Driftwood Fire’s How To Untangle A Heartache is a rarity in today’s media mad world — a debut album by an organically creative female fronted group whose vivid songwriting and prodigious playing skills display an uncommon artistry.
Striking for its balance of variety and seamlessness, and for exceptional storytelling, the disc covers a wide palette of emotions and sounds in multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Formichella’s and singer-guitarist Lynn Scharf’s 11 original compositions. Together they embrace the roots of country, blues, pop and rock to create their own unique blend of Americana.
To songwriting aficionados, this comes as no surprise. The eponymous 2008 EP that introduced Driftwood Fire to the world at large also propelled them to the stages of the National Women’s Music Festival, the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest, the Falcon Ridge Emerging Artists showcase and the Far-West Folk Alliance Premier showcases. The strength of its recordings also gained them Suggested Artist status in VH-1’s Song of the Year contest.
Even before its release the new How To Untangle A Heartache has already received accolades from the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, the International Narrative Song Competition, and the Telluride Troubadour contest.
“In the four years we’ve been together — starting from a point when we were really raw — we've devoured every style of music that spoke to us as we’ve expanded the sound and the grasp of the band,” Scharf explains. “We’ve worked hard; we’re both perfectionists. But at the heart of it all, whether we’re playing a song that has a more complex electric guitar arrangement or is written for just voice and banjo, it’s all grounded in our rural Virginia childhoods, where seeing live music meant going to the local firehouse to hear the neighbors play bluegrass – and there were some amazing players to learn from.”
With How To Untangle A Heartache, Scharf and Formichella present themselves as a formidably versatile and emotionally powerful band on their own terms. The opener “Turn On the Radio” achieves a beatific symmetry, balancing sounds from their musical roots — banjo, dobro, accordion and guitar — with a warm vocal performance steeped in pure pop melodicism.
Similarly the arrangement of “Appalachian Hills” evokes the misty valleys of the Shenandoah, while the storyline threads through the region’s history of Civil War and racial violence, contrasting nature’s beauty with a glimpse into the clouds of the human psyche. That potent blend won the tune first place in the 2007 International Narrative Song Competition.
“No matter how far we travel, physically and musically, the visceral memory of growing up in that region never leaves us,” Scharf observes.
“The Salty Sea,” which won first place in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest 2011, is a pure-hearted love song tinged with longing — a theme for the ages, set simply to Scharf’s voice and Formichella’s banjo. And “Small City Nights” is a rocker that references poets from Shakespeare to Longfellow, conveying a universal underpinning: the desire for something bigger than one’s self — whether it be true love, a calling, or the promise of a more satisfying tomorrow.
Perhaps that song and ‘Let It All Go,” which won honorable mention in the Telluride Troubadour Contest this year, tell Driftwood Fire’s story best. Both are about taking steps into uncharted territory to pursue a dream.
For Formichella and Scharf that process began when they were introduced by a friend in college who knew their similar musical interests. Yet it took two years for their collaboration to come to fruition. Both graduated and sought careers in natural science: Formichella as a recording engineer gauging the impact of man’s sonic debris on the American wilderness, and Scharf mapping out the territories of endangered species.
“As much as we enjoy those jobs, we really found our hearts in our live shows,” Scharf relates, “and the more we did that the more we realized being professional musicians was what we truly wanted and that we needed to follow a different path.
“Once we accepted that, we got out the metronome, Charlotte switched to playing the banjo, electric guitar and singing harmonies, and I started spending some quality time with the guitar. As we built our skills we also went back and began to dissect what we loved about great American music from the Carter Family to Bonnie Raitt to Dolly Parton to Gillian Welch & David Rawlings.”
As scientists, it’s no surprise that Scharf and Formichella diligently picked apart the elements of tone, harmony and technique that make the classic American songbook so haunting and evocative, and then began applying what they learned to their own compositions.
Similarly, the duo’s passion for learning both in the studio and on stage made recording How To Untangle A Heartache a two-year process. Their first trip into producer-engineer John McVey’s Coupe Studios in Boulder, Colorado, was to lay down skeletal versions of the songs, so they could be analyzed for structure and spirit. Ultimately some grew more elaborate while others, like “The Salty Sea,” were stripped down to more simple incarnations. In that time Formichella’s command of the electric guitar grew to play a larger role in the band’s palette, and Grammy winning dobro player Sally Van Meter, keyboardist Scott McCormick and E-town percussionist Christian Teele were drafted for the final recordings.
“Our goal is for people who come to our shows or listen to our album to leave a little lighter,” Scharf explains. “We write our songs to have space and a sense of openness, and to tell their stories at an unhurried pace. They’re not meant to jump out at you from an iPod as part of the constant barrage of media we’re exposed to today.
“We want to give people an experience that slows down time a bit and encourages them to sit back and catch their breath — and maybe find a part of themselves in this music, like we did.”