Songs roll in

Chico duo Bunnymilk releases dreamy new cassette

Bunnymilk: Lisa Hiatt and Kelly Brown.

Bunnymilk: Lisa Hiatt and Kelly Brown.

photo by Brittany Waterstradt

Bunnymilk cassette-release party, Friday, Jan. 30, 9 p.m., at the Maltese. Bran Crown, Sisterhoods and Solar Estates open.
Cost: $5
Maltese Bar & Tap Room
1600 Park Ave.

It’s hard to imagine a better setting for listening to the dreamy, new, live-in-the-studio recording of Bunnymilk than while sipping a sociable brew with the local duo in the empty, echoey back room of Duffy’s Tavern on a slow midweek afternoon.

Breezing in through the tavern’s front door laden with guitar and banjo, and fresh from recording a session at the KCHO radio studio (to be broadcast at a later date), Lisa Hiatt (aka Lisa Marie) who plays guitar, and Kelly Brown, banjo, exude a cheerful air that—to someone unfamiliar with them—might seem at odds with the often somber tones of the music they create. But once established in Duffy’s back room with the songs from the self-titled cassette resonating pleasantly from the tiny speakers of my borrowed boombox, the seriousness and intensity that they apply to their artistry is evident in the way they respond to hearing the finished product for the first time.

Though the two share songwriting duties, Brown wrote all five on this collection, and she said that at the time of their writing she’d just gone through a “horrible breakup,” and found that “It wasn’t so much about that person, but about the mood—I discovered it’s much easier to be creative when you’re all [emotionally] fucked up.”

But, devastated as she may have been, Brown’s lyrics achieve a balance between acknowledging personal sadness and expressing the inner strength it takes to transform that sadness into public art. As she sings in her high, clear voice in “Simple Times,” over a sparse, slowly strummed banjo augmented by Hiatt’s interwoven guitar notes and soprano vocal harmonies, “There were simple times with simple folks/till it all got hard and we all went broken and bandaged/but somehow we managed to go on despite it all/and when we fell, how we did fall/but how we lived—oh, how we lived.”

Beginning in a more upbeat tone, “Daytime” plunks along like a walk on a sun-dappled road, buoyed by the women’s close as crossed-fingers vocal harmonies, but the sunniness of the tune is belied by the refrain, “Come to me in the dark/you can watch me fall apart.”

It’s this dichotomy of musical lightness and spaciousness coupled with intense emotional lyricism expressed by beautifully harmonizing voices (the word “ethereal” is commonly used by people reacting to their music) that gives the duo’s music an appeal that reaches out to those who appreciate its resonance with Appalachian laments and traditional country balladry. And the music’s slow-motion incorporation of ambient electric guitar tones intersecting with the clarity of the banjo’s chiming notes and intricate vocal interplay creates a very distinct and uniquely modern version of music rooted in very ancient and basic human emotions.

Asked about how they chose the name Bunnymilk, Hiatt explained that once they became a performing duo (around the summer of 2012) they challenged several friends to a “name the band contest.” Friend, musician and CN&R staff writer Ken Smith offered “Bunnymilk,” which, as Hiatt said with a smile, “We thought sounded a little gross, kinda weird, and oddly cute. Just like us.”

As Brown said of the names that didn’t make the cut, “They were all like ‘Mountain something,’ or ‘Witchy this or that,’ and Bunnymilk kind of came out of left field and we appreciated that it wasn’t overly pretty sounding. So Ken won the contest … I guess we better give him a tape.”

And speaking of tape, one can’t help wondering why they chose to present their music on the somewhat retro media. Hiatt explained that Origami Recording Lounge owner/engineer and the recording’s producer Scott Barwick approached the duo and offered to have them become the first release on his new cassette-only label, Crystal Flower Cassettes, because “he really likes our sound and wanted to do a recording that really captures what we do live.” To that end, Barwick recorded the songs, including vocals, live in the studio with no additional musicians or overdubs.

The result is a lovely five-song set that will make finding a functioning cassette player worth any music lover’s while. And though it’s their first physical album, they have sporadically released a dozen songs and demo recordings online at over the last couple of years, and the new album will soon be available there as well.