The Brother Brothers Talk Arranging Judee Sill, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney For ‘Cover To Cover’

[Cover photo credit to Kaitlyn Raitz]

The Brother Brothers, consisting of Adam and David Moss, released their LP of original music, Calla Lily, in April 2021. Still unable to tour the new music at that time, they brewed a plan to gather some of their most beloved tracks from music tradition and create new arrangements that could be expanded with their vocal harmonies. The tracks they chose to record are in some ways a little off the beaten path, intentionally, in the hopes of introducing audiences to music they might not have encountered before, but even in that vein, the uniting factor is musical greats, and particularly, songwriting greats like Paul McCartney, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Judee Sill, Tom Waits, and more.

The songs are being released as Cover to Cover, which arrives this Friday, August 4th, 2022, via Compass Records. Adam and David Moss have tour plans already underway that will take them across the US and then to Europe, where the songs from Calla Lily will finally get their live play due, and along with that, they will be performing some of these carefully arranged songs.

While the new arrangements make sure these songs are very much a Brother Brothers product, there’s also a unifying feel to the way the songs on Cover to Cover are presented, a certain dream-like and gentle atmosphere that encourages deep listening to the songs, and of course, an appreciation for the songwriters and artists who have come before. I spoke with Adam and David Moss about their approach to Cover to Cover, the musical landscape they’ve been traversing, and about their feelings regarding some of these key tracks.

Photo credit to Kaitlyn Raitz

Hannah Means-Shannon: It hasn’t been all that long since the release of Calla Lily. How does that work relate to the schedule of creating Cover to Cover?

David Moss: The times when we recorded everything, we weren’t touring, so we had a considerable amount of time on our hands, to be honest. The jobs we were uses to having weren’t going on, but we did have some time to get things done and be really creative, so that was nice.

HMS: Did you have equipment easily available to you for making demos and recordings?

David: We mostly just did voice recordings, and were able to get together a few times for rehearsing. The band that we were working with were just so good that we didn’t really need to spend a lot of time rehearsing demos. We rehearsed in the studio, laid it down a few times, and we had tracks worth using. We were very lucky.

Adam Moss: Timeline-wise, just to put it into perspective, we actually recorded Calla Lily in December of 2018, and it took until April 2021 to release it, so to us, when we recorded Cover to Cover in June of 2021, it had been almost three years. It was a big deal for us. We recorded Cover to Cover one year ago, so we had plenty of time to work on it. During Covid, David would come to California, where I had moved, and we worked on songs, made videos, and would do live concerts. We made demos during that time.

HMS: I’m so happy that you had that ability to work together during that time. It’s been a crazy time warp for a lot people when it comes to releasing albums. What were your first conversations like about creating Cover to Cover, since this is a departure from what you’ve done before, in a way?

David: We actually had a conversation with our label because touring wasn’t happening, and we’d just come out with Calla Lily. It was a hard way to release an album without being able to tour, and we realized that it might be a good idea to do an album of covers so that we could keep promoting the album that we had just put out and play the songs alongside each other when we did finally start touring together. I thought it was a very good idea and the label did too, so we did it. It was a way to keep the momentum going.

HMS: Did that influence your choices of songs for Cover to Cover? I know that you had a lot of intention in the songs that you chose for this album, but did knowing you might be playing them live alongside the songs from Calla Lily form part of your thinking?

David: Part of being a musicians is that you learn as many songs as you can just for fun, since you like playing music. I think we just thought these would be really good songs to do as a duo, but they were also songs that we love and want people to know about if they haven’t heard them before.

Adam: However, for our live shows, we have given some thought to the setlist about what to do. Obviously, we are going to try to sculpt a meaningful set that works well.

HMS: I heard that you are both big music history buffs and that working on these songs might have been tapping into that, looking at traditions behind songs. Are you small print readers on liner notes?

David: I think in our studies, we’ve become music historians, as a lot of people do. When it comes to covers, I love to find out who else have sung certain songs. If you love a song, it’s kind of cool to hear five different versions of it. It was a fun exploration for us when we were making arrangements and coming up with songs to sing. We listened to different versions of these songs, and there was some cherry picking of things we liked about one version or another. That led into doing original ideas in the arrangements. I don’t know if I’m a “buff” because I’m aware that there are people who could school me any day of the week. [Laugh]

HMS: There are always people who can. There are people who know an ungodly amount of information about given songs and albums, and that’s kind of reassuring.

