Husband-and-wife folk-rock duo Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie turn far-reaching roots into modern-day success
When it comes to good artistic genes, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion have it made. American folk legend Woody Guthrie was Sarah Lee's grandfather — her father is Arlo Guthrie — and John Steinbeck, one of our country's greatest writers, was Johnny's great-uncle.
But Guthrie and Irion take the notion of familial influence to new heights, as the couple, who recently celebrated 14 years of marriage, has been performing together nearly as long. They even recorded a kids' record, "Go Waggaloo," at home in Western Massachusetts with their two daughters in 2009.
Arlo Guthrie, family friend Pete Seeger, and Pete's son, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, joined in. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Irion have stretched the folk-rock mold, particularly on their 2013 full-length "Wassaic Way."
Recorded at famed Chicago studio of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who produced the record with bandmate Pat Sansone, the album pushes Guthrie and Irion into new sonic worlds: sweeping '70s rock arrangements. Atmospheric Laurel Canyon pop. And a wry, slightly startling sense of humor (hear lead-off single "Chairman Meow") that could only come from two descendents of such esteemed lineage.
Folio Weekly chatted with Irion about defying expectations, measuring life in "duo years" and being snowbirds.
Folio Weekly: You and Sarah have personal ties in Florida, correct?
Johnny Irion: Sarah Lee's father has a place in Sebastian, but we haven't actually toured Florida that much. This year, we're trying to spend more time down there. We're getting good airplay in Florida with "Wassaic Way," so we said, "Let's do Christmas in Florida this year." I'm excited to be in that climate — I grew up surfing and skateboarding in North Carolina, which you can do in Florida in December. It's hard to do that in the Berkshires when it's freezing. So we might be the youngest snowbirds ever.
F.W.: "Wassaic Way" pleased some critics and put others off. Is the album a fair representation of where Sarah Lee and you stand right now?
J.I.: Aspects of it have definitely taken us into new realms. But the record really either closes the door for us or opens it further. Being a husband-and-wife duo is not the easiest thing in the world, so we're looking at it as a springboard to the future. I think we hit the mark with it as far as what we thought Jeff could bring to the table. I thought it might be a little weirder, but songs I didn't think would make the album did. Maybe that's where the leash came off.
F.W.: So you were happy with "Chairman Meow" opening the album?
J.I.: A folk duo — especially a folk duo with the last name Guthrie — opening with that kind of song could be a game-changer. But I'm very happy with it and look forward to making another record with those guys.
F.W.: The album's been out since August. Are you still focusing on it in a live setting?
J.I.: We've presented it with a band and done it as a duo … we actually just taped "Last Call with Carson Daly" and did it acoustic. For us, it really comes down to doing the songs in any form or fashion. Especially at our level — we have to be able to diversify as artists. We're not 22 years old. We have two kids.
F.W.: You've recorded an album as a family and toured as a family. Is there anything you all don't do together?
J.I.: Sarah Lee and I write separately. We do everything else together, so … . [Laughs.] I would like to not play for a year and then try and write together. That would be very interesting. A wonderful statement of love songs, I think. Look at Felice and Boudleaux Bryant — they wrote all their songs together as a couple. They lived those heartaches together but were able to talk about them. Like a live version of being on "Dr. Phil."
F.W.: Sarah Lee didn't even really perform until you two met, correct?
J.I.: When Sarah Lee and I met in LA, she was definitely looking for what music could be to her. But I don't think she knew how involved it might get. [Laughs.] We got married and didn't have a plan to play together as a duo. Then we did a show together, then we made a record, and then we had a kid, and then we had to make another record, and then we had another kid … It just snowballed. And here we are. It's been a trip — fun, but hard. We call it the "duo years," like dog years. When we're on the road, we're together 24 hours a day; when "Wassaic Way" came out, we did 70 shows, including radio appearances and in-stores, in two months. So we've been married 14 years now, but in "duo years" that's more like 60 years.