Austin's dynamic duo Beat Root Revival grows apart, but stays together
“You need to break up.”
After moving from their native British Isles to Austin around seven years ago, Andrea Magee and Ben Jones began making great strides performing as Beat Root Revival. They’d hooked up with Southern California manager Dave Kaplan, and he was connecting them with others who might be able to help the duo’s career.
Magee and Jones met in England in 2013 and became a couple shortly thereafter. But several years of working, traveling and spending almost all their time together had taken a toll. In late 2016, they decided to end their relationship, but they still wanted to play music together.
During a visit to Los Angeles in early 2017, Kaplan took them to a few booking agencies and then made one last stop at the end of the day. Which is how they found themselves at the Hollywood home of Dave Stewart, who rose to fame in the 1980s with his partner Annie Lennox in the Eurythmics.
They played a couple of songs for Stewart, who listened carefully and then asked a question: “Are you two a couple?”
They concealed the truth, telling Stewart that they were. “We were like, what are we going to do? Because we had just broken up,” Magee remembers. “But literally, the first thing he said to us was, ‘You need to break up. When Annie and I broke up, that's when we wrote all our best songs.’ We were both like, ‘Does he see through us?’ It was so bizarre.”
Fast-forward five years, and a lot has happened for Jones and Magee. They’ve kept Beat Root Revival going, though it was hard at first. In 2019, they released the acclaimed album “Up” on Kaplan’s label, Surfdog Records. They’ve spent a good chunk of the past few years on the road opening for legendary Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, Surfdog labelmate Brian Setzer and actor/musician Jeff Bridges.
And there’s plenty of chances to catch Beat Root Revival at South by Southwest this year. After an official showcase at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Lamberts, they’re playing Thursday evening at Sam’s Town Point, followed by day-party sets at 1 p.m. Friday at the Continental Club and 3 p.m. Saturday at the Hen House.
But they’re also increasingly making room for their own projects. Magee released her debut album, “Only Love,” in 2020, and next month will release the single “Belfast Girl,” which will be the title track of a new album exploring her Irish origins. After an official SXSW set at 11 p.m. Wednesday at Cooper’s BBQ, she’ll preview songs from the “Belfast Girl” project at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Saxon Pub. And on Monday, she’ll resume her 7 p.m. weekly residency at C-Boy’s.
Jones, meanwhile, recorded and released an eight-song set titled “Going Nowhere Fast” in the first year of the pandemic. Now he’s set to release the solo album “Souvenirs” on March 25. Jones previewed some of the album’s songs on Sun Radio’s “Texas Radio Live” broadcast from Guero’s last week, and he’ll perform at Austin singer-songwriter Leeaan Atherton’s annual SXSW-closing Barn Dance party on Sunday.
Finding a home in Austin
Whether together or apart, Magee and Jones have become integral members of Austin’s music community since they arrived here in 2015. They’d met a couple years prior, when Magee happened to catch Jones performing at a festival in England. Jones, who’d released several albums of his own and with other bands, was impressed with Magee’s songs and offered to produce a solo EP for her.
Jones had been planning a 25-city U.S. tour, and Magee was considering a trip to Nashville. Jones asked: “Why don’t you throw in with me?” Soon, they’d become a couple and had set out to travel across America together.
At first they were playing separate solo sets, but they realized how well their talents meshed. Both are lively, kinetic performers onstage: Jones pounds an acoustic guitar with a heavy emphasis on rhythm, while Magee plays the bodhran (an Irish hand drum), as well as flute. They have strong voices that naturally harmonize well together.
Over dinner in Roswell, N.M., a few weeks into the tour, they decided to team up as Beat Root Revival. When they arrived in Austin around the time of SXSW 2014, they connected quickly with the city, as Jones had expected they would.
“I'd always been a big fan of Doug Sahm,” he said. “I loved that you'd had this this whole ‘outlaw’ thing that kind of spread to the songwriters like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. And then there was the Daniel Johnston thing, as well.”
Magee wasn’t as familiar with the city’s music legacy, but she was quickly pulled in. “Our first experience in Austin was just amazing,” she remembers. “All these really strange, symbiotic things happened to us.”
A taxi driver turned them on to the Little Longhorn Saloon, whose owner offered them a spot opening for Dale Watson’s Sunday gig at the venue. At the show, they met a couple who offered them a place to stay.
Watson asked them to open for him at the Continental Club on Monday, which happened to be St. Patricks’ Day. They joined Watson onstage for an Irish song, after which a woman asked Magee if she could get some of the duo’s CDs. “I looked over,” Jones recalls, “and it was Lucinda Williams.”
They’re quick to credit three local musicians who helped introduce them to Austin audiences. Husband-wife duo Chris Gage and Christine Albert got the duo on bills at Donn’s Depot and El Mercado Backstage, respectively, while guitarist Bill Kirchen got them into the mix at the Saxon Pub.
‘Souvenir’ and ‘Belfast Girl’
Because both Jones and Magee are overflowing with creative impulses, it’s not surprising that they eventually began pursuing other projects beyond Beat Root Revival. Jones, who had released several solo albums in England, had enough songs not getting into Beat Root’s repertoire that it was easy to fill up “Souvenir.”
“I love to write, I love to record, I love to produce,” he says. “I had these sets of songs that I was putting aside, and before I knew it, I had two albums that were ready, and I was like, well, I need to do something with this.”
“Souvenir” is a strong showcase of his songwriting chops, full of catchy folk-rock tunes with accents of pop, blues and country. It also testifies to his abilities as a musician: Though the album has a full-band sound, “I play everything on it,” he says. He’s already begun crowd-sourcing for a follow-up album, tentatively titled “Heartbreak Handbook.”
Meanwhile, Magee was broadening her horizons both in the studio and onstage. In addition to releasing “Only Love,” which set her captivating vocals to a variety of roots-based songs, she got more active in local clubs with two side projects. Ulla, a traditional-Irish ensemble that plays Sundays at the Saxon Pub, teams Magee with fellow Ireland native Pat Byrne, longtime Austin guitarist Rich Brotherton and others. At C-Boy’s, she began playing regularly with PAACK, an all-women group featuring Paige DeChausse, Amanda Darnell, Cari Hutson and Kelly Green.
Next up is the single “Belfast Girl,” which comes out April 8. She’ll premiere a video for the song, shot in Austin with a New York-based film crew, on March 30 at Dreamland in Dripping Springs.
When the pandemic kept Magee from traveling home to Ireland, it caused her to reflect on what her home country means to her. “Once I wrote ‘Belfast Girl,’ the songs just kept snowballing,” she explained. A full album will follow later this year.
Apart, and together
“Ben was writing about his stuff, I was writing about my stuff, and both felt like the right projects to just be on our own,” Magee says of their separate ventures over the past couple of years. The pandemic certainly played a part, as well — recording alone at home became much more feasible than playing live duo gigs — but both Magee and Jones realized a need for these individual pursuits even before COVID-19 came along.
Still, they also know there’s more music to be made together. “We’ve already started writing the next Beat Root album,” Jones says. Magee chimes in: “I think the vision is that it’s always going to be like this” — with her hands, she gestures two paths that continuously move together, then apart, then back again.”
It all depends partly on just what happens with these solo records, they say. “None of us really have any idea what direction things are going to go in,” Magee says. “Ben’s ‘Souvenir’ or ‘Heartbreak’ could take him off in a direction, and I would support him for that. ‘Belfast Girl' could do the same for me, and he would support me.
“But nobody's going to stop us from doing Beat Root, because we choose to do it. That's always going be something we come back to. It's given us our life here, and we will always respect that.”