"I'm from Madison, Wisconsin," says 32-year old Laura Kepner-Adney as she talks about the highlight-filled musical path to her newest project, Laura and the Killed Men. A formally trained choral and jazz singer who has busked with strangers in New Zealand, performs with the folky Silver Thread Trio and rock 'n' rollers the Cordials—Kepner-Adney's only constant is a voracious appetite for stylistic shape-shifting. Her first EP with the Killed Men was finished less than a week ago and the group recently landed a coveted opening slot for Mavis Staples.
Kepner-Adney's musical pursuits began in earnest upon high school graduation. "I applied and got into Oberlin College because I thought I was going to be an opera singer that was my life's plan," she remembers. "After a few months I knew that the program was not a good fit. I dropped out and I ended up having way more fun playing after that when it was no longer a requirement."
During a semester abroad in South Africa, she sang with various jazz combos, including one that featured Dave Brubeck's son.
"I started listening to a lot of jazz and building a CD library—Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins—1960s instrumental stuff. I got into Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
"My first official band happened by accident. It was when I was in New Zealand in 2005. I was traveling around the South Island with some friends and we ran into some guys who were from Cincinnati. We were standing on a corner with a banjo and a mandolin. They needed a ride. I had a guitar in the van and the other guys I was with started jamming with them playing spoons and a harmonica. We toured around the island for a month and paid for all of our gas. We didn't book anything, we were just going to a town and somebody would ask us to play house party. Or somebody would let us play at the restaurant. It was awesome and it gave me a really false impression of what it is like to be in a band."
Later that year, Kepner-Adney relocated to Tucson, where she would eventually co-found the Silver Thread Trio and the Cordials, the latter of which found a kinship with the local rock band Sun Bones.
"(Sun Bones bassist) Bob (Hanshaw) and I had talked about how the Cordials and Sun Bones are such a fun match and that we should do a joint tour together. He approached me at the beginning of the summer and said, 'Hey, why don't we do a Cordials/Sun Bones tour this summer?' Things had gotten crazy with our schedules in the Cordials and it just wasn't gonna work. I had just started promoting my solo stuff and Bob talked me into coming along on their tour. It started out that I was just gonna play on Sun Bones' stuff and they were gonna be my backing band."
At the tour's final stop in Phoenix, the shows had gone so well that Hanshaw and his band mates Sam Golden, Seth Vietti and Evan Casler (who recently amicably parted ways with the group) invited Kepner-Adney to be a full member of Sun Bones.
"I asked if they would be in my band, too, and they were all into it. So now we have this—what I'd like to hope is the perfect mode of touring: Two bands in one band with basically the same gear, You can book a tour by offering both bands to each venue."
Laura and the Killed Men, which is Sun Bones with a different sound and songs, immediately recorded a three song EP at Waterworks West.
"The songs (on the EP) were the ones we played on the tour," she explains. "They've developed over time. We've figured out ways to make them more interesting and added harmonies. (The Killed Men) are coming from a very different place than I am so it's interesting to see where we meet, how close to the middle it ends up being for each song. ... There's a very clear Americana thing with my writing, and they came in and made it (more rock-oriented)."
This past weekend, Kepner-Adney helped arrange a memorial concert for the beloved Tucson musician Cyril Barrett, who passed away earlier this month.
"The past two months have been a fucking journey and we've been so busy preparing for the memorial that the grieving process has been put on hold. But the community and support of everyone coming together and learning his songs was the same that I experienced in the last few weeks of his life, that everybody was getting together to cover all of his waking hours at the hospital to make sure he wasn't by himself. It's been hard to feel very good about things."
She talks about a fleeting moment during her opening set for Mavis Staples, where "for a minute I felt a little less numb." Though it may not be apparent now, Kepner-Adney's story is one of rebirth, and her music is both a fitting tribute and a comforting soundtrack for a community currently in mourning.