Since moving to West Townshend, Vt., from New York City in 2003, husband-and-wife duo Ken Anderson and Rebecca Hall have carved out quite a niche for themselves among folk fans, both locally and abroad. As Hungrytown, the duo evokes a timeless quality, with original music that recalls everything from Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and a visual aesthetic straight out of the 1960s East Village folk scene. Still, their retro sensibility is balanced by a keen appreciation for modernity that elevates them above throwback status.
Hungrytown have been somewhat quiet lately, as they’re wrapping up production on a long-awaited follow-up to their stellar 2008 self-titled debut. In advance of their performance on Monday at the First Universalist Society of Hartland, Seven Days checked in with vocalist Rebecca Hall by phone for an update on the record, her thoughts on all things retro and the challenges of making music amid marital bliss.
SEVEN DAYS: We haven’t heard from you guys in a while because you’ve been working on a new album. What’s it called?
REBECCA HALL: It’s called Any Forgotten Thing, which is also the title track. We got the idea for that song when we moved to Vermont from New York. It was kind of our first stab at homeownership. We bought this old house, which is constantly falling apart around us and just requires constant maintenance. It’s something we’re always struggling with, because we’re much better songwriters than we are plumbers or repair people. So, we figured we might as well try to get a song out of this.
SD: Makes sense to me.
RH: We used it as a metaphor to extend to people: If you neglect a house, it falls apart. If you neglect people, they fall apart, too. Make sure you stay in touch with your friends.
SD: Are you using backing musicians, or is this just the two of you?
RH: We’re doing everything ourselves.
SD: I imagine that could be a little daunting.
RH: Well, what that really means is that I’m doing most of the songwriting, playing rhythm guitar and singing lead. And Ken is playing drums, percussion, bass, mandolin, accordion…
RH: …Wurlitzer, electric organ, piano. He’s like this crazy mad scientist.
SD: Let’s go back in time a bit. How did you meet Ken and start playing together?
RH: We met in New York. When we met I was singing, like, torch songs and jazz standards and wasn’t writing my own songs yet. And Ken was playing in, like, six different bands. But even though New York is a big town and easy to get lost in, it’s a very small world for musicians. Everybody knows everybody. So we kind of knew each other that way. And, at one point, we both didn’t have boyfriends or girlfriends, so we got together.
SD: How romantic! How did you end up in Vermont?
RH: At the time, we were both working clerical jobs. And it’s really hard to do all the music you want to do and work in New York. Those jobs really demand a lot from you. It was hard to do both. So, we just decided that at some point we’d have to figure out what we want to do with our lives. And that was to move to Vermont. It would be cheaper to live there, and we love it there anyway, and we can just play music and support ourselves that way.
SD: And the rest is history. Speaking of history, you are often pigeonholed as a “retro” folk band. What are your thoughts on the recent resurgence of interest in retro styles generally?
RH: I listen to certain things on the radio and can’t tell if it’s an actual ’60s soul song or someone just playing in that style. It’s interesting that people are imitating even the production styles from those recordings. It’s funny, on our new record I feel like we’re moving away from the traditional folk sound that we both love … and branching out into different things.
SD: There was a great New York Times article recently about Mayer Hawthorne, who seemed to take umbrage with the whole idea of a retro renaissance. His point was that he’s here now, making this music currently, and that if it stems from another period, that doesn’t make it any less modern.
RH: I agree with that, in a sense. When I started writing folks songs, what attracted me to traditional music was that, in a lot of ways, it resembles punk, it resembles rap. Songs that talk about things that aren’t nice or pretty, like murder ballads. But that gave the songs so much more meaning, so much more rawness and honesty than other types of music. So, to me, that kind of music is always current.
SD: So, we’re really just talking style semantics.
RH: I think so. It’s certain stylistic influences that remind people of a certain time. But there is a lot more to music than style.
SD: True. But you gotta call it something, right?
RH: Oh, of course! But that’s just part of marketing. It’s what people have to do.
SD: Are there particular challenges to being both a married couple and musical partners? Do those roles overlap, or do you try and keep them separate?
RH: Having a musical partnership is really not that different from being in a marriage. It takes a period of adjustment in the beginning. When you move in with somebody, or you first get married, you’re learning to accommodate yourself to this other person. And that’s what makes things work. And it was the same thing with our musical partnership. In the beginning, we were trying to figure out if we should both write lyrics and the music, how much should we do together, how much should be split up into separate roles. What naturally evolved for us was that I go off on my own and write lyrics and maybe a little melody to propel the lyrics, and then I take it to Ken … and he’ll flesh the song out, or sometimes change the melody or edit the lyrics. We both need to go off into our own space to do certain things.
SD: Space is important in any relationship, I guess.
RH: Oh, yeah.