Austin’s Little Mazarn: a banjo, a saw and one of the best albums of the year
SCENE ONE: It’s the final night of South by Southwest 2018, and Sixth Street is awash in its usual mid-March bedlam, with blasts of cacophony emanating from seemingly everywhere — with one exception. Ducking into a little-used second-floor space above Maggie Mae’s, we find Austin duo Little Mazarn onstage, playing to a few dozen folks who’ve found this surprise escape valve. For a sublime half-hour, Lindsey Verrill’s plucked banjo and Jeff Johnston’s bowed saw cast a spell that makes all of the commotion below fade away.
“Io,” which came out this spring, is the second record from Little Mazarn, our Austin360 Artist of the Month for November. At year’s end it still ranks among the very best Austin releases of 2019. It’s not just the unusual instrumentation that makes Verrill and Johnston’s music stand out. Partly it’s Verrill’s voice, which carries her often melancholy melodies like an autumn breeze skimming over the serene waters of a remote swimming hole. And largely it’s what is NOT there: The arrangements are so purposefully sparse that the open space in their songs almost becomes an instrument unto itself.
Maybe that’s what happens when two longtime bass players end up forming a band in which neither of them plays bass. Verrill moved to Austin in 2006 after studying upright bass at the University of North Texas’ renowned music school, soon picking up gigs playing with several local acts (perhaps most notably Dana Falconberry’s outfit Medicine Bow). Johnston, about two decades Verrill’s senior, arrived here in 1984 to attend the University of Texas and eventually ended up playing bass with Orange Mothers, Li’l Cap’n Travis and other acts.
How did they meet? Mutual acquaintances, they both recall, though Johnston adds intriguingly: “We played in a cave together.” Johnston was in the group Lonesome Heroes and Verrill was with the McMercy Family Band when those two acts shared a bill at Longhorn Cavern in Marble Falls many years ago.
This seems fitting, as much of Little Mazarn’s music seems to revolve around nature. “Io” opens with “Peace Like a River,” Verrill pining to “get out to the country, sleep in the grass, and wake up rested.” They cover Country Willie Edwards’ “Marfa Lights,” an ode to the mystical visions many have seen in the crystal-clear skies of deep West Texas. And when we gathered at Donn’s Depot for an interview on a mid-October afternoon, the conversation began with a discussion of the difference between crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas, punctuated by Verrill doing her best vocal impression of a katydid.
A five-song self-titled release in late 2017 introduced Little Mazarn to the world, though Verrill had previously teamed with longtime Austin musician Ralph White on a 2016 collaborative release that included the Little Mazarn name. White and Little Mazarn will reconvene for a Nov. 12 show at Hole in the Wall, following a Nov. 8 appearance at Vista Brewing Company in Driftwood as part of the brewery’s “Driftwood Nights” music series. (They’re also booked for an in-store at Antone’s Record Shop on Dec. 8.)
For “Io,” which was recorded in August 2018 at local studio Ramble Creek with engineer Britton Beizenherz, they fleshed out the banjo-saw core ever so slightly with tasteful additions from White, singers Will Johnson and Kendra Kinsey, and renowned percussionist Thor Harris. The album’s crowning jewel is “Vermont,” a six-minute meditation on family, memory and the inevitable impermanence of the little epiphanies in our lives. “You can’t stay everywhere you leave a piece of your heart,” Verrill sings atop an achingly bittersweet melody that’s repeated at the album’s end in a minute-long reprise.
She wrote it while she and Johnston were staying at the Vermont family farm of Ethan Azarian, Johnston’s longtime partner in the band Orange Mothers. A motivating factor was a songwriting group in which members are given a phrase they must incorporate into a song. This time it was “nervous blush,” which appears in Verrill’s chorus: “Cupped in your hands in a nervous blush.”
The songwriting group followed her participation in a typewriter rodeo. “People will give you a topic, like Oreos, and then you write a poem about Oreos and hand it to them,” she explains. “You have to do it right there on the spot. And I feel like that really flexed a muscle in my mind that would open up the channel to write exactly what I was thinking about.”
SCENE TWO: A small-scale showcase for Project ATX6 in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel swerves into the twilight zone when it turns out there’s a high-dollar boxing match being held in a convention room a few floors above. The bar fills with socialites in tuxedos and evening gowns, all of them a little puzzled by the sight and sound of a banjo-saw duo tucked along the back wall. It’s like a head-on collision between New, Affluent Austin and Old, Weird Austin. The surreal environment makes the experience of Little Mazarn’s music even more fascinating, especially when they quietly slip into their mesmerizing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”
As captivating as Little Mazarn’s original songs tend to be, their minimalist approach also presents opportunities for them to create brilliant interpretations of other artists’ songs. The Springsteen tune is among the highlights of “Io,” as is the aforementioned “Marfa Lights,” which Edwards plays as a dusty cowboy ballad. In Verrill and Johnston’s hands, it feel less like a story set in the West Texas landscape and more like it actually IS that wide-open landscape.
