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Entertainment & the Arts | November 1, 2012

Branching out

Q&A

Band of folk musicians moves from living rooms and campfires to stages and studios

Branches (Courtesy photo)

Branches' first album, Thou Art The Dream, contains the upbeat rhythms and thoughtful melodies best enjoyed around a campfire. It's the perfect expression for a band that got its start playing banjo and guitar around roaring fire pits. But they have progressed, after three EPs and a full-length record, to play on bigger stages.

Tyler Madsen and Natalie Nicoles sing carefully constructed melody and harmony. After starting the band, Madsen and Nicoles invited some friends to join, increasing the troop to six musicians. The band members met while they were all students at Azusa Pacific University, a private Christian school near Los Angeles, and they continue to call Southern California home. Branches now holds the tools of a complete folk band -- banjo, bass, drums on top of guitar, ukulele, and a small organ. Jacob Montague, the band's mandolin and banjo player, serves as engineer, studio-owner, and co-songwriter with Madsen. Montague's forte for composing music runs well with Madsen's modern-folk songwriting. And adding a female vocal -- especially Nicoles' mellow tones -- is refreshing to hear.

Branches released Thou Art The Dream in February 2012 and recently finished a 26-show summer tour. The band also got some exposure from the television show One Tree Hill, which used its songs in two placements. But the band members say success is neither applause nor money, it's the pride and happiness they get creating music and doing what they love. No matter what happens next, they have success already.

Madsen, Nicoles, and Montague exchanged emails with me earlier this month to talk about recording, touring and future plans.

You released an album earlier this year, Thou Art The Dream, and you recently returned from touring -- do you all prefer to be in the studio or on tour?

Tyler: I think the grass is always greener on the other side. When we are writing or recording, we're so excited to get out and show everyone the new sounds and songs we've been working on. When we've been out on the road, and we've had the chance to play to our hearts' content, we miss the studio and the prospect of working on new stuff.

Jacob: For me it's been great going to new places, funded by doing the thing I love, music. At the same time, I happen to own and run the studio that we record in, so I always feel a special connection to all of our recordings and the process. That said, I think I prefer a healthy balance of the two.

Natalie: To be honest, I'd have to say the studio. The creative process is really quite exciting to me and I get a total thrill from being in the studio. I love the anticipation of releasing a record. Touring is great though! I'm definitely a homebody and don't mind a little routine here and there, so it can take a bit of getting used to, but honestly, if I was to tour with anyone, I'm so glad it's these guys. Things get a little stinky here and there, [laughs] but we have so many memorable moments together. I love them. They are my older brothers since I have none! I've actually nailed a pretty solid belch sound because of being with it in the car for 10 plus hours at a time, [laughs].

Where do you create?

Tyler: We are one of the lucky bands to be blessed with our own resident engineer. Jacob, our banjo/mandolin/everything player, also does all of our recording. That said, we've been able to pack up the suitcase studio and go to work pretty much anywhere we feel like. Between the four projects in our discography, we've probably recorded in a dozen rooms. Mobility has become part of our process. It definitely keeps things exciting.

Jacob: Luckily, my studio fits reasonably within, say, a station wagon or minivan, so we have been fortunate enough to create our albums all across the state of California. Keeps things interesting.

Which do you find you're more attached to -- the lyrics or the music?

Tyler: As a songwriter, I feel responsible to care deeply about both. We have promised ourselves never to sing things we don't believe...so in that sense, we place enormous weight on the lyrics we are singing. But on the other hand, we are musicians. We are making music that people want to listen to, sounds that people will enjoy, that will inspire and excite people, make them want to clap, or dance, or stand...so I think anytime we value one too much more than the other, we are in trouble. That's what is so great about having the six of us working on these songs together...at any given point, at least one of us is focusing on each of these components.

Jacob: Music.

Natalie: I'd have to say it goes back and forth. At first listen, I'd say I'm listening more to the music, but there will be times when I'm performing where lyrics will hit me especially hard, mostly depending on what I'm dealing with at that point in my life. It's an incredible feeling though, to constantly feel the music written over and over again. It will never get old.

How do you define success?

Tyler: ...Honestly, we feel that we have been successful so far. We have put out music that we are super proud of, that we are 100 percent financially, creatively, and constructively responsible for. We have been profitable (even if only by a little bit on certain days) since we started, we have had so much fun and been exposed to amazing opportunities at fun venues and in new cities, and we have kept our focus on the fact that we are friends first, and bandmates second. We are totally proud and excited for what has happened with Branches thus far. For future success, we are slowly making our way towards this being a full-time gig for all six of us. I think I can speak for the band and say that none of us are stuck on grandiose ideas of fame and money, we would just love to have enough to give this our undivided attention and make music forever.

Jacob: Success to me would have to be defined by our happiness in what we are doing. So that said, I think we are very successful.

Natalie: It's not really fame or being wealthy. I want to be able to support myself off of doing what I love, that's all. I don't need much money, just enough to be able to live and hopefully travel a little, be able to eat some great food, and be able to create.

What's brewing in the Branches laboratory?

Tyler: We're working on some more Christmas tunes, on organizing our cover recordings into album form, and have been writing a lot the last few months. But although we're making a lot of new music, right now our focus is playing shows and pursuing opportunities to showcase the music we've already made. We need to remind ourselves to stay patient. We're just excited to show everyone the new things we've been working on! Soon enough...stay tuned!

Natalie: ...We are going on a little Christmas tour...I'm looking forward to the new material and the recording process!