Allison Russell and JT Nero will open for Alejandro Escovedo on Jan. 14 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
† 7 and 10 p.m. Jan. 14
† Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
† Tickets, $24-$28
† (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
JT Nero and Allison Russell spent the holidays in an isolated family cabin on Door County’s Washington Island. There wasn’t a music venue in sight, and it was a welcome respite from time spent on the road over the past year.
“We don’t have much time off so it was a nice little vacation,” Nero said. “Time just sort of collapses up there but now we’re back to reality.”
That reality includes more touring around this country, Canada and Europe. But before it all gets started the duo stops in at the Old Town School of Folk Music to entice the hometown crowd with its lovely and lively brand of roots music. They open for legendary roots artist Alejandro Escovedo.
Chicagoans will recognize Nero (his given name is Jeremy Lindsay) as a member of the Chicago rock and soul outfit, the Clouds. Russell is a founding member of the Canadian roots ensemble Po’ Girls. The two bands have been collaborating since around 2004.
“I think the bands gravitated towards each other because we were drawn to the same music in terms of blues, gospel, country and soul,” Nero said. “And we weren’t paying too much attention to the perceived boundaries between them but instead finding the touchpoints between them.”
But it wasn’t until 2007 when a solo Lindsay went on tour with Po’ Girls that the duo began singing together and tapped into the bewitching power of their harmony work. After Russell performed on the Clouds’ album “Mountains/Forests,” Nero realized it was time “for a proper duo record.” Besides, buzz was building about their musical partnership.
“It was time to record something where Allison wasn’t incognito,” Nero, 40, said. “It seemed like a natural progression.”
They are currently at work putting the finishing touches on “Birds of Chicago,” due out sometime in the summer.
Listen to their voices separately and you might not think they go together; listen to them joined and it’s a bewitching mix. Match that with fine, nuanced songwriting and you have two of the most compelling new voices in American roots music.
Lindsay is a country-soul crooner and when paired with the clarity of Russell’s delicate vocals something beautiful emerges. It’s not perfect, a little off but that makes for an even more intriguing mix of harmonies.
“That’s part of what drew us together,” Russell, 32, said. “Our voices are different but comfortable together. We found that sweet spot.”
Added Nero: “From the first time we started singing together, there was a naturalness and ease to it. When something like that happens, you don’t want to think about it too much. Just enjoy it.”
Nero grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where his parents, who taught in the English department at the University of Toledo, had a wide-ranging vinyl collection.
“But I rebelled and was a hip-hop kid,” Nero said, laughing. “I pretended there was no other music.”
That all changed one day when his mother made him listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”
“I was floored by the harmonies and the way the words were used so powerfully,” Nero recalled. “At 16, it broke me out of my spell. I would still play N.W.A. and Run DMC on my boombox. But now I was also playing Simon and Garfunkel.”
Hungry for more, Nero soaked up the music of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. From there, he nurtured an interest in gospel and other traditional Americana genres.
Eventually, songwriting became a passion: “It became a vital, necessary function like breathing.”
Russell is a native of Montreal where her family was musical but only classical (“nothing before 1870”) was allowed in the house. She credits an aunt who was a songwriter with helping her “realize that modern living people could write music too.”
Music was sidelined when Russell thought she might go into medicine. She did a year of pre-med which was disastrous: “Studying theory was fine. Dissecting a fetal pig was not.”
A move to Vancouver with its vibrant folk scene set her on a path back to music and songwriting.
“It was a great environment for trying a lot of new things,” Russell said. “I really thrived in that culture.”
Completely self-taught, Russell, who was in the ensemble of “Keep a Song in Your Soul,” a tribute to black vaudeville that debuted in November at the Old Town School, plays banjo, ukulele, guitar and clarinet in addition to singing.
She’s also a darn good whistler. It’s something she wasn’t sure she wanted featured on a song on the new album. But Nero prevailed in his request to keep it.
“I will cave on a lot of things but not on that,” Nero said, laughing.
As for another year of non-stop touring, Nero and Russell both say they are looking forward to showcasing the music they love.
“If you’re going to make a career in music these days, you have to be comfortable putting time in on the road,” Nero said. “It’s the one thing we can control. And we do love it. It’s definitely in our blood.”
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.