Fate, seamlessly blended music styles key to success of Escondido

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO Chicago Sun-Times Music Writer

January 8, 2014 6:18PM

If they weren’t in Escondido, Jessica Maros and Tyler James would be leading very different lives: James as a singer-songwriter recording introspective fare under his own name, and Maros as a Nashville songbird shaped in the mold of Sheryl Crow.

Both, they say, were dead ends. Then fate intervened: Both found the other person through a mutual friend and a collaboration sparked, resulting in a debut album last year, with a second pending this summer. Like the city in southern California that shares its name, Escondido the band is steeped in Southwest fantasia, with swirling trumpets, guitar twang, acoustic guitars and slow-motion reverb.

But the Escondido’s debut album, “The Ghost of Escondido” (Kill Canyon), is not overly obsessed with stylish tricks, but stands on the strength of its songwriting, from the pop hooks that drive the lush “Cold October” to the dark rocker “Keep Walkin’.”

“We kind of walked into it; we had no idea when we started the band, how we would work together,” says Maros. “We’re lucky because we ended up being a good balance for each other.”

Escondido is in Chicago Saturday to headline the fifth annual Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival, a three-week winter festival featuring eight shows parsed among four different clubs: Concord Music Hall, City Winery, Tonic Room, and SPACE in Evanston. Besides Escondido, other headliners include The Autumn Defense (Jan. 10), David Grisman (Jan. 15-16), Justin Townes Earle and The Felice Brothers (Jan. 17) and Shemekia Copeland (Jan. 17-18).

Escondido is one of several bands currently shaping a new vanguard in Nashville. Apart from the Music Row establishment representing contemporary country music, artists ranging from The Black Keys, Ke$ha, and Kings of Leon to indie acts Lambchop, JEFF the Brotherhood, and Those Darlins are embodying the growing eclecticism of middle Tennessee’s musical heritage.

James and Maros showed up in town to draw from that heritage. Maros moved from her native Vancouver 10 years ago to pursue a development deal she had with Nettwerk Records. Matched with several Music Row songwriters, she entered a process of writing and recording music that ended up going nowhere. “They were definitely trying to mold e as something they saw me as, rather as how I saw myself,” she says.

She exited music and started sewing. She eventually co-founded Sleeveless, a boutique jewelry and accessory company, in 2010. A flagship location in Nashville sold her products, which were also carried in 30 stores across the country. Soon, her jewelry and dresses could be spotted on marquee names Lady Antebellum, Prince, Kellie Pickler, Darius Rucker and others.

James arrived in Nashville in 2000 from Iowa to attend Belmont University, where he studied music productions. He became a performer instead, crisscrossing the country playing shows under his own name for a decade, and eventually becoming a member of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, the Los Angeles indie folk band. The transition from solo artist to band personnel opened his eyes to the benefits of collaboration.

“When you go by your name, everything follows you your whole life … with a band name, you can do whatever you want. For me, it was more freeing to take creative risks,” he says.

They met in 2011 through a mutual friend at a recording session; through prodding, Maros was convinced to have James help her work on a demo of one of her songs. The next day, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she found a collaborator who understood the sound she heard inside of her head without having to explain anything. After years of working with different producers, but never releasing anything, she was ready. But instead of making a solo record, they decided to create a band identity.

“If it didn’t happen so naturally and easily, we probably wouldn’t have been a band,” James says.

Escondido’s shadowy sound fits Maros’ noir-ish lyrics, which translate the intensity of love both won and lost to wandering desolate hills and clawing out from deep valleys. The southwestern terrain of both film composer Ennio Morricone and artists like Calexico, Mazzy Star and even Chris Isaak are natural touchstones. “I’m bad with you,” they sing together on the dusty rocker of the same name. On “Willow Tree,” Maros sings, “I gave you my heart/I washed your pain/and still I’m left alone to cry,” her voice encased by shimmering guitars.

Then there is the band’s image it cultivates through fashion and design choices that is specific to the mystery in the music. Maros and James are both designers — she in fabrics and he in graphics; together, the lure of Escondido begins with the images that feel from another time.

“It’s all art. You’re almost forced, as a musician, to do everything. People have short attention spans, they’re draw to images. So every piece has to represent you. If an intriguing photo or outfit get them to the music, that’s great” James says.

While the current album was recorded in a single day in 2011, and released on their own label, the new album is coming together using more patience, working out details that go beyond capturing a single moment. Because their respective histories mean they are not newcomers, both say they want every component Econdido to represent who they are.

“You don’t realize until you’re doing it a little bit that you can do whatever you want,” James says. “We are in our prime now. We’re both excited about it because we both finally know exactly what we want.”

Share this story on your favorite platform: