [had] drums, bass, guitar, accordion and lead vocals, which were all recorded live. And then we went in and tracked in the harmony vocals and some of the other stuff."
Murdock looked to old recordings by songwriters like Bob Dylan to create an album that's as vibrant as a live performance.
"A lot of the recordings weren't note-for-note perfect, and I think we've lost something as we've gained so much more control over the recording process," he says. "There's a tendency that since you can control everything, you should. But you end up losing some of the intangible parts of a performance."
Murdock says he appreciates the truthfulness of imperfect recordings, too.
"These guys were doing it in one take and under terrible recording conditions. There are mistakes, but it's very honest," he says.
Achieving this authentic sound proved to be a challenge. Since the band couldn't go back and retrack, they had to keep trying until they got each song right. They redid "That's the Way" from the ground up and ultimately recorded it in a way they had never played it before.
"That demonstrated how well we work together and our ability to work together under those conditions," says Murdock. "Nobody got mad or frustrated. We were throwing out ideas and trying over and over. Eventually it clicked into this new and awesome direction."