Real voices, real instruments: CALICO the band make music the old-fashioned way

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Manda Mosher, Kirsten Proffit, and Aubrey Richmond were successful, award-winning singers, songwriters, and multi-instrumentalists when they formed CALICO the band. Their collective skills — each unique, but connected by their musical roots — are easily at home on any folk, indie, Americana, country, or even bluegrass stage.

With the music industry full of nonstop complaints about Auto Tune, fabricated pop stars, and image over substance, CALICO the band are the real deal. On their 2014 debut album, Rancho California, released on their own California Country Records label, they seamlessly create three-part harmonies that naturally lend themselves to the classic sound after which they, and their label, are named.

The three members of CALICO the band recently responded to some interview questions from Guitar Girl.

According to previous interviews, the seed for the band was planted when Manda and Kirsten met at a gig, performed a song together, and decided to collaborate as songwriters. At that time, were you thinking about starting a duo, a band, or simply writing — possibly for a project, for other artists, or even for television placements?

Kirsten Proffit: We actually started writing that particular song because there was a possibility of it being placed in a movie. Our friend Bruce Witkin of Unison Music was supervising the soundtrack for the Lone Ranger film with Johnny Depp. When we heard the final mix of what we had recorded, we were really captivated by the sound — the harmonies. We hadn’t gone into the process with the specific intention of starting a group, but once we heard the final result, we all secretly hoped it could turn into one. I remember we were all sitting there in the studio, listening back to the mix, when Manda spoke up in her soft, whispery voice and said, “We should come up with a band name,” and everyone agreed. I had such a good feeling about it, I went straight home and canceled my whole solo tour. There was definitely something magical happening.

What became of those songs? Are they the foundation of Rancho California?

Manda Mosher: “Lone Ranger” was the first song we recorded. It was originally a one-song project, but after we heard what we sounded like together, we were back in the studio right away working on another song, “Fools Gold.” The experience of writing “Lone Ranger” was definitely the catalyst for what became CALICO the band. It just worked. Some of us had songs we’d already started that we brought to the group, and we’d finish them together. Sometimes we had a pre-existing song from our solo material that fit the vibe of the band, and we’d rearrange it to showcase the harmonies and share lead vocals. It was highly collaborative. We kept writing and recording, and those songs became part of what is now our first band album, Rancho California.

When did you become a trio and how did that come about?

Kirsten Proffit: The trio as it exists now formed in April 2014, right before Stagecoach, and it’s really been a perfect fit. Aubrey joined the group and it became a sweeter, more sophisticated sound; more of a blend. The addition of fiddle really changed the sonic landscape and opened up more possibilities for us to explore musically. We went from having one primary lead instrument with mainly a guitar-driven sound to having two, guitar and fiddle.

What were the first songwriting sessions and rehearsals as CALICO the band like for each of you? Could you immediately sense that you were on to something?

Manda Mosher: The songwriting sessions were easy and fun. There was so much chemistry and drive. We all had similar influences, but each of us had a little something different to bring to the table and a unique skill. No one was afraid to throw an idea out there for the group, because it was and is a safe place to be your real self.

None of us had really been in harmony bands before, so learning the parts in rehearsals and remembering them was a challenge at first. Since we’d all been mainly solo artists up until that point, singing something other than melody just didn’t come as naturally. We had to work really hard at it. But once we learned the parts, it sounded great. We also had to figure out the musical parts — who played what, when, the arrangement aspects, so we weren’t all just strumming chords the whole time. We had to tinker and experiment, bringing different instruments into the mix and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, so that when we settled back into our strengths, they would be complementary.

How does the collective writing process inspire and push you, as compared to writing individually?

Aubrey Richmond: We each have to make room for each other’s process. Everyone has their own way and we have to respect that. It also takes a bit of pressure off, because when you have an idea that you get stuck on, the team can come to the rescue and help develop it. Sometimes all one person has to do is say one funny line and the others run with it. There is also the aspect within the group of thinking about writing for the harmonies, taking a simplistic view of the melodies so the harmonies can be featured and shine. Overall, we get something better than we start with when we feed it through the group machine.

