Quietly unadorned, sincerely presented acoustic music is everywhere. So what allows one relatively new Folk duo — The Milk Carton Kids from Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock neighborhood — to skyrocket to popularity after just two albums?
The Milk Carton Kids — Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, who both play guitar, compose and sing — have been a sensation on the Americana circuit of late. In the past two years, they’ve played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Newport Folk Festival, the Americana Music Awards ceremony in Nashville, Tenn., A Prairie Home Companion and the Another Day, Another Time concert in New York in honor of the new Coen brothers film about Folk music, Inside Llewyn Davis. They will also be included in the upcoming PBS documentary, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana, as well as an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits.
In the process of becoming a bona fide headlining act that has been compared to Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, The Milk Carton Kids have also toured as support for Over the Rhine, The Punch Brothers and Josh Ritter. All of this success comes after years of both men working as solo artists dedicated to the beauty of acoustic Folk.
The duo’s decision to make their first album, 2011’s self-released Prologue, available as a free download doubtlessly helped The Milk Carton Kids’ career — it jumpstarted a national fan base and led to the twosome signing with Anti- Records for this year’s album, The Ash & Clay. The quality of the music and literary songwriting helped, of course, but something else has been at play in their reception.
“Without talking about the merits or lack thereof of the music we’ve made, or even the strategy of giving it away for free, I’m particularly conscious we’re the beneficiaries of good timing,” Ryan says during a telephone interview.
“I remember thinking all along as a solo artist that what I was doing — and what Kenneth was doing as solo artist — wasn’t particularly relevant to anything going on in terms of what was popular,” he explains. “I remember being conscious of people around who would always chase down a sound in response to what was emerging as popular in the moment. And I remember thinking probably what was smarter and more fulfilling was to keep doing whatever you wanted to do creatively and wait until someday hopefully the vicissitudes of popular music made their way around to something akin to what you were doing.”
Ryan says he and Pattengale started The Milk Carton Kids simply because they loved playing together.
“We happened to start it right at the time that ‘acoustic’ music became commercially viable, thanks to a handful of bands that played acoustic instruments, albeit a lot louder and in a different way than we do,” Ryan says. “People are always inclined to respond strongly to something new and we had the benefit of being ‘brand new’ at a time when people were ready to respond to it.”
Ryan is aware, however, that the “right place, right time” aspect of their success can’t be something the duo can depend on forever.
“We’re always going to be doing about the same thing and the trends go up and down with the tides,” he says. “We’ll see who’s left standing five to 10 years from now.”
As you might guess from the articulate nature of his comments, Ryan, 31, has a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley. Pattengale, also 31, has a history degree from University of Southern California. They are, one might say, highly educated proponents of simplicity in musical presentation.
“We don’t even plug in acoustic guitars the way that is the norm now,” Ryan says. “We just put microphones in front of them. So they are amplified, but a little more quietly than people are used to and hopefully a lot more natural-sounding. I don’t think being quiet is our first priority, but it is a byproduct of our never wanting to sacrifice tone. It’s near impossible to get a very natural tone from an acoustic guitar when it’s plugged in.” (Pattengale’s playing can be quite complex, with bursts of chromaticism and dissonance, Ryan points out.)
When the two choose to sing together in close harmony, neither one taking the lead on melody, the sonic result is ethereal. And the songwriting on The Ash & Clay is as carefully wrought and reflective as the duo’s approach to performing. One standout track, “Memphis,” is a downbeat rumination on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” song: “But now the sun goes down over/Dolly Parton Bridge/The one-time home of soul takes/Our country’s final breath.”
“The point of that song is to make reference to all the mythologies surrounding Memphis, and to lament the fact the origins of those mythologies seem no longer to be present in the city today,” Ryan says. “It’s sort of a shell of its former self.”
The duo had a deep, somewhat dark meaning in mind when choosing to call the project The Milk Carton Kids. But when people hear the name for the first time, not knowing anything else about the band, it’s easy to see why the moniker has been a source of confusion in some quarters.
“When flight attendants ask, ‘What is your band name?’ and I say, ‘Milk Carton Kids,’ they go, ‘Oh, that’s cute,’ ” Ryan complains. “That is not what we intended. The name itself comes from the title of a song that ended up on Prologue. In the song lyric, the term is used to reference something that vanishes but you’re glad to see go.”
“In this case, it’s the awkwardness and uncertainty of your youth and adolescence and the way that slowly vanishes as you come of age,” he continues. “Then hopefully one day you realize all that pain is gone — it just vanished like a milk carton kid. It’s a particularly dark way to reference the relief that comes from having a secure self-identity as you get older. We liked that it was dark and it references more broadly our generation and also musicians operating in the music business since the whole thing crumbled.”
THE MILK CARTON KIDS perform Saturday at Dave Finkelman Auditorium on the Miami University Middletown campus with Sean Rowe. Click here to purchase advance tickets.