FAMILY MATTERS: On “Bored Hands,” a song off “Quasi-Hymns, Murder Ballads, and Tales of How the Hero Died,” the new album by Stagbriar, Alex and Emily McCollum’s harmonized vocals coil and pop, gently, like a slinky going down a carpeted staircase. Their voices stretch words — and contract — so smoothly together. It’s ironic that song is about control.
The storytelling and feel of the “Quasi-Hymns” is vintage, with the vocal patterns and delivery intimating years of use and practice. But get this: Stagbriar has only been an official band for about a year.
In fact, as of a few years ago, Alex and his sister, Emily, didn’t hang out much at all.
“We weren’t friends until I was 19. Actually, no, until I was 22 I guess,” the 24-year-old Alex said. “We lived the brother-sister lifestyle.”
“We didn’t talk,” Emily, 20, added.
“We just kind of argued,” Alex said.
Music brought them together last year when Emily, until then considered a rising singer-songwriter, went to record an EP at Archer Avenue Studio with Kenny McWilliams. Alex, a University of South Carolina graduate who majored in music composition, was invited to sing harmony on the record. They soon found that they enjoyed writing music together.
The EP, “How Fast You Got There,” was released in June 2012. While he is heavily invested in the band’s sound, Alex isn’t married to the band’s name. Hastily chosen, Stagbriar is the name of the street the siblings grew up on in The Summit, a subdivision in Northeast Columbia. It’s fitting since their parents passed on a love of music to the Spring Valley High School graduates.
“Our parents are extremely conservative, so (our shows) might be one of the only ways we’ve gotten them into a bar in the last 25 years of their lifetime,” Alex, who works at Papa Jazz Record Shoppe, said.
In January, the McCollums went back to Archer Avenue to record the new album. An intrepid listener can tell who wrote which song on the debut EP, but the chord structure and progressions on “Quasi-Hymns” is indecipherable.
“On the record, there were points we forgot who wrote what line,” Alex said.
“By that point, we were so much more involved collaboratively,” Emily, a USC student, added.
They usually write separately before bringing songs to rehearsal to edit. “Deepest Leagues” is a result of the editing process that, at least once, required Stagbriar to mash two separate songs together. What starts with Emily singing over a guitar-and-banjo-led accompaniment drifts into a melodic sequence anchored by the McCollums’ impeccable harmony.
“There’s a defined point where the song takes a turn, but for some reason they fit together,” Alex said. “The subject matter was right along the same lines.”
“It’s probably the first time we’ve ever done something like that,” Emily pointed out.
“And I think that’s where the album took off, too,” Alex added.
In a recent interview at Drip’s Five Points location, Alex and Emily waited patiently as the other answered my questions — until hierarchy was brought up.
“I think there’s a little bit of leadership that he’s taken on because he’s the older brother, but it has a lot to do with respect,” Emily said. “Sometimes if a decision can’t be made, he’ll make it.”
“I think, aesthetically, we know what each other wants to hear. We like the same things...”
“We read each other’s minds a lot,” Emily interjected.
“...as far as what’s going to be a good moment in a song or a bad moment in a song,” Alex continued. “And it’s just making those moments happen.”
Stagbriar is a combination of folk and rock. Folk-rock, particularly the modernized version that has soared into the mainstream, is in danger of being homogenized. The band, which also last year released “The Holt Sessions,” a live EP featuring covers of songs by Radiohead, Pete Yorn and Ryan Adams, has avoided following the trend.
“Man, you can do the modern folk thing so wrong these days,” Alex said. “I wanted to be really careful to make sure this wasn’t going to be a Mumford & Sons album. That was really, really crucial for us.”
And, though their live set is rounded out by contributing musicians, they didn’t want to present a diet version of Shovels & Rope, the scrappy Charleston-based duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. But they did use that band’s gritty texture as inspiration. To push Emily, Alex took her to live shows. He said they pulled influence from several local bands, including Can’t Kids, a band whose performance spirit is as important as the notes played.
When she was solo, Emily wouldn’t book shows unless she was asked to play by someone else. She has a new identity within Stagbriar, but she doesn’t feel like she’s playing in her brother’s shadow.
“It’s really keeping me moving somewhere — forward — other than just staying stagnant and doing it by myself,” she said.
One should always be able to count on family for support.