Part of what makes traditional music relevant in this day and age is the content," says singer-songwriter Gwyneth Moreland, half of the indie-folk duo Gwyneth and Monko.
"This stuff still applies to our lives today, for the most part. What I love about American Appalachian music is that you can listen to it now, and it's not all sunshine-y and carefree. A lot of the times, the words and sentiments are dark, and characters are working hard to overcome obstacles, just like we are today."
All of this inspires Moreland and partner Michael Monko when they sit down to create their original blend of folk and country music with a contemporary, indie-rock sensibility.
Moreland says folk music is a tool for being present and aware of life and the world around us. "It's music for reflecting on what our lives are about. That's what folk music is, whether it's traditional country or rock or rap music."
Gwyneth and Monko will play March 7 at Plush, on the road to celebrate the release of their full-length debut album, Gwyneth and Monko.
The duo calls the small Northern California town of Mendocino its home, but Moreland says she and Monko "spend pretty much all our time playing out on the road."
They last played in Tucson in November, as part of the last leg of a tour as they made their way home for Thanksgiving. Moreland enjoys visiting Tucson because she gets to see her aunt and cousin, who live here.
Although Moreland and Monko are both from Northern California—she grew up in Mendocino, and he's from the San Francisco Bay area—they come from different backgrounds, especially musical.
Moreland grew up in a rural, back-to-basics atmosphere with four siblings and no TV, CD player or junk food. But there was no lack of music. "I grew up in a really musical family," she says. "My dad played a lot of folk music, so at an early age, I was listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and my mother brought a love of church hymns and old-time-y music."
Monko says that while growing up in the East Bay, he "did a lot of things that were common amongst teenaged boys. I started playing guitar when I was about 12, trying to learn 'Stairway to Heaven.' I played in some heavy rock bands in high school in the 1980s. I was primarily a bass player. And in the '90s, we started playing modern rock and grunge stuff."
He strayed from music for a while after that, studying fine woodworking. His rejuvenated interest in music—with a more acoustic-oriented approach—led him to online studies in theory, harmony and music production at the Berklee College of Music. When he discovered Moreland, he was exploring folk and country in earnest, and with her, he now plays acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.
Moreland started singing at 16 in a "newgrass" band she formed with her brother, Morgan Daniel. "We've been together for 11 years and still play when we can," she says about her brother.
She released a solo album, Wishbone, in 2009. "Then it came time to start performing those tunes, and I wanted to have a CD-release show, so I was looking for some people to play with, and there was Monko. We had jammed together a few times, so he played the CD-release show, and we have been playing together since then."
The music of Gwyneth and Monko has been compared to that of Jenny Lewis and Gillian Welch, but the moody arrangements also recall those of the Cowboy Junkies while Moreland's sweet voice brings to mind a less mannered Victoria Williams.
The duo's first EP, Good Old Horse, was released last year.
While the EP showed promise, the new album is flat-out excellent—a robust assortment of country-folk tunes with touches of edgy rock, often supplied by the rich textures of Monko's electric guitar. The tunes "Hand in the Fire," "Blood of the Lamb" and "Down," for example, conjure dark atmospheres. Other tracks, such as "Summer Bliss" and "Get in the Sun," are lighter in thematic tone and instrumentation.
Nodding to the traditional-music past, Gywneth and Monko also includes as its final track an actual wax-cylinder recording of the tune "Pine Box Sailor" in its distorted glory.
In the past, Moreland says, she primarily wrote fictitious narratives. On the new recording, she and Monko occasionally explore personal themes and autobiographical details. "Consumption," for instance, relates her feelings about her family's history of tuberculosis, while the aforementioned "Down" relates an especially trying period of Moreland's life.
The album's opening track, "Found in Benson," is about Gwyneth and Monko's experience getting stranded in and then getting to know an artsy neighborhood in Omaha, Neb. (It does not refer to the small town in Arizona.)
"Benson is this really cool old neighborhood in Omaha that had fallen on hard times and was full of just bars and car lots before young artists started moving in and rejuvenating it. It's really inspiring. They even have their own newsletter. We ended up playing there last year, and it was really great."
Most of the time, though, Gwyneth and Monko don't spend long periods of time in cities. They are hardworking and focused, just the two of them traveling in a camper van—complete with a sink, stove and refrigerator—without the backing band that fills out many of the songs on their album.
"Many times, we arrive at a venue just about the time to load in," Moreland says. "We pride ourselves on our punctuality, by the way, so what we get to experience of a town is many times just what is happening right there at the venue or nearby. Occasionally, we'll have time for dinner or to look into a shop."