Austin360 Artist of the Month: The musical map of Ley Line
The beginning of our Zoom interview with Ley Line is revealing, as three of the quartet’s members are assuring that the fourth should be joining shortly. “One of our bandmates is in Brazil,” Emilie Basez explains.
Sure enough, Kate Robberson appears onscreen within a couple of minutes, calling in from São Paulo. Her husband is Brazilian, and the couple had traveled there to visit family in November. It’s fitting that this call is transcontinental, as much of Ley Line’s artistic identity draws upon global music and culture.
Even their name reflects this. A quick internet search leads to the following summary: “Ley lines are lines that crisscross around the globe, like latitudinal and longitudinal lines, that are dotted with monuments and natural landforms, and carry along with them rivers of supernatural energy.”
It’s a perfect name for a band that finds the power of music in cosmopolitan connections. Basez and Robberson met in Brazil in 2012 and soon became close friends. They ended up traveling around the country together for six months. “I totally fell in love with the culture,” Basez recalls.
“By the time we got home,” she continues, “we were like, all right, where are we going to live, and when’s our next show?” Music already was a part of both women’s lives, but when they returned to Austin, they knew they had to team up.
A subsequent trip to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado — not as performers, but as volunteers on the fest’s compost crew — proved fateful when they met Lydia Froncek, another aspiring young musician who had spent time in the West African country of Senegal. Her twin sister, Madeleine, was attending college just south of Telluride in Durango.
Soon the Froncek sisters made their way to Austin, and Ley Line was born. “We had amazing chemistry,” Basez says, an observation borne out by the band’s live shows. At the 2019 Austin City Limits Music Festival, they made new fans playing to many festgoers getting their first taste of the group’s multilingual, acoustic-based folk music.
After Madeleine and Lydia moved here, further trips to Brazil solidified the quartet’s bond, particularly a three-month tour that followed the 2016 release of their debut album, “Field Notes.” On an Indiegogo crowdfunding page they set up to help cover expenses for the 2017 journey, the band laid out their core philosophy: “As artists and educators, our performances create spaces to celebrate language, culture, and the depth of human experience.”
A short video they made as part of the crowdfunding campaign sheds more light on what makes Ley Line tick. “Our music is inspired by our travels,” they declare, amid footage of performances with musicians from other countries. “Music shapes the way we travel. Music is our map, music is our compass, revealing beauty and excitement that might otherwise go unnoticed.”
ALL OF THIS comes through clearly on “We Saw Blue,” a new project that finally begins to see the light of day this week. The 10-song album hits digital platforms on Friday, with more to come in the weeks and months ahead, including a CD and (naturally) blue vinyl release, plus a “visual album” film component drawn largely from video they shot during their travels in Brazil.
The songs on “We Saw Blue” stress the women’s four-part vocal harmonies in languages that range from English to Spanish to Portuguese to French. Written largely during the band’s Brazilian sojourn, the album was recorded primarily at Good Danny’s studio in Lockhart, with collaborators that included engineer Claudio Ramirez, producer Moses Elias and members of Austin indie-folk band the Deer.
The instrumentation is mainly acoustic, blending Robberson’s ukulele and Basez’s guitar with enticing Latin rhythms from the Fronceks — Madeleine on upright bass, Lydia on percussion. The resulting music is a revelation: Though Ley Line’s arrangements are creative and sophisticated, their music flows with a natural grace, transcending notions of stylistic boundaries.
Lydia and Madeleine grew up in Ithaca, a college town in upstate New York that Lydia says “has a super diverse music scene.” The sisters had a teenage rock band, but soon Lydia became enamored with West African drumming, a passion that inspired a couple of trips to Senegal.
She was getting a liberal arts degree at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., when she made the trip to Telluride. “I got to create my own major, which was anthropology of expressive culture,” she says. “At the time, I was like, ‘What am I going to do with a liberal arts degree?’ But now we’re traveling the world learning about music and culture, and it’s exactly what I studied in school.”
Her stop at the festival was part of an extended trip that included visiting Madeleine, who was taking poetry and sociology classes at Fort Lewis College in Durango and pursuing a couple of musical projects. “I had this punk band and also a folk duo,” she says, “and eventually played some bluegrass, too.” One of her bandmates in the punk group was from Austin, which spurred the band to move here.
Robberson and Basez grew up in Austin, but both of Basez’s parents were born in Argentina. “My parents were so adaptive to the American culture that I didn’t really understand my family was from South America,” she says.
That changed after Basez traveled with her parents to Argentina when she was 16. “That was the first time I was immersed in another language,” she recalls, She graduated from high school early in order to revisit Argentina for a seven-month stay.
LEARNING SPANISH helped open up Basez’s horizons as a budding songwriter. “I’d always been a little self-conscious to write in English,” she says. “So that’s when I began to explore poetry in another language.”
Robberson’s adventures abroad began with a 2009 study-abroad trip to Brazil. She’d grown up surrounded by music in Austin: Her uncle, Mike Robberson, played bass in Joe Ely’s band for several years, and others in her family also were musicians.
That didn’t carry over to Kate at first. “Growing up, I took piano classes, but it never really stuck,” she says. Her stay in Brazil became a doorway to musical expression when she and her fellow students used it as a way to communicate.
“They would teach me songs in Portuguese, and I would teach them songs in English,” she recalls. “It was a really cool opportunity for learning a culture through music. It kind of happened naturally.”
She met Emily while both were students at the University of Texas, and their South American experiences created a bond. “That took it to a whole other level, with the power of co-writing and harmony and just sisterhood,” she says. “That foundation was a pivotal moment for me in my life, not only as a musician but also as a person.”
“We Saw Blue” initially was set for release in early 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed their plans. “It was definitely bittersweet, because we watched so much of our plans and hopes and dreams just kind of shift and change,” Robberson says. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, everything is just slowing down; everything is just taking a second to grieve.’ So we were able to do that with that album, as well.”
The band issued several singles throughout the year, offering a sneak preview of the album. In the meantime, they booked a few pandemic-era performances, including the Love & Lightstream drive-in concert series in Cedar Park and a no-audience show at the Paramount Theatre for Proof Advertising’s 10th-anniversary streaming series. They also performed on the Paramount stage for a November episode of Austin360 Studio Sessions.
Ley Line seems poised to emerge from the pandemic with steady momentum. The band has been largely a DIY operation in its first few years, with individual band members taking on responsibilities such as booking shows, editing videos and recording podcasts for their Patreon subscribers. Now they have both a booking agent and a manager. A sponsorship with Waterloo Sparkling Water and a grant from local music patron outfit Black Fret helped cover costs of the new album, which will continue to bear fruit when its vinyl and video components come out next year.
In the meantime, they’re eager to start playing more shows. “We’ve been talking with our booking agent and our manager about what touring can look like in the near future, while we're still at limited capacity,” Madeleine says. “I think that's definitely going to be the future for the next year or so. We want to start booking tours to certain cities where we can play small outdoor house shows and make it safe for everyone, and really offer a very unique experience.”
Austin360 Artist of the Month for December 2020: Ley Line
Band members: Emilie Basez, guitar/vocals; Madeleine Froncek, upright bass/vocals; Lydia Froncek, percussion/vocals; Kate Robberson, ukulele/vocals
Albums: “We Saw Blue,” out Dec. 4; “Field Notes,” 2016.