Growing up in Gardnerville, Rachael McElhiney never figured her grandpa’s love for apricots would become enshrined in her music, but when former bandmate and lifelong friend Bryan Jones suggested Apricot Trees as the name for her debut solo EP released on June 8, it felt right.
The EP, which is hosted on Bandcamp, contains just four songs—a collection of personal stories, sung almost a capella, with only light accompaniment from her ukulele and saxophone. They’re her first complete solo songs ever, highlighted by “Grandpa’s Song,” a heartfelt message from her grandpa to her.
“I had written it for my family, ’cause it’s all these little stories that all of us know,” McElhiney said. “I was just at a big family gathering, and everyone laughs at all the little parts because every lyric is something about our grandpa.”
It’s not the journey she envisioned when she first played the saxophone as a sixth grader to get closer to a crush she had. The crush graduated that year without ever meeting her, but music became a central part of her life—and a major factor in all her decisions from then on.
She continued playing through middle school, then high school—where she joined the marching band and even the choir. Following high school, McElhiney moved to Reno in 2007 to study music education at the University of Nevada, Reno while also performing in the university’s marching band. That’s when Jones convinced her to join Buster Blue, a folk music band he founded.
“We would have a football game or a basketball game, and that would last till like 9:30, and then I’d rush to whatever bar we were playing at—and usually play in my band uniform,” McElhiney said.
Then came a decisive moment. In 2009, Jones suggested that they go on tour, and she had to choose if she wanted to finish school or try to break out with the band. It wasn’t an easy decision, but she eventually dropped out of school to join them on tour, mostly across California and also in Seattle.
“I didn’t want to regret not doing that, so I took off,” McElhiney said.
The band struggled with generating income, sometimes sleeping in their van. Yet, even amidst the struggle, McElhiney bloomed, growing from saxophone player to a co-lead vocalist with Jones, all without losing any of the joyful, whimsical personality that’s at the core of her new EP.
“She kept things light and fun when we were miserable on tour, in a van without air conditioning. She’d say something little, and make us all smile,” said Jason Ricketts, who played accordion. “She definitely was the heart.”
Buster Blue took a break in 2013, but McElhiney was not about to stop. She began a solo career with the name “Pocahontas” before being recommended to Spencer Kilpatrick, lead guitarist for the rock band Failure Machine in 2016. After a few guest performances with the band, they invited her to join, and she’s been part ever since.
She’s also still focused on her solo career, but now under her actual name. McElhiney hopes to spend the rest of this year writing and recording as many songs as she can, and exploring her sound, while remaining true to herself.
“I always want to be me,” McElhiney said, “Certain things might change, but, hopefully, it’ll always have a feel like, ’Oh, yeah, that sounds like Rachael.’ I’m hoping I always have something that’s just very me, whatever that is.”