"A lot of our songs are carefree and upbeat," says Andy Sharp, "but this time we were ready to try different emotions."
Alongside his lifelong friend and musical partner, Ryan Harkins, Sharp was talking on a cell phone as he drove down a highway outside Knoxville, Tenn.
The subject was Sharp and Harkins' new album, To Each His Own. The release finds the Madison rockers maturing as songwriters and embracing more complex arrangements. They've also taken their show on the road, touring outside the upper Midwest for the first time.
Sharp, 24, and Harkins, 25, grew up together in Stoughton. They've been a daily presence in each other's lives for many years, dating back to elementary school.
During high school, Harkins started playing guitar. When Sharp went over to Harkins' house, he thought his friend's new hobby was pretty cool. So he took it up himself.
After graduating from Stoughton High, Sharp and Harkins went their separate ways. Sharp attended UW-Whitewater, and Harkins moved to Green Bay to attend St. Norbert College.
Their friendship thrived during semester breaks back home in Stoughton. In 2005, they began performing as the acoustic duo of Sharp & Harkins.
In Madison music's spectrum of styles, Sharp and Harkins hang out at the acoustic pop/rock end, alongside Lucas Cates and Mike Droho's new band, the Compass Rose. This cluster of young musicians share characteristics. They're troubadours in the strong, silent-type mode.
Collectively, they've carved out musical paths influenced by mass-market heartthrobs like John Mayer and Jack Johnson. They're acoustic singer-songwriters that you might enjoy if you like bright FM radio hits like Mayer's "Waiting for the World to Change." So far, the more complex arrangements of indie rock - the kind you hear in the baroque synth of college radio bands like MGMT - have not been for them.
On the opening tracks of To Each His Own, released under the Sharp & Harkins Band moniker, the pair show songwriting maturity that's been developed since their 2007 release, Alive Again. Some songs, like "Shake It," still favor pop arrangements that tend to be more traditional. The ornamentation, song structures and chord progressions are more familiar, all of which safely restrain the emotion of the song.
But you can hear greater use of experimentation in "Freedom," a song that sounds a lot like Elliott Smith in its use of quietly intense vocals. Swelling strings and a lonely harmonica add to the depth of emotion and make it one of the standouts on this album. And you can hear it in the nervous tempo of "Everything," a track that's beautifully enhanced by a skittish piano solo and bursts of bluesy-rock chords akin to Ben Harper.
"We wanted to experiment this time out, and we brought in a violinist from Chicago to help add a different sound to the album," says Sharp. "These are the songs we wanted, and this is the way we wanted them to be."