Drew Daniel is not a Rollerblade champion. This fact did not stop him from taking a pair of three-sizes-too-big blades he found at a local thrift store for a spin on a cold January afternoon. Somewhere in the slick parking lot of a church down the street from the house he shares with his band mate Lizzy Ross, Daniel decided to tap back into his childhood arsenal of tricks with a backward triple flip. He fell hard.
After three days of nursing the wound, Daniel went to the doctor and made the dreaded call to Ross: "Uhh ... I broke my wrist."
It's one thing to watch your roommate go through that sort of pain after a silly fit of childhood fancy; it's quite another to watch your drummer do so in the middle of making your band's first full record.
"I'm really, really glad it's over now, because now it's funny," recollects Ross. "It was not funny in January."
A native of Annapolis, Md., the hometown she calls "possibly the place where music goes to die," Ross moved to North Carolina to go to college in Chapel Hill five years ago. In school, Ross first pursued an immersive band experience with Lafcadio, a group praised for its twangy indie rock shuffle and signed to the university's student-run label, Vinyl Records. But she took a step back and decided to try it solo. On Traces, her 2010 debut release, Ross offered a batch of acoustic tracks that spotlighted her songwriting style without many backing arrangements. The bluesy range of her vocals managed to goose the singer-songwriter fare.
Last January, though, Ross had given back over to the band experience and hunkered down at Arbor Ridge, a studio run by local session experts Jeff Crawford and James Wallace. They'd recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of two weeks' worth of material before Daniel's wrist injury put everything on hold. "This really fundamental step of the recording process had been subverted in a way that we couldn't do anything about," says Ross. "We couldn't make his wrist heal faster."
They also couldn't schedule studio time since they didn't know when things would be back to normal. The setback might have turned ugly had the band not taken a moment to rethink its entire approach, deciding to record at home and take things as slowly as needed. Ross began studying recording and testing new techniques for getting her best sounds with limited means. "It's really been a freeing process," she says.
But the learning curve and the marathon recording sessions taking place in her bedroom ("the best-sounding room in the house") ensured that it was not an easy one. From the dark days of broken-wrist-January to mid-June, the band labored over the songs, pulling marathon all-nighters and prolonged sessions. At one point, they worked without real pause for 48 hours.
"Part of what happened, because we were recording at home, was not only did we get to spend more time thinking about what we put into it, but we also got to involve a lot of people," says Ross. The list of performers on the resulting album, Read Me Out Loud, is instructively long. Producers Crawford and Wallace are there, as are up-and-comers Dylan Shrader, Casey Toll and Andrew Magill. Josh Moore sings harmonies, and pop legend Chris Stamey (who also mixed the album) even makes an appearance. Instruments that might seem out of place on a largely country affair—sax, trombone, glockenspiel—spring throughout the record, along with the welcome pull of pedal steel guitar.
"We got to start thinking about our songs in a different way, beyond the constraints of me and a guitar and however many melody lines I can hold in my head at one time," figures Ross. "It's the first chance I've had to really express the music the way I hear it in my head. And it's also the most accurate representation of what the band really sounds like and a representation of where I want to go as an artist."
The stumbling blocks that slowed the making of Read Me Out Loud are the same that allowed the band to color its final sound, too. The album's production depth aids the confessional lyrics, soulful vocals and hook-laden melodies that carry the weight of the songwriting. Ross cribs as much from the love songs of Spanish Harlem ("Maria Maria") as the narrative balladry of heartland rock and country on "Needle and Thread."
It doesn't hurt that Ross's resonant voice is capable of pursuing a complicated run or settling into the weight of one note. That component may have as much to do with her creative confidence as it does any quirk of her vocal cords. So Read Me Out Loud's success might be due to a pair of Rollerblades. Just don't go looking in Daniel's closet to find them.
"We threw them away," Ross says with a laugh. So die the dreams of a would-be Rollerblade champion.