For Shiny and the Spoon, creating a whimsical, old-timey sound involves using subtlety and simplicity as a crafty tool. Tom Waits meets Ella Fitzgerald with a ukulele in the mix. Americana/Folk/Pop with a ’20s spin. And this duo’s clever style recently earned them a Cincinnati Entertainment Awards nomination in the New Artist of the Year category.
We chat the day after S&S — Amber Nash and Jordan Neff —played The Tillers’ recent CD release show (as members of Magnolia Mountain) , for which The Southgate House was jam-packed, evidence of this city’s love for Americana and old-time music.
Since 2008, S&S has been on a full-speed, trippy journey. That year, Nash and Neff hit it off at the MidPoint Music Festival when she gave him a much-needed ride home.
Not long after, Neff went to hear her sing.
Nash laughs. “I remember looking out at Jordan and he was just like … (Nash imitates an intense stare),” she says. “It was really cute. And here we are.”
Neff smiles. “The music was sort of an excuse for a second date.”
Nash (vocals, ukulele, kazoo) wears a hippie-style green hat. An ancient Green Day hoodie keeps her warm. From Shelbyville, Ind., Nash buried herself in musical theater growing up, voice lessons and Jazz bands. In college, ukulele took over her world and her early songs appeared in the German Indie film, Finding Frida. Moving here for a teaching job, she now sings background vocals for Mark Utley and Magnolia Mountain.
“And sometimes I do some bad-ass tambourine work,” she says.
Neff (also of Magnolia Mountain) is a multi-instrumentalist with a knack for guitar, trumpet, harmonica and then some.
From Mansfield, Ohio, he once fronted two Rock bands. He later went to UC for English, training that bleeds into his lyrics. Neff has short, blonde, straight hair and he’s easy to talk to, unassuming in his brown sweater, watching Nash with a soft smile. With his hands, he carefully cradles his coffee cup.
Recorded at home in their spare room, their new self-titled seven-song EP is chockfull of poetic lyrics. On their sound, Nash comments, “I really love melody, very simple melodies that can stand on their own. It’s kind of a weird, fresh mix … a couple of years ago, all I was listening to was ukulele music, online radio stations and ’20s music. Almost that Tin Pan Alley-ish kind of sound.”
But there’s a modern spin. The vocals on “Canary” were digitally tweaked, giving it an underground feel that’s right on. Neff was overall “pleasantly surprised. I think Gram Parsons pops his head in every once in a while … it’s interesting that people are getting back to Roots music.”
He mentions the Americana crossover with Punk, an attitude that weirdly meshes with the older sounds of Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and earlier Folk music.
But Nash’s vocals come from a different tradition. “I listen to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James,” she says. “I also just like good Pop — Barenaked Ladies and old school Green Day.”
Writing nonstop, Shiny and the Spoon’s schedule is currently jam-packed with local gigs, including the Southgate House’s Artist in Residency in May, when they'll play Juney's Lounge every Wednesday. Upright bass player John Oaks (of Rubber Knife Gang) will join them at the release show, where the band will perform some new songs.
From here, they’re shooting for a full-length studio CD, using funds from the EP. Here, they’re in luck; Nash has been actively immersed in the supportive ukulele subculture:
“I think we’ll sell more online than we think we will, because if someone plays ukulele, they’re gonna buy it just for the ukulele factor,” she says. A video of the duo's uke spin on a-ha's ’80s hit “Take on Me” has become a YouTube sensation, with close to 67,000 views.
Their lives are utterly intertwined, living and playing in two bands together. Nash says, “I think we’re both really intense with highs and lows. We ebb and flow.”
Neff grins. “That’s what happens when musicians date musicians.”
But they stay focused. As Nash says: “You have to be organized in order to be realistically dreamy, to get where you want to go.”
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