Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins, the founding members of Austin-based pop folk band Wild Child, got chills when they stepped onto the ACL Live stage for a sound check Oct. 11. The singing/songwriting team had met only four years earlier, when they were hired as backing musicians on a U.S. tour by Danish band the Migrant, and here they were on the focal square of Austin’s most glorious venue. Still, they didn’t know what to expect a few hours later.
“Everyone was telling us we were crazy to schedule our record release show (for ‘The Runaround’) during ACL Fest,” says Beggins. “We were afraid no one was going to show up.” Wilson says she was so nervous coming out from the wings that her legs were shaking.
The roar from the crowd of 1,100 was both jarring and calming.
“When the lights started slowly panning over (the audience) and we could see all those people, I cried,” says Wilson, 23, who grew up in Wimberley. “And when I looked over at Alexander, I could see tears in his eyes, too.”
The front rows were filled with faces Wilson and Beggins recalled from when they were a ukulele duo playing every Monday at the Beauty Bar on East Seventh Street with Shakey Graves.
Just a blur in time later, they were playing a palace full of fans. The buzz started slowly, then built fast. The 2011 debut LP “Pillow Talk” got a little airplay on KGSR and a pair of bookings at the station’s popular Blues On the Green free concert series at Zilker Park. The charming live shows, where Wilson comes off more like your cousin who can really sing than a gluten-free diva, added fans at every turn. And there was a featured segment on the Carson Daly show, taped during South by Southwest. But usually all of that will just get you a packed Friday night at the Parish.
Wild Child recently played sold-out shows in New York City where half the crowd sang along to every song. How did this happen?
Spotify. Free and instant access to both Wild Child albums, which have enough great pop hooks and identifiable lyrics to stick in the browsing mind. A lot of acts criticize the streaming service (which has a premium tier so you can skip that Allstate commercial) for lack of compensation to artists, but Wild Child is not one of them. Spotify has given them a career as a touring band. It’s made them famous in Canada.
“We did a show in Toronto recently as the opening act,” Wilson starts the story. She is having a vegetable plate at 24 Diner, while Beggins sticks to the vodka and orange juice diet befitting a 25-year-old with a mustache and limo cap. It’s a couple hours before their official record release in-store at Waterloo Records next door. “We figured the audience would just be trying to get through us to hear the headliner. They were all standing near the back of the club, but when we came on, they rushed to the front. That blew us away.”
Wild Child, which went from duo to six-piece band two years ago, came up alongside a free-spirited group of Austin bands such as Whiskey Shivers, Hello Wheels, Marmalakes and Holiday Mountain whom they’re still close with, especially the Shivers, whose singer Bobby Fitzgerald is engaged to Wilson. “We looked at ourselves as the freshman class of the Austin music scene,” she says of those 2010 upstarts. “Gary Clark Jr. was the senior prom king and Bright Light (Social Hour) were juniors with something going on. But we were the puny freshmen.”
But on the strength of the Ben Kweller-produced “The Runaround,” which adds texture to the simple, irresistible melodies, Wild Child is about to graduate to bigger things. They were originally booked to open Fun Fun Fun Fest at noon Friday, but after new single “Crazy Bird” took off on Hype Machine and other charts that measure online listening activity, the Child has been moved to Sunday evening on the Yellow Stage between Sarah Silverman and Daniel Johnston. They were signed to powerhouse booking agency ICM after their recent CMJ showcase and, Wilson says, the bookings have already become noticeably better.
The band’s appeal (heaviest amongst females in their late teens) is due in large part to the chemistry, both in songwriting and onstage, between Wilson and Beggins. But the pair has never been a romantic couple. “When we first started playing, it was so hard to sing our own songs in front of people, so we just stared at each other,” Wilson says with a laugh. “People assumed we were madly in love, but we were just scared.”
Wilson says that if the six members of Wild Child weren’t in a band together they probably wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Kind of like a family. “We’re all so different,” she says. “I love being outside in nature, and Alexander loves to hit the town. We’ve got a 20-year-old (cellist Sadie Wolfe) and a 31-year-old (keyboardist Evan Magers) in the band. Everybody’s into their own thing.” But when they play music together, it’s like they’re all sitting at a big table, sharing a feast of rhythm and melody.
Why continue with this article? Anybody interested stopped reading paragraphs ago and is now on Spotify listening to “The Runaround.” The new record is a big step up for the act that timed the ukulele male/ female duo trend just right but is expanding its sound. “Ben Kweller was great to work with, so encouraging,” says Beggins.
Listen now if you must, but Spotify won’t tell you that Wilson, a classically trained violinist, is one of six children of parents named Buddy and Holly. It won’t say she used to be in a preteen band called the Wagon Wheels with Wimberley neighbor Sarah Jarosz, the mandolin whiz.
You gotta come here to find out that the first sound on “The Runaround” is the click of the start button on the old Tascam recorder, where Wilson/Beggins compositions are first preserved. One night, Beggins emailed Wilson a riff he’d written and said he was coming over to work on it with her. That’s the process. They can write together at any time and any place, penning the title track in the living room of Wilson’s parent’s house while Buddy and Holly were in the kitchen. Just so happened this one time, Wilson had some lyrics and a melody that fit perfectly, so when Beggins got there all he had to do was hit the record button as she sang over his music. That song “Left Behind” closes the album with Wilson’s feral honesty stuck on naked. “We’re never who we think we are/ We were born to change our minds,” she sings over a Beggins riff more complicated than the ukulele stuff. The tune is another way of looking at freedom.
These are the days of bombardment, when some are desperate for a human touch, a voice that speaks to them. Wild Child’s organic sound and personality fills that void for a swelling congregation. The band’s Spotify listens: 5 million and counting.