Plenty of people can play the guitar. Some even manage to sing a tune at the same time. But playing guitar while singing, stomping on a kick drum and playing a tambourine?
Now that's a rare breed.
Jess Strantz is one of those rare people. With the help of Kelsey Horton on cello and violin, the two make up folk duo Von Strantz. On January 13, Von Strantz released its third and final chapter in it's Narratives EP series, Narratives Chapter III: Eighteen Eighteen.
Listening through the Narratives series chronologically is like reading a story in which new characters appear around every corner. Each EP represents a series of musical exploration, or as Strantz describes them, "well-thought-through experiments."
Like any good book, the release of Narrative Chapter III: Eighteen Eighteen marks the climactic end to a story filled with twists and turns, both musically and internally.
"I wanted to creatively and cohesively put out our EPs, so it didn't just feel like we were putting out a new EP every few months," Strantz said when NUVO reached her by phone. "They are all part of each other in a sense, but there's also this freedom for each one to be different."
The Narratives EP concept began as a solution to a shortage in funding. The group wanted to record a full-length, but lacked the money and resources to do so. Thus, the idea of creating chapters for each EP to rest in was born. And as the sound of Von Strantz evolved, so did its lineup. During the recording of the first Narratives EP the band included four musicians, growing to eight for the second release before shrinking down to just two for the current lineup. Though some may see Von Strantz's small members as a potential drawback, Strantz took it as a new opportunity developing her impressive multitasking ability as both drummer, guitarist and lead vocalist.
"It's kind of like when you hold your hand over your head and rub your belly while you march," Strantz says of her live setup. "I'm the female version of Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins."
Narratives Chapter III: Eighteen Eighteen represents Von Strantz' boldest release yet. On earlier albums, the use of violin and cello was a centerpiece for the band's sound. And while this element certainly remains present on Narratives III, new sounds crept in, too. The start of the opening self-titled track launches the listener into a manic dance of melodies between keyboards and vocals before soaring into a powerful, synth-driven chorus. Digital sounds replace previous soft string melodies on tracks like "Cigarette Smoke," as Strantz's vocals layer seamlessly over synth parts.
Strantz marks the change in sound as more of an intentional departure than a mere result of the change in lineup.
"I feel like Narratives III is a transition," says Strantz. "The synth definitely gives it a little more of an edgy flair."
After hearing what's on her current playlist, the transition makes more sense. Strantz admits that most recently, St. Vincent's recent self-titled album and Muse's Black Holes and Revelations have been her most listened-to influences. At the same time, Strantz traces her earliest musical inspirations to artists such as Billy Joel, Elton John, Radiohead and the classics of Motown. The result? Narratives: Chapters I, II, & III, are now available for download as one cohesive album.
The eccentric range of influences doesn't feel odd to Strantz. In fact, the group seems to prefer it that way.
"Well, the music that Kelsey and I listen to sounds nothing like what we play," Strantz says with a laugh.
Even still, Strantz admits that the unconventional inspirations have shaped how she's approached her writing lately. And with a new Von Strantz record already in the works, it's difficult to predict what the duo's next album might sound like. Strantz feels impatient already.
"That's the problem with being a songwriter and a musician. It's like you put out a record but it's old news to you because that's something you've been working on for a year or so. Then when you put it out, you're kind of like, 'Right, I'm ready to work on this new stuff," says Strantz.
For now, Von Strantz plans to continue touring on the Narratives EPs while the allure of the studio remains on the back burner. Though Narratives III: Eighteen Eighteen has been available since the end of January, the duo will officially celebrate the final chapter of their EP series in Indianapolis with an all-ages show Friday at the Grove Haus.