Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
Warning: Listening to Asheville's indie Appalachian folk duo Tina & Her Pony (Tina Collins and Quetzal Jordan) may produce sensations of abrupt and unexpected joy. At least that's how it is for me when I listen to their new album, Champion, scheduled for worldwide release and distribution on November 16 (locals can pick up a copy sooner at Harvest or Voltage Records starting November 1). The local duo have been playing together for years, but it's been a while since they've released an album, and Champion, which they recorded at Echo Mountain, marks the band's gorgeous, thoughtful return to studio recording.
Tina & Her Pony are holding an album release party at the Mothlight this Friday, November 3. The event will also be an art exhibition opening for Jacqueline Maloney, who did the cover art for Champion. Along with the cover, Maloney also did a line drawing of either a plant or an animal while listening to each song and created twelve pieces of art, one for each song. The art will be displayed in the back room of the Mothlight. The duo will be joined on stage by people who also recorded on the album to play drums, upright bass, pedal steel, slap steel, dobro, and more. The show will be seated. Champion cover art by Jacqueline Maloney
Collins and Jordan first met in Asheville in 2009 and began making music together soon after. Their approach to music feels at once old-timey and totally modern. They exhibit an enviable versatility on several instruments—Collins on tenor banjo, tenor ukulele, and guitar, and Jordan on cello and guitar—and they blend their voices to create harmonies that wrap you in sound. Listening to Tina & Her Pony is like visiting your favorite old friends—the ones who have been together for years but haven't relinquished any of their love for adventure and exploration and always have new stories to tell. And the new stories keep coming: In the summer of 2016, Collins and Jordan got married, a personal step that also became a part of their professional and musical evolution. It was one of many shifts that informed the album.
I talked with the duo about the stories behind Champion, their plans for its release, and married life (among many other things).
It's been a while since you guys have released an album (2012)—how did Champion come about and what have you been up to in the meantime?
Quetzal Jordan (QJ): Our last tour was a year and a half, and we ended the tour because Tina's father got sick. We had planned on moving to Austin but ended up in Asheville because Tina's father was from here, so we wanted to be here and take care of him, and then grieve the loss of him. Soon after that, we decided to get married, and marriage is a pretty big undertaking. So we took time to get married and then held the marriage on Tina's father's land.
Soon after that, we saw Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings play live in Brevard. That was big. We were like, "Man, we gotta do this. We have to make music."
Tina Collins (TC): Yeah, the day after that show, Quetzal wrote two songs. She was inspired. And for me, I saw how these two people played to a thousand folks in an outdoor stadium, and everyone was completely silent and having deep experiences. It was specifically inspiring because they're a duo and they have the ability to captivate people with such a quiet, beautiful sound.
QJ: Which is what I love about music. But for industry professionals, it's a hard sell. They want music people can dance to, drink to, and get happy to, but it's really nice to have a little section of the earth where this is sacred space, where these are our beautiful heartbeats. Let's connect as humans—that's what music is for me and that's why we do all of this. That's why we're releasing another album.
So in terms of coming back to recording and being a band and to this album, how did the experiences you had during your time off affect that?
TC: There's definitely a hard theme of love on the album for sure. So I would say just getting married deepened our connection in so many ways, including musically. That commitment, for us, made the container so much bigger. We have more trust and faith in each other. We're tender when we share new songs with each other.
QJ: I would never have been able to write a song like “Champion” before we got married, because it's such a vulnerable song. It's hard to straight up go out there and be like, "This is how I feel," without immediately being like, "Cool, so do you feel that way too?" It opened my ability to speak from a truer, deeper, more vulnerable place.
TC: And also planning and executing the wedding was a gigantic practice in making a million decisions together, in compromising, in knowing what you need to fight for and let go of. The same is true for an album where we have to decide on a million things about look and sound. There are so many decisions along the way, so having the wedding was good practice [laughs].
QJ: After that we thought we could put on a whole music festival. We're a really good team. We felt very empowered afterwards.
TC: We're not planning a festival.
QJ: It's still on my radar [laughs].
How do you guys compose songs and work together as a team?
QJ: I'm always keeping her in mind when I'm writing. When we first got together, you could see how different we were. I come from rock and world music influences, and Tina comes from straight up American folk. She has a clear voice, and mine is a little more breathy and textured. At first, our vocals didn't even sound good together. We had to work to meld them.
