When singer/songwriter Jessica Pounds went to Asheville, N.C., four years ago, the last thing she expected was any kind of transformative experience, but that's exactly what happened.
It was just a vacation — a little R&R, maybe a bit of busking on the side — the kind of decompression that seems necessary for anyone trying to make a living through the arts in Northeast Florida. But all that changed when she met Sandra Wicker.
"We were both busking, and it was pouring down rain, and we walked past each other," Wicker said during brunch at Cool Moose, where she and Pounds split a chicken salad croissant and sweet potato fries, along with mimosas. "I grew up on the Georgia-Florida border; my dad had a construction company here, but I'd never lived here before."
Within a month, they were working together.
"It reflects a twist for me," said Wicker, 21, who began her music career in Johnson City, Tenn. "I stuck to strict folk music, country, but then I met Jessica and got exposed to stuff like Rufus Wainwright, Leonard Cohen — so it's a complete transformation."
That initial meeting in 2009 sparked a friendship that quickly turned into a musical partnership. Four years later, they are co-leaders of Canary in the Coalmine. Their Burro Bar gig is in support of the North & South Dakotas — a group formed just last year that is, in fact, based in upstate New York. After that, both bands will play twice more together, in Columbia and Charleston, S.C.
Their sound is based around voices and strings; there is no drummer at the moment, but the ladies roll deep nonetheless. Bassist Pete Mosley, who joined last July, studies composition at Jacksonville University and has played in Yellowcard and Inspection 12. Philip Pan is the principal violinist for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra; he's been in the group about two years. Their auditory ace in the hole is guitarist Arvid Smith, an industry veteran and longtime arts writer for Folio Weekly.
"I was in a band with Trey Andrews, [and] I began to sit in at gigs with them, as Trey was also playing bass for them at the time," Smith wrote in an email. "I had met Jessica a few years back when she was gigging with Shawn Lightfoot as well."
Boasting more years of professional experience than his colleagues have years of age, Smith has pretty much seen and done everything relevant to the kind of music they play, but he immediately saw something special in these diminutive singers.
"There is a stately quality, to my ears, of their music. An evocation of perhaps the first distillation of what became American music from antebellum up to Tin Pan Alley. The music allows, dare I say, solicits the instrumental textures that I hold dear to me. Blues in its various formats, Hawaiian hallucination and N.C. Piedmont fingerstyle pre-rag guitar, to name a few." Canary has worked Burro Bar before, along with other regional venues like Underbelly, Jack Rabbits, Freebird Live and Mojo Kitchen; they've also played Suwanee Springfest two years in a row, and are booked for a second straight MagnoliaFest this October. These new gigs will feature some of the new material the band's been working on. And they've recently begun collaborating with members of Grandpa's Cough Medicine. Their new album was produced by Matt Grondin at Parlor Studios; it's being mastered now, and is expected to be released soon.
Pounds is also involved with the second annual Girls Rock Jacksonville camp, running July 29-Aug. 3.
The band's name, which Wicker thought of years before they met, reflects a sound Pounds describes as "Americana, with a twist, and a weird, eerily hopeful darkness to it."
Their voices are naturally compatible, but it takes real work to craft the characteristic harmonies that butter their bread so smoothly. It's serious business for them; both have the band's logo tattooed on their arms.
"It started with the imagery, and I think that imagery is a huge part of what we do," said Pounds, 28. "We always say, ‘As long as the canary is singing, you know you're OK', but it's also this little bright bird in this dark setting; there's something hopeful and defeating at the same time and, really, the point of Canary is, that's the experience of life. … No matter how dark things get, or how hopeless it seems, if you can learn to recognize and communicate the beauty of every moment, you're doing all right."