Night of the living room
“Our music is for anyone that doesn’t want tofeel alone,” said Jill Marlene, singer of folk band Wheatstone Bridge.
There is certainly something to be said about folk music as an antidote to loneliness. The group of four musicians meet for practice every week in Marlene’s living room. After forming a circle with chairs, their songs play out like conversations among old friends. The family dog sometimes chimes in with some anxious movements that could be a dance, and barks like he wants to sing along. The living room fills with the harmonies of singers Marlene and Margy Ford, augmented by soulful strumming from guitarists Stephen Barron and Doyle Stewart.
There’s a distinct feeling of unadorned Americana in a band practicing in a living room. This is an atmosphere treasured by the members of Wheatstone Bridge.
“I like that just two people with only their voices can create something so big,” said Marlene. “That’s something that transcends culture and language.”
If the music of Wheatstone Bridge imparts a feeling of familiarity, that’s because the members have known each other, and worked together, for over 20 years in different projects. Marlene and Barron formed a band called Interplanetary Vagabonds in 1992, instantly developing a musical kinship that would prove to be lasting.
“I remember when you came over to my house pregnant and crying,” Barron said to Marlene. “You said you just needed to play music.”
Today, Barron will still call Marlene in the middle of the night, when an idea is just too good to put off. The duo shoulder most of the work in writing the music for Wheatstone Bridge, co-designing music and lyrics.
Around the time that Interplanetary Vagabonds was beginning to fizzle out, Marlene’s daughter began dating. The boy’s father was Doyle Stewart, and in making small talk from parent to parent, they discovered that they were both musicians. Stewart’s eclectic musical history by then already included both a membership in a Gregorian Chant society and a spot as the bass player of Seattle proto-grunge band Meat Cigars.
Marlene and Stewart decided to collaborate. What came about was a group named Freaks Of Nurture. Marlene described the band’s sound as “hippie music for kids.”
Freaks Of Nurture and Interplanetary Vagabonds eventually melded together to make Wheatstone Bridge, after many years of hiatus, reforming, and repurposing of members. Ford, the final piece of the puzzle, was discovered at a Dogwater Studios showcase. Someone recommended her to Marlene, praising her high voice and ability to harmonize. As a singer in the band Candyshoppe, Ford had already worked as a dedicated co-vocalist with that band’s frontwoman, Cheyenne Leigh. When it came time to play with Wheatstone Bridge, the sensibilities clicked instantly.
Ford and Marlene’s voices blend together, often switching between roles within the same song. This is a skill that Marlene attributes to active listening of her bandmates. Members of Wheatstone Bridge, in their cohesive and easy-going attitude, exhibit a spirit of egalitarianism that has become the stamp of folk music worldwide.
Though on the outside their music may feel comfortable, thematically it deals with many difficult topics. Heavy-hearted tales muse on regret, painful memories, and poisonous relationships. Yet, there’s an ever-present optimism in the band’s message, a desire to see the wounds mend. Part of this, Marlene admits, is due to her profession as a marriage and family therapist intern. Raised in Wendover, she says her style is half trailer park, half ivory tower.
“A lot of the songs are allegories for life experience,” said Marlene. “By growth.”
“Warts and all,” added Stewart. “Those are a kind of growth.”