Over the last two decades, both Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws have carved out long-lasting – and strikingly independent – careers within a dependably fickle music business, Caws with his now 20-year-old New York City group Nada Surf, and Hatfield with the Boston-reared Blake Babies, the Juliana Hatfield Three, Some Girls, as well as a number of releases under her own name. They first worked together in 2008 when he added vocals to the song 'Such a Beautiful Girl' from her album How to Walk Away. She quickly returned the favor, singing on the Nada Surf b-side 'I Wanna Take You Home'.
It was clear from these brief encounters that their voices and sensibilities are almost preternaturally harmonious – or, more accurately (as illustrated throughout their new album Get There, recorded under the name Minor Alps), it can be difficult at times to distinguish between their voices, or to know where one's ideas might end and the other's begin. As Hatfield declares, "In certain ranges, the tones of our voices are so similar I can't tell which is which. I haven't experienced that with any other singer." It's as if they were always meant to perform together, and the pair has, luckily for us, finally realized it.
Hatfield and Caws not only share lead vocals and co-writing credit on each of the eleven songs that comprise Get There; aside from some drumming and programming by Parker Kindred (Jeff Buckley, Antony and the Johnsons) and Chris Egan (Solange, Computer Magic), the pair plays every instrument and conjures every sound – from primitive electronic dub pulse ('Buried Plans')-- to straight-up rock hook ('I Don't Know What To Do With My Hands') to stripped-down electric guitar punch ('Mixed Feelings') to eerie trance-allure ('Radio Static') to hypnotic guitar drone ('Waiting For You').
It's not just the timbre of the voices and the shared vision of their musical explorations, but the emotional tone of their songs and lyrics that blends so seamlessly. Their attraction to themes of restless solitude and constant longing have always been a compelling part of their individual repertoires, and Minor Alps expresses an ageless existential yearning tempered by hard-fought wisdom, maturity, or maybe just acceptance of certain eternal truths. As they ruefully admit in 'If I Wanted Trouble,' "This growing up never ends/ The same mistakes come back again…"
In the year before they recorded these songs (mostly with Caws' old friend Tom Beaujour at his studio in Hoboken, NJ) Hatfield and Caws wrote together in brief but intense bursts at his studio in Brooklyn, at her place in Cambridge, MA, and at Caws' current home in Cambridge, England. Those sessions themselves inspired one of the songs, as Matthew explains: "We were hanging out and working on ideas for a few days in England and it was such a positive thing that I really missed it when it was over. We spent most of the time working together, but sometimes we'd go to separate rooms to write. 'Wish You Were Upstairs' is about energy by proxy—how collaborating with someone, or just being industrious at the same time, can be comforting and inspiring, particularly if they're just fifteen feet away."
"That's exactly what it's like," Juliana interjects. "I wanted us to have a mind meld, a musical one, because I know there are these barriers between people and it takes a long time to get close to someone. We were just getting to know each other while we were trying to write songs together. When we first got together writing, I felt very vulnerable because I usually do it alone. It's a delicate balance to go to that vulnerable place yet do it in front of another person. That was the challenge, but the more we did it, the more it felt natural."
Choosing a name for their self-sufficient combo became one of those long mulled-over decisions that ultimately get resolved in an instant. Decades ago, Matthew's family had purchased a cheap mountainside cottage in France, with no running water or electricity, where he spent several summers as a child. The mountain overlooking the region, the Mont Ventoux, while technically part of the Alps, isn't referred to as such because there are no other mountains nearby. Matthew described it as a "minor alp" to his friend, photographer Autumn de Wilde, years ago, who immediately said "great band name, write that down." So, as Matthew puts it, "in the tradition of Iron Butterfly or Led Zeppelin, band names that contain contradictions, we chose Minor Alps—humble mountains."
On a more metaphorical level, Hatfield believes, the moniker suits them: "Maybe the whole world doesn't know who we are, but the people who do really appreciate us" – making Minor Alps nothing less than a major event.
-- Michael Hill