TC: Oftentimes when she's writing songs she'll teach me the guitar part and the vocals. I have a higher range.
QJ: I'll arrange a song on cello and create harmonies, putting her vocals upfront or vice versa, and she might create a song for me to sing. I tend to have very dreamy songs that unfold on this subconscious level, like putting together poetry. And she's a very straightforward lyricist, so she keeps that in mind and tries to make her content a little more poetic when she writes, and I try to be a little bit more literal, so it ends up merging into a unified sound.
TC: But we do typically write songs separately and then present them to each other. And they don't usually change a ton, but they often change in key ways, like the melody needs to be different, or we'll come up with one line that completes the song.
Can you talk a bit about how losing your father came into the album and how that worked with the theme of love?
TC: I don't know if we necessarily had a theme on purpose. It was just what was happening. We had a group of songs we knew we wanted to record, and half were love songs and half were about grief, which is an interesting mix.
QJ: To have death and love smashed together in one album, it's very moody because of that [laughs]. It's like a quick-moving storm.
Even when we got married, we were thinking about Brad [Collins's father] and his relationship. They were such an incredible power couple, and they were so in love, and he just died young. And it was like, "Oh shit, what if you find your person and they leave?" That was entirely in our minds when we were getting married. Like, "I really appreciate you and I'm not going to take you for granted." Just having that promise was really powerful and had a lot to do with the album too.Photo courtesy of the band
How did the recording process go? Any particular challenges that came up?
QJ: We had a band playing all at once in the studio, which was a really awesome feel. You don't often have that anymore. There were six or seven of us total, and we had set a date to record. And I had this opportunity to go to Teotihuacan, in Mexico, and climb the pyramids there. And I decided to do that, not realizing it was crossing over with my recording time. I ended up being at the top of a pyramid, Skyping with Tina the day of the recording session. We had recorded our guitar and vocals together, but I wanted to be there so bad.
TC: I answered her Skype call, and it was super bright and sunny and she was wearing this big hat...
QJ: I did lots of preparation and tutored Tina on everything that needed to happen. I produced the album so I was really invested in that side of it.
Do you have a favorite, or a particularly special song, on the album that has an especially significant meaning for you?
TC: My best song I think is the opening track, “Back In Your Life.” I really like it because it turned out production-wise to have a really nice, easy country sound. That's the kind of music I like to listen to, so I'm happy it turned out like something I want to listen to.
That one's got such a clear story as well.
TC: Yeah, it's about that feeling that it's such a shame when someone has to be your ex, because they know you already. They know your family, and they know you so well. So it's just a shame they can't be in your life. It's about that feeling that it's much better that you're not in my life, but it's a shame anyway.
What about you, Quetzal? Favorite track?
QJ: The second track, "I'm the Same," is the one that's kind of my baby. It all kinda came out at once and it had a lot to do with the presidential election. The election is also a big part of all of this too. It's another reason why it's called Champion. We're an openly queer couple in the public eye. That can make you a target, but it also makes you a beacon of light and hope for other people, and that's also why we're playing music: to humanize the queer population and bring it closer to normalcy.
It has something in common with when you're going through really hard times experiencing great loss and grief, and you feel the same—but different at the same time. Sometimes you wake up and forget that things are so different. You think that maybe Brad didn't die or Obama's still president, and everything is fine. And with that election piece, it's like you're queer but you think of yourself as just yourself, you forget there's this identity that people are attaching to you. And maybe people are after you, or they're talking negatively about your existence. So there's a back and forth between realizing all of that and then thinking, "Hey, everything is actually fine." So playing with that, talking about it and thinking about it, caused that song to come into existence.
When we went out on our honeymoon I had this moment of extreme bliss. I was sitting on this pool of water, and tiny fish were nibbling my toes, and I'm full-body cuddling Tina in the sun. Everything was perfect, even through all of that. Everything was perfect in this moment. The end of the song brings me emotionally back to that point, to being on the beach and in the sun: "I feel my life coming on." I'm alive and everything is awesome. Yeah, I enjoy playing one that over and over again.
Can you talk to me about "Good Man"? It's such an interesting song. What's the story there?
QJ: “Good Man” is about my entire family. They all didn't die, but I really love the Appalachian murder ballad tradition so the song is our tribute to that. My father passed away five years ago, and I didn't know him very well but he was a commercial fisherman in the north country of British Columbia. He would dive for abalone and punch sharks in the face, and I think that's very cool. He was not a good father, and I'm glad he wasn't there for me because he probablywould have totally sucked, but he was a really awesome fisherman and would buy drinks for everyone. He was everyone's favorite person.