Is each CALICO song a collaboration of sorts, whether written as a group or presented to the other members in order to develop and arrange parts and harmonies?

Manda Mosher: Very much so. Even the songs that have been brought in complete by one member get an arrangement makeover. Working in all three voices and the instrument parts are key to the sound. Every one of these songs would sound very different if they were done by just one of us in a solo effort.

As multi-instrumentalists, how does this apply to working out rhythms, leads, solos, and breaks?

Kirsten Proffit: Working through the songs by actually being in the room together with all our instruments is necessary. There are so many options available that sometimes we have to just play through the music and pick up a different guitar, mandolin, whatever it is, until there is a blend. With the exception of Aubrey being the only fiddle player, everything else is fair game. Manda may pick up the resonator and have a beautiful idea for a solo part played through her Fender Princeton with some cool effects pedal going, and that could leave an option for Aubrey to play a hearty backing part on the mandolin to contrast the sound. It just depends which puzzle pieces are being used at that particular moment.

Did your harmonies fall into place naturally, or is this something you’ve worked on in terms of parts and lines?

Manda Mosher: In the beginning it was a little bit of work, but our three uniquely different voices create a natural and distinctive blend. We have been asked if we are sisters many times because the blend comes so naturally now that it is almost like a sibling thing. We also don’t have a relegated part on every song; for example, Kirsten is not always the high part, etc. We trade, depending on key and who is singing lead. We never go into it knowing who will be where on the vocal parts.

Have your sound and direction changed since the band started, or were they firmly established from the beginning?

Aubrey Richmond: We have kept a pretty steady direction, with the exception of bringing in the fiddle as a main instrument, which really sweetens up the sound. We have a clear idea of what we are trying to produce, and that is a sound reminiscent of the late ’60s in California by groups like The Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Buffalo Springfield, and the like. Harmony groups with lead singers as members are tricky to balance, and we are quite aware of how special it is that we are able to do this. We are always listening to new music by our contemporaries, John Moreland, Ryan Adams, The Secret Sisters … we become inspired and our vision does grow and change, but the root of it is pretty solid.

You all have successful solo careers. Were you familiar with one another’s previous work, or did you all do some homework as a way of getting to know each other and creating the CALICO sound?

Kirsten Profitt: We stalked each other for some time before making a move! I invited Manda to a songwriting session and it blossomed from there. It was pretty obvious from the beginning there was something special there. Aubrey had been on the radar for some time as well and had actually played on an early CALICO recording, so we all knew of each other’s careers and had a mutual admiration.

Some independent artists make their entire albums available for listening on their websites. You have chosen to present soundbites. How is this advantageous?

Manda Mosher: Only one-minute clips of our songs are available for listening on our website. We believe music has value and we are determined to instill that philosophy in our fans and friends. We know what it has cost us in time, practice, hard work, learning, and money to create a record, and we know that it will be enjoyed. Music is being pirated all the time and we can’t change that completely, but we can preserve our work by putting it in an accessible purchasing format at a reasonable price and taking our CDs and vinyl out on the road and selling directly to our fans. There is no shame in putting a price on your music and what you believe in.

Are you working on your next release, and if so, what can you tell us? At the same time, are you continuing your solo careers or focusing entirely on CALICO the band?

Kirsten Profitt: We are currently about one-third of the way through our next release, scheduled for early 2016. It’s heavy on the harmonies, the arrangements, will include a few hotshot guitar player guests, pedal steel guitar, and of course surprises in store. We’re recording our second album at Fitting Room Studio in West Hills, California, with Steve Berns. Now that we have grown more into our sound, it’s definitely a sound more refined.

To pursue a solo career and be in CALICO the band would take four hands and three heads. Our performance schedule is fully demanding, we are always on call and working on the next round of songs. Working on solo material happens from time to time, but none of us are pursuing solo album releases right now.

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