Kamara Thomas is new to Durham, but she already seems quite comfortable here. After eight years playing with Brooklyn rockers Earl Greyhound and nearly 13 years in New York overall, she finds the Bull City comparatively quiet and peaceful. Thomas has explored everywhere that's walkable from her home in the Warehouse District; soon enough, she'll be learning how to drive.
"I love being here," she says, sitting outside downtown Durham pub Bull McCabes. It's midway through a Friday evening, in that lull between dinnertime and the drinking hour. Her tone is not so much a gush of excitement but rather a sigh of relief: "Every day, another layer of my New York stress comes off."
Leaving there was overdue, Thomas says, citing NewYork's artistic and sensory overstimulation as well as the realities of raising a young child in a massive city. Heading South made sense, too: Earl Greyhound bandleader and guitarist Matt Whyte's parents live in Chapel Hill, and the band regularly visited here.
Now she's also shedding the high-octane drive of her former band. Thomas' new album, Earth Hero, travels in gently melancholic, acoustic-based Americana and allegorical storytelling. She's been bringing that same approach to her June residency at the Casbah, which wraps up with a free 7 p.m. show on June 24. Yet this is no reinvention, Thomas assures: Her natural inclination has always been toward singer-songwriter and country forms.
"I was definitely the tension creator in Earl Greyhound because I was always doing this," she says matter-of-factly. "It was a good 10 years of my life when I was trying to fit it in where I could."
Her hard-rocking bandmates accommodated her Americana leanings—particularly on their 2010 album Suspicious Package—though she wonders in retrospect if this interfered with Whyte's creative vision. For a time, she found an outlet through Honky Tonk Happy Hour, a music collective with recurring gigs at The Living Room in Manhattan. Though that crew's old-school-covers repertoire was closer to the music in Thomas' head, the free-for-all approach still didn't give her the mental space necessary to focus on her solo songs, as she's doing now.
As the bassist for the hard-driving Earl Greyhound, Thomas' role was partly to drop jaws with her virtuosic playing. As much as she loved getting really loud—"I do miss rocking out," she admits—Thomas naturally treats an instrument as the vehicle for a song. Simple chords are fine as long as there's room to tell a worthwhile story.
In Earl Greyhound, the approach was different. "They're instrumentalists, and I'm not an instrumentalist," she puts it succinctly. "I'm a songwriter and a singer."
It was hard to focus as a songwriter in New York, to separate signal from noise. Though Thomas moved there to actualize her art, it was too busy. She missed having open vistas, space and time.
Then came a whirlwind year in 2010. Earl Greyhound released Suspicious Package and toured like crazy, with a pregnant Thomas bashing away at her bass—a tiring but empowering experience, she says.
Her daughter, Cherokee, was born in early 2011, after the band went on indefinite hiatus. "I had been wanting to leave New York for a really long time, and then our baby came. Then, as she turned 2, I was like, 'Oh my God, we've got to get out of here,'" Thomas recalls. "We were in a 500-square-foot, tiny, tiny apartment, trekking strollers up subway steps. It was becoming unfeasible."
When her husband, Gordon Hartin, got a job in the Triangle in April, the family headed South, landing in Durham on the advice of an ex-Brooklynite already living in the Bull City.
One good thing Thomas brought from New York, she says, is the motivation to get stuff done. When she says she wants to produce a psych-folk musical within the year, she says it with the confidence of someone who's comfortable making the necessary calls. Knowing how to take action in crowded, competitive Brooklyn makes it easier to get projects started in lower-stress towns like Durham. That's one possible reason Thomas had already landed a Casbah residency after just a few weeks here.
This isn't to say life is suddenly easy, though. Unlike families with one musician parent—or even musician parents in separate bands—Thomas and Hartin play music together. They sneak in practice time during Cherokee's naps or over the weekend, she on acoustic guitar and he on pedal steel. Thomas says they've managed to work in four hours of practice a week.
And then there's paying for child care during a gig. "Your overhead goes up to $100 the minute you want to play a show, so it can be a real strain on the family," she says. "We didn't really think about that—you don't think about that when you're like, 'We're starting a family.'"
Still, they're making it work. Cherokee, who initially didn't like her parents leaving to play shows, now cheerfully asks, "Going to a gig?" Thomas' ideal is to eventually be a traveling music family, though realistically that is a ways off; for now, she stays home with Cherokee while Hartin commutes to Cary.
It's hard work, even without the music, but Thomas wouldn't have it any other way. "I'm a stay-at-home mom and I've been doing that every day and loving that," she says. "It's totally challenging, and it's not easy, but it's awesome."
Thomas has explored her alternatives through songwriting and storytelling. "My Kentucky," the opening track of Earth Hero, hints at what her life might have been like if she'd pursued rock 'n' roll full-on. The narrator leaves his "lady love/ the lily white Olivia" in Kentucky and rambles, seeking his fortune or simply wandering, and loses his chance at family life.
"The way my songwriting usually works is, I am addressing a question to myself that a character comes and answers for me," she explains. "It helps me make my choices. It helps me live other lives, too—like an actor: Oh, I've lived this life, I know what it looks like."
With "My Kentucky," she channeled the archetype exemplified by Stevie Nicks, that of someone who consciously gave up normative ideas of family or home and pursued art full-tilt. The Fleetwood Mac singer is part of Thomas' mythology, she says, representing women who make that choice.
Thomas had to come to terms with where she fit on that spectrum, particularly as she married and had a daughter. "In my storytelling stuff, the narrative stuff, there's always a through-line of something I'm trying to learn, something I'm trying to hone in on," she says.
Her own self-made mythology helps her find the less-traveled middle path between Nicks and the weekend warrior to where she can be a stay-at-home mom but also release records and gig regularly with her husband.
After channeling characters who've tried other paths, Thomas seems right at home in Durham, just weeks after moving here. Night is falling at Bull McCabes, and it rains a little. She smiles, shrugs and sits unbothered in the light drizzle, finishing her wine and talking excitedly about sci-fi. Then she walks down Main Street to the Casbah, where she meets a Durham musician; soon, the two are discussing a potential local relaunch of the Honky Tonk Happy Hour. She and her family are here to stay, she believes.
"I do feel like land pulls us, or the earth pulls us to places," says Thomas, spiritual but not starry-eyed. Having learned to focus in New York, the last place that pulled her, she's unconcerned about the work of making solo records while also being a parent.
Yet while she felt pulled to learn in Brooklyn, she wasn't compelled to stay. With the Triangle, it's different: This is the homestead pull, she says. Then she smiles.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The pull of the Earth."