Sometimes the creative process sucks, and no one knows that more than really creative artists. Just ask Alex and Billy Watson, the artistic force behind Chicago’s dark folk quintet, Rivals of the Peacemaker.
For starters, these two will be the first to tell you that they may have shared a home and a dog, but they don’t share a record collection. It would be easy enough to say that they’ve worked both of their proclivities (him: metal and alt rock; her: folk and classic country) into the sweet but insistent and insurgent Americana of Rivals of the Peacemaker, but that would be selling short a more intricate reality – it’s fucking hard to make music, get laid and pay the mortgage all with the same person.
So Alex and Billy each deal with the hard parts of the process in their own ways. Alex, a visual artist, has always used painting and drawing as an artistic break from writing music. As she started writing the follow up to 2011’s self-titled EP, Alex found herself relying more and more on her visual art to give the music time to marinate in her head. So much so that after a while, the difference between the art she was creating for the ears and the art she was creating for the eyes felt almost imperceptible.
“As I write, I paint, and as I paint, I write more, so I’d been working on a series of paintings and drawings simultaneously while writing the songs,” she says. “So the idea is to have the record, on vinyl, and then have a series of 12x12 prints in the sleeve that correspond to the songs.”
This layering of text and image, music and art, comes, not surprisingly from off-beat sources. Says, Alexandrea, "I watched this incredible documentary called Beauty Is Embarrassing, which is about the artist Wayne White, who is pretty much my biggest influence right now. It inspired me to think of making music and art as a lifestyle and to embrace the idea of tying together the things I believe in, even if I think they're weird. I guess connecting country/Americana music, scientific illustration and printmaking are a little unusual, but it's what I’m interested in."
What’s it like working with Billy? "We don't like any of the same things, or any of the same bands," Alexandrea Watson admits wryly. In the context of an up-and-coming band, this isn't an uncommon scenario. Although an end goal of harmony and memorable songs may be in sight, the sum of the parts hoping to get there can be on quite divergent paths. Luckily, despite the aforementioned differences in taste, "for some reason, we like what we make together," Alexandrea mentions.
That "what" the Watsons make has made 2013 a busy year: A Kickstarter-funded new album; a Lollapalooza slot; being filmed for Red Bull's Sound Select series. Things are truly taking off for a group whose main vocalist made a formative life change this year: "I quit my job and made a plan to dedicate the next year to releasing an album, creating a body of work paired with the album, and more scientific illustration-inspired pieces," says Alexandrea. "I kind of wanted to challenge myself with an impossible goal and then make it happen.”
Tying those things together allows Rivals to hold court in two vastly differing approaches that have served country-tinged folk and Americana well over the past 100-plus years: Slimmed down to a duo, they create a stark, intimate mesh of top-notch songwriting and evocative vocals; With a backing band - they can craft soaring ballads and fiery, ramshackle stompers.
Coming in August, the band's first proper album features a group running on all cylinders. The lush, should-be hit "The Day After the Rapture," gives an image of remorse for not quitting a relationship earlier than the apocalypse, something that touches on country's always-present sadness and humor, while the shimmering "Let It Rain" coasts breezily on a reserved chorus accented by solemn electric piano.
On "Drive Slow," Rivals touch on an epic tale of small town escapism, with the duo posing the question "Are you lonely / Or is it just the night?" before Alexandrea coyly answering "It doesn't matter." With mom's cigarettes and her brother's car, the open road is all that awaits, and it's that kind of romanticism we have with not knowing what's ahead that often makes for the best songs. Primarily stripped down to the bare essentials of vocals and guitar, "Fire For You" is a breathless ode to carnal attraction, with Alexandrea admitting "I wanna do right / But just not tonight." It's a song that almost comes with its own aura, as you can picture it being played at bar close in a smokey dive.
On top of the aforementioned Lollapalooza performance, Rivals of the Peacemaker will celebrate with an album release show at Empty Bottle next month.