Dave Mcgraw & Mandy Fer: Off-grid lo-fi
When Pacific Northwest Americana duo Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer named their new album off-grid lo-fi, they meant it literally. The album was recorded on a nearly uninhabited island in the rich beauty of the Washington State’s San Juan Islands. In a house built by hand with driftwood beams crossing the ceiling, while four donkeys wandered the fields outside, the two retreated from civilization to craft something intimate and powerful, something that could endure the windswept vistas outside their windows. The location came with challenges, of course– the island could only be reached by skiff, the donkeys frequently interrupted the sessions, the studio was solar and wind-powered so worked best when it was windy… But there were also moments of serendipity, like the cello Mandy discovered in the closet and learned to play, or the banjo she was able to center on to create new sounds. The result is an album of deep-focus indie roots music, pulling from musicians who understand how the natural tones of their instruments relate to their surrounding environment and who had the space to really explore this concept. The recording set up mirrored the environment with no computer screens, editing and no Auto-Tune; McGraw and Fer captured the emotional rather than technical perfection.
As a songwriter, Dave McGraw riffs on natural elements of the world around him, pulling his songs into a place between politics and emotion, where we as humans look to our impact on the modern world. As a vocalist, his soothing voice is evocative of Gregory Alan Isakov or Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats. On the opening song, “Mantra,” McGraw’s lilt is almost that of a more polished Leonard Cohen. Mandy Fer is a standout electric guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, unafraid to dominate the stage for an extended solo–something that is almost a feminist statement at a time when guitar magazines frequently go entire issues without mentioning a single female guitarist. The instrumental masterwork “Trainwreck” showcases her cunning and ferocity as a guitarist, reminiscent of greats like Tommy Emmanuel as much as Kaki King, while Fer also indulges us in virtuosic solos like on the cacophonous, blistering crescendo of “Change My Ways”. With off-grid, lo-fi, she’s also adding the banjo to her arsenal of instruments, poignantly accenting songs like “Way Out Here” or “Eggs for Honey” that play with subtle cross-rhythms. Coming together in harmony, the songs on off-grid, lo-fi play with concepts of traditional songwriting. The isolation and transcendence of the island lent itself to creative subversion, allowing McGraw and Fer to break out of songwriting molds at the most unexpected times.
Though Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer first met in Flagstaff, Arizona, they’ve lived in Washington State since 2012. McGraw was trained as a wildlife biologist and sea kayak guide, so there was little doubt that the ocean would ever be far from their home. With a second home on the road as hard-traveling musicians, the islands serve as a kind of refuge for the two. “Touring is so social that I have to step away and hibernate for a bit,” McGraw says. “Island life is a part of our centering.” By returning to the source of their inspiration, Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer were able to create an uncommonly focused opus deeply tied to their natural environment.