Siblings Pascal and Lauren Balthrop are living the small-town life.
They walk nearly everywhere they go, stopping to say hello to people they recognize on the street. They chat with store owners who know them by name and socialize at the neighborhood coffee shop where all their friends hang out.
The Balthrops live in the little-known blip on the map called Brooklyn, N.Y.—a city of 2.5 million. But the Mobile, Ala., natives managed to create an insular home for themselves in the borough's Carroll Gardens neighborhood. "We hardly ever get to Manhattan," Pascal says. "I'm glad it's there, because it obviously has a lot of great things, but we pretty much stay in our neighborhood."
Once they both relocated to New York, the duo formed indie-folk project Balthrop, Alabama. During its stage show, the band takes the form of a town inhabited by 10-plus residents. Currently, there are 12 people that call Balthrop home. Each has a character name inspired by real places in Alabama. "We got so many of our friends involved in the project that we'd joke that, instead of forming a band, we had formed a small village," Lauren explains. "It just grew out of that."
The lyrics, sung by both Balthrops with slight Southern accents, celebrate the lives of fictitious individuals with gusto and great reverence.
Balthrop, Alabama's multifarious and rugged sound features acoustic and electric guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, accordion, lap steel, banjo and saxophones. You'd hardly know it on any given song. There are never any instrumental traffic jams. Nothing becomes grandiose or over-saturated. Members understand when it's time to pipe down and let their fellow bandmates take the spotlight. "We try to play a lot with dynamics and have different instruments take their turn within a given song," Pascal says. "Everybody seems to do a pretty good job of knowing when it's someone else's highlight song so we're not stepping on top of each other." Melancholic folk blows across your face with a breezy aftertaste, and there's a certain weightlessness to the normally heavyset minor chords.
The earthy texture of the songs is complemented by micro-scale lyrics about death, sorrow, subway rides and taxi makeout sessions. They are intimate yarns that revel in the interconnectedness of America's less populated municipalities. Though neither guitarist Pascal nor keyboardist Lauren has ever lived in such a place, they have a great affinity for tiny towns. Pascal's adoration springs partially from the time he spent visiting friends in Montevallo, Ala. "I was fascinated with the place and how tightly knit it was," Pascal recalls. "The barber was also the mayor and people had a lot of double duties like that because it was so small."
The lyrics, sung by both Balthrops with slight Southern accents, celebrate the lives of fictitious individuals with gusto and great reverence. "In a small town, you're more likely to be affected by a given person's passing," Pascal reasons. "The people become a part of the local lore and they sort of live on."
Pascal's creative process for coming up with his verbiage is hardly scientific. "A lot of times I just start playing on some kind of melody or chord progression and start singing gibberish," he admits. "Every once in a while, the gibberish forms itself into words. Once we have one or two lines, it inspires some sort of story."
With one double-album and three EPs, Balthrop, Alabama has plenty of material to pull from on its monthlong tour across America. The band is exploring terrain in the Southwest and West Coast it’s never seen before. During the group's stop in Minneapolis, Balthrop, Alabama ended up playing at a punk rock Christian outreach center. Pascal says he wasn't sure the youths at the show would appreciate his not-so patriotic lyrics in the protest anthem, "God Loves My Country." His fears were quickly assuaged. "They were really into it and it was a lot of fun," Pascal says. "We sold a bunch of records," Lauren adds.
Asked if the Balthrops ever get tired of each other during the tour, Lauren candidly asserts, "Oh, you betcha." Fortunately, they've figured out a way to minimize the flare-ups on the road. "I sit in the back seat," Lauren says. "And he sits up front."