August 4 @ 9:00 pm$15
For most, a pandemic might not be the ideal time for any kind of work, let alone planning a debut album. But for the bicoastal six-piece Mama Magnolia—vocalist Megan Letts, saxophonist Alex Cazet, guitarist Thomas Jennings, drummer Jackson Hillmer, trumpeter Carrie McCune, and bassist Zach Jackson—the process of making their first full-length Dear Irvington was an essential remedy amidst distress. After managing to stay together for five years, despite inter-band-relationship-breakups and cross country moves, the shapeshifting indie-soul group was primed to create in a turbulent time. “This band was the thread of consistency and familiarity that was keeping my sanity,” Cazet says about creating during the throws of the pandemic. “We gave ourselves a goal,” Letts adds about the project. “And there’s something to be said about art that comes out of desperation. We were desperately trying to connect, and feel purpose as artists, as we all felt that feeling of aloneness. And I feel that in this record.”
Following a successfully overfunded Kickstarter campaign, Dear Irvington was a comfort for Mama Magnolia to lean into amidst a continually harrowing time, while also turning tumultuous, personal stories into ostensibly groovy jaunts. In doing so, they pushed themselves past new creative limits. After enlisting producer Robert Ellis and former White Denim drummer and engineer Josh Block to funnel their ideas and further animate their intricate, sometimes nerdy, sophisticated rock compositions, Mama Magnolia made an album that captures the group at its most complete. “[this album] feels very coming of age—we are who we are—both musically and lyrically,” Letts says of the album. “It’s a letter to you, letting you know just who we are.”
Dear Irvington focuses on empathetic missives, highlighting Mama Magnolia’s emotional maturation from when they first started writing together. They embrace the challenge of pairing difficult emotions with colorful sonic landscapes; it’s an uncharted pasture for them to explore rather than run away from. There’s no reservation in diving into the deep end of depression (“Grey”), unpacking the betrayal of a loved one (“Each Time You Lie”), or expressing frustration with another who won’t take a chance on a relationship (“Try Me”). Throughout Dear Irvington, songs bounce from acceptance to catharsis to reflection. “Either you’re trying to sit in that feeling, or you’re trying to grow from it,” Hillmer says about musical intention.
Whether it’s the barbed funk of “Punching Bag” or cascading love letter to time with “Slow Down,” Mama Magnolia morphs between perspectives and stretch their instrumentation to unexpected places. “Each Time You Lie” is a poignant example of the group undertaking the challenge of vulnerable lyrics with exploratory song structure. Initially budding from an acid trip-induced watch of Willy Wonka followed by a masterclass and concert by jazz pianist Fred Hersch, Letts chipped away at the track over the years eventually adapting the melody to lyrics inspired by a pained family scenario. “I ended up changing the lyrics to be about my relationship with my dad,” she says. “That song is a total banger. You would think it’d be a summer jazz bop, but it’s about some really deep and painful familial struggles,” she shares with brazen honesty. “That’s shitty, but that’s real. It’s empowering for me to speak my honest truth.”
And their growth doesn’t only apply to raw lyricism: It rippled into their musical performance. “Since 2013, I’ve become more empathetic, emotionally mature, and I hear things with the context of more experience and that translates to the guitar,” Jennings says about his transformation since the band’s beginnings. My relationship with the guitar and my relationship with myself are synonymous. I’m on Prozac, so my guitar is on Prozac.”
Further evolution came from producers Block and Ellis, who encouraged the group to embrace their inner jazz nerd and get weirder, think bigger, and dive deeper. Their time at Niles City Sound in Fort Worth, Texas allowed Mama Magnolia to push their vast technical skills without overthinking academic competition or wrestling bravado. “Lean into the part that maybe you’re a little too scared to lean into,” Letts explains, recalling Ellis’ advice. “The weird shit is what makes us unique – and the fact that the six of us can somehow combine our brains together and create something that maybe isn’t gonna be palatable for everyone.”
Altogether, Dear Irvington is a batch of playful compositions carrying the weight of hard revelations. “He told me I sound just like a rainbow / Which is funny cause I feel like mud,” Letts sings on album opener “Grey.” Careful guitar strums and soft percussion slowly build as the lyrics struggle to untangle themselves from self-doubt. The track was inspired by a zoom classroom visit where a synesthetic student described Letts’ performance as a technicolored flurry. Unknown to the class, she was in the midst of a deep depression and creative dry spell. The compassionate anecdote encompasses this entire musical endeavor created in the thick of the pandemic that’s murky aftermath has yet to fade. All one needs is an outside perspective to remember their colors. Like a wandering flashlight amidst seemingly endless darkness, Mama Magnolia use the shadows to bring about brilliant possibilities.