Sounds Local: High Tea back in the saddle with ‘Old Cowboy’

  • Isaac Eliot and Isabella DeHerdt of High Tea. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 1/12/2022 2:25:36 PM

During the lockdown of 2020, the indie-folk duo of High Tea — vocalist, lyricist and guitarist Isabella DeHerdt and percussionist and vocalist Isaac Eliot — recorded and released their debut album, “Hell of a Ride.” They have now released a follow-up to that recording, a five-song all-acoustic EP called “Old Cowboy.” This work finds the duo trying out a quieter sound with a lot more folk and a lot less rock, yet retaining the adventurous spirit toward music making that made their first recording such a gem.

Eliot and DeHerdt, who reside in Greenfield, met in 2016 while attending a summer music program at Berklee School of Music but didn’t become musical partners until they became High Tea in 2020. Unlike most groups whose musical journey usually begins with playing out live and is then followed by the making of a record, because of the pandemic, High Tea was forced to work in the opposite manner. Eliot and DeHerdt recorded “Hell of a Ride” at home, where they labored over all the parts, layering vocals and instruments to achieve a fuller sound.

The pair was limited to performing online until summer 2021, when they were finally able to play in front of actual audiences. High Tea had a busy summer, performing at breweries, farmers markets and all types of concert venues including the Parlor Room in Northampton and Club Passim in Cambridge.

“It was so nice to share our music with real live people in actual venues on actual stages,” DeHerdt wrote in a recent email exchange about the experience. “We were able to meet fans, get a feel for which songs people were drawn to and just share what we love to do.”

Beyond the sheer enjoyment of playing live, the experience also shaped the duo’s approach to making music and impacted the decision to record an all-acoustic album as they wanted to duplicate the sound they had on stage.

“We quickly realized how much we enjoyed the more stripped-down sound we create when playing live,” said DeHerdt, who also plays in the bands Kalliope Jones and the Subletters. “It was easier in some ways to keep the instrumentation to a minimum, but also meant we had to make sure each part was tight and taking up space.”

Using acoustic guitar and occasional percussion, this back-to-basics approach works well for High Tea as the spotlight shines on their vocals and lyrics. Much of the songwriting here takes the form of story songs that are told through the perspective of various characters and use dialogue to get their point across — be it the person in “Invincible” striving for a deeper connection with another or “Rosey” running off in search of a better life. Themes of love, loss and moving on can be heard throughout the disc. And whether singing harmony or swapping off lines, DeHerdt and Eliot are able to beautifully convey the emotion in these lyrics.

The title track is a conversation between two cowboys who share the misery they have endured in their lives. “And they say ‘Go old cowboy, let it go. Let your blood wash clean and all the misery you’ve seen/They say go old cowboy, let it go,” High Tea sing on the chorus.

One had to wonder how DeHerdt, who writes the lyrics with some assistance from Eliot, happened to write a song about cowboys?

“The chorus came first on that one — ‘They say go old cowboy, let it go’ was the first line I remember rushing to jot down in my journal, and the story grew from there,” she explained. “It was majorly influenced by the iconic imagery that comes to mind when one thinks of old western films: swinging saloon doors, a smoky bar with back door dealings happening in dark corners, folks with harsh secrets and heartbreak.” She added that she wanted to show the softer and grieving parts of someone who may look like a hardened soul from the outside.

DeHerdt finds inspiration for her lyrics in a variety of sources. For instance, the seed for the song “Rosey,” which is about a young girl who runs away from her hometown because “something just ain’t right here,” came about after she read the book “The Once and Future Witches” by Alix E. Harrow. “It is a very magical and spooky novel that centers around forging out on your own and leaving behind the safety of places you once knew,” she explained. “I also wanted ‘Rosey’ to encapsulate the fear but steadfast strength that comes with growing up and not being afraid to fully be who you want to be, even if not everyone wants to support you or move with the times.”

That song is the most exuberant song out of the five songs on “Old Cowboy.” On “Hell of a Ride,” they experimented with a variety of genres but a folk blues sound dominates here and they seem comfortable with this style of music.

“We’re beginning to settle into our favorite kinds of songwriting/storytelling/live performance energy,” DeHerdt said. “That definitely isn’t to say we don’t want to keep experimenting and pushing ourselves.”

We look forward to whatever High Tea chooses to do next. In the meantime, do enjoy the music of “Old Cowboy,” and go hear these songs live when you get a chance. High Tea is postponing its January and February shows, but plans on doing some online events. Once it’s safe to do so, High Tea will be out there playing live, and DeHerdt and Eliot hope to launch a tour of New England in the spring. This upcoming year should be a good one for the duo.

“So make sure to keep your eyes and ears peeled,” DeHerdt said. “We’ve got a lot more music cooking and can’t wait to share it!”

Shows

Shows continue to be postponed as musicians and venues exercise caution in dealing with the current spike in COVID-19 cases. The Bombyx Center for Arts and Equity in Florence has postponed all shows through the end of the month.

The Suitcase Junket show scheduled for Jan. 22 at The Stone Church in Brattleboro, Vt. has been moved to April 8.

The Gaslight Tinkers show scheduled for Friday, Jan. 14, at 8 p.m. at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield is happening. After being closed for a couple weeks, the venue’s plan was to reopen this week. However, things change fast so you may want to check before heading out: hawksandreed.com.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who is a native of Greenfield and currently resides in Easthampton. She can be reached at soundslocal@yahoo.com.


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