“I was with him when he wrote that,” Verrill says of Edwards, whose music she greatly admires. “We went to the Marfa Lights viewing station, and I remember later him being like, ‘Did you see it, the Marfa Lights?’ And was like, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well I did — but I was on LSD.’”
The Springsteen cover arose from a comparatively ordinary scenario. “I think I just liked that song, and I figured out that you could play the synth part in an open tuning on the banjo,” she says. “I’m really touched by the lyrics of that song. It just says so much about yearning and all the things as an artist you have to battle to get the job done.”
For Little Mazarn, it actually wasn’t much of a battle to figure out the arrestingly quiet sound that is their trademark. “It just kind of happened,” Johnston says. “I would go listen to her play, and (her music) just kind of invites you in. She had a lot of space in it, and I just wanted to play the saw and add to it.”
“A lot of music that’s guitar-based lives in the midrange,” Verrill adds. “I feel like we don’t have a lot of midrange in our sound; my voice might be the only thing. Going from listening to rock music, or anything with a guitar, to this (Little Mazarn) feels really spacious all of a sudden.”
Will it always be that way? Little Mazarn is still in its early stages, though the band toured the East Coast this year, has played in Japan, and is doing well enough that Verrill recently cut back considerably on the bass lessons she’s been relying on as her “day job” for many years. One could imagine them fleshing out their lineup with a wider range of instruments as they evolve and prosper.
“I read that book ‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne, and there’s a chapter in it about how context really defines the evolution of a sound,” Verrill says. “This summer we played some bigger stages, and we had a cello player and bass player with us. I think that in that context, it helped us stay minimal and have our sound, but be able to carry it to more ears in a bigger space.”
In the meantime, there’s magic in their melding of banjo and saw. “I had some friends who had a saw player at their wedding,” Johnston says when asked how he got turned on to the hand-tool-as-musical-instrument. He’d seen others around town occasionally playing it, including 8-½ Souvenirs founder Olivier Giraud and drummer Jeff Palmer. He credits Guy Forsyth for teaching him how to mic the saw from underneath.
“But I never took any lessons from anybody; I just kind of figured it out my myself,” he continues. “I figured that I could probably do it, but I never had a bow. Finally I just went and bought a cheap bow and started trying it.” Sometimes he uses that bow on a glockenspiel, a trick he picked up from indie bands Shearwater and Calexico.
By comparison, Verrill’s instrument of choice for Little Mazarn was more conventional, even as it’s still a fairly left-field option in anything beyond bluegrass or old-timey music. “I think I always wanted to play the banjo,” she says. “You can tune it to pretty much whatever you want; it obliges any sort of tuning or weird key that you might want to play in. It’s also a really good instrument for modal music, which I find really inspiring.
“I would always suggest to people, like, ‘Oh, I could play the banjo on this track.’ And people would always be like, ’Or, you could not!’” She laughs. “So I just felt like, OK, if I’m going to do my own thing, this is what I’m going to do.”
SCENE THREE: The Mohawk is abuzz as more than a dozen local acts have gathered to sing the songs of outsider artist Daniel Johnston a few weeks after the former Austinite’s death. Little Mazarn plays fourth on the bill, just as the joint is starting to get hopping. They ease into “Story of an Artist” and slowly a reverent hush takes over the crowd. Verrill sings Daniel’s words guilelessly, sweetly, perfectly: “The best things in life are truly free, singing birds and laughing bees.” Above them, the moon shines down on Red River Street, as echoes of saw and banjo rise up into the warm night sky. It is beautiful.
Other recent Austin360 Artist of the Month features:
Releases: “Io,” 2019; self-titled, 2017; Ralph White & Little Mazarn, 2016.
Band members: Lindsey Verrill, banjo and vocals; Jeff Johnston, bowed saw and glockenspiel.
Upcoming shows: Nov. 8 at Vista Brewing Company (Driftwood); Nov. 12 at Hole in the Wall (with Ralph White); Dec. 8 at Antone’s Record Shop.
Austin360 FB Live: Catch Little Mazarn live in our Statesman studio at noon Tuesday, Nov. 5, on the Austin360 FB page