When he passed, I changed my relationship with him from anger into feeling like, "This is actually totally fine, I want to make this song for you." He died of cancer and he was such an awesome dude. He should have died in the ocean. I wanted to rewrite that for him. That's how I want him to be known in the world. So that first verse is for him, and that felt good, so then I had the rest of family to think about. I have such a different relationship with all of them [laughs]. I'm not going to go too deep into it, but they all have their own quirks and stories, and I was thinking, well, this is probably what would happen if they were to pass away. This is probably how they would go or want to go.
TC: She kinda wrote the song as a joke. We were laughing about it so hard, and then it ended up on the album and it's a favorite for both of us.
[Note: "Good Man" just premiered on Folk Radio UK]
The murder ballad tradition is fascinating. How did you get interested in that?
QJ: We both really love Appalachian music. Loretta Lynn is a huge favorite. Kate Wolff, Elizabeth Cotton, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson...
TC: I started visiting dad here towards the end of college, and I through-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to GA and visited him in Whittier, about an hour west of here. There were certain parts on the trail where I get why murder ballads are a thing [laughs]. There's a spot in Virginia...I can't remember the name but might as well have been Murder Falls. It was something like that. If you talk to the locals at the convenience store about why it has that name, they'll tell you people have been murdered there. You're hiking on the trail through rhododendron tunnels, and at one point you cross this road called Route 666, and it's like, are you for real? You can't get any more classic.
I wrote the song “The Wind” while I was through-hiking the trail. I was in Virginia towards the end of the trail because going south. It was turning into fall and there was constantly the sound of the wind and acorns dropping. I was so weary, and I loved that the wind just kept going no matter what. I thought, "I have to be like the wind! I'll get to Georgia!"
QJ: We got to record that one with Leah and Chloe from Rising Appalachia, with all four of us singing. It was special to bring all of our voices together.
They're good friends of ours, but what I love most is that when you come to their concerts you're taken to church a little. It changes your whole body chemistry. Like, "Woah, I feel really great. I'm happy and everything is magical." They brought that into the studio at Echo Mountain. We wanted to bring magic and they totally did. That was a 100% awesome studio experience. We worked with Clay Miller there as our engineer and it was outstanding.
What do you want people to know about the show or about your live performance?
QJ: We've got some special guests, plus the art from Jacqueline Maloney, and there's no opener. We're bringing ourselves. We cannot be anyone else. We just happen to be a unique experience, in the way that we are what we are. I'm a Canadian-Guatemalan gay cellist, so there's that [laughs]!
TC: I don't see a lot of other queer musicians in Asheville. That's definitely a part of who we are.
QJ: I feel like a lot of individuals' experiences of artists have so much to do with their vocals. The way we sing together is a very unique experience to witness, especially live. People freak out. I don't get it myself, 'cause I'm me [laughs], but other people have said that it makes our live performances really special. People love the cello and the harmonies, especially.
Have you ever surprised your fans by being a not-so-traditional folk duo?
QJ: We have Trump supporters that are fans. People contact us and say things like, "I love your music but I'm a Trump supporter, so you might want to unfollow me."
But we create bridges—not only with the style of music, which is very southern, but with the type of music: It's very honest, heart-opening, and connecting. And that's the kind of bridge that people need.
TC: We've found touring that we're on stage thinking, like, "These people are going to lynch us." They might have very different values from us. But afterwards they'll come up and say, "I want a shirt and two CDs. You guys are amazing." And I'm like, "I thought you were gonna kill me."
I do love that music has that power. To have people be like, "Oh, I love these people already and they happen to be gay, who cares?"
QJ: We're trying to insert the "Who cares" part [laughs].
TC: It's definitely checked me a couple of times. I was totally judging when I shouldn't have, which is awesome. I love being wrong in that way, when it means that someone is a kind, accepting person. That kind of thing makes me feel really good.
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Catch Tina & Her Pony this Friday at the Mothlight. Jacqueline Maloney will present an exhibition of her work related to the album. Come at 8 to check out the visual art; seated show begins at 9 pm. Tickets are $10 in advance/$12 day of. The show will also stream live via Concert Window.Photo courtesy of the band
Facebook event page here.
Champion will be on sale at Harvest Records and Voltage Records in Asheville starting November 1.