David: Speaking just for myself, I do like to connect the dots, though. For example, my nerding out about music after college was in the Bluegrass world and finding out about a lot of Bluegrass players. Usually, if you play me a Bluegrass song, I can tell who’s playing all the instruments, or get pretty close. That bled over into the Gram Parsons, Jackson Browne world of people who were hanging out in LA who were part of the Nashville scene. Combining all those things, as well as record label scenes back in the day, helps.

HMS: I think that cover songs are actually having a kind of moment right now, building up over the past few years, possibly partly due to streaming, where there are shows that need a lot of music. So, for instance, Westworld doing more classical instrumental versions of very famous Rock songs got the conversation going, but it continues to be popular to change up genre like that. People seem receptive and it helped out a lot connecting with fans during the pandemic.

David: I think recording is also a lot easier these days, where people can make cool recordings in their homes, and there’s a lot of content, which is sometimes covers. Part of why we’re putting this album out right now is for the same reason.

HMS: I feel like each of the songs on this album is really a new arrangement rather than a simple cover, and I also feel like your vocal choices are super interesting. Your vocal choices seem to have a relationship to the performance of the original artist in terms of mood, rather than totally updating them.

One good example is Judee Sill, who I love, and you sing “Rugged Road”. I feel like you kept her sense of vocal space, almost a flute-like vocal approach.

David: That makes a lot of sense because part of why you might love a song is the mood, and you can’t help but make a song partly your own when you sing it. In the process of learning these songs, you definitely have to learn it first, then make it your own. The mood, vibe, or tone, would mirror the original, so you are noticing that.

HMS: Her songs have such a strong mood to them, too, so that’s not surprising. Did you feel any limitation in arranging these songs but still remaining reverent to things you loved? Did you feel you could make significant changes?

Adam: I think we were constantly struggling with reverence because I think that’s probably the most important thing, to respect someone’s art just as much as we’d like our art to be respected. Not only did we choose these songs because they affected us at some point in our lives, but because we thought there was something beautiful there to be uplifted. There were certainly songs that we thought of doing, but we didn’t, because we couldn’t find a way to make them right, and respectful.

HMS: One of the songs where you made big musical changes is Tom Waits’ “Flower’s Grave” and the results are absolutely amazing. I feel like your version is something you might hear in a ballroom; it’s almost crooner music now, along with the instrumental aspects. That must have been quite a leap, and it couldn’t have been easy.

Adam: Yes, that was one of the more stressful ones and we chose to do it on the first day. The engineer, Matt, wondered what he’d gotten himself into. The rest of it was fun by comparison. We started with it on guitar just to get the chords down, and the harmony down, then we worked with it pretty tirelessly to get an arrangement that could never be as good as Tom Waits, but was good enough for the two of us on two instruments. We figured that would be a good homage.

HMS: This takes it so far that I think it sets a good challenge to other artists to think further about what arrangements might be possible. You can take one genre into another, but I feel like you held onto and brought genre elements from the original as well in that transfer.

I know that the Paul McCartney song “I Will” has a long history with you all, and of course is very well known. That poses another kind of challenge when something is that well known. What kind of choices did you find yourself making?

David: As you mention, we have that history there, and since we were little kids, we’ve had The White Album. I think we only had the A and B sides, not the C and D. So that whole record, we knew the exact timing of the songs and could sing on key the moment it came in. We used to sing “I Will” in perfect harmony, even as pre-teens. So we said, “Let’s just do this, and let’s try to do it as fast as we can, so we don’t put too much thought into it.” We had to do that because we do love the song so much. We just tried to rock it out. We figured that if we just did it on strings, that would be enough to make it a little different, so that people would hear it different.

HMS: The plucking effect creates another beat moving through, and that creates an interesting energy and drama. Was it purely happenstance, or do you have thoughts about why that song has always connected with you?

David: It is one of the great melodies of all time. It is a perfect song in so many ways. You could dissect it with music theory, or with so many different tools, but every time it just works out perfectly. It’s like a Fibonacci sequence. That’s the best way I can put it.

Adam: On a personal level, I think that everybody has their dream vacation spot and their perfect song. It’s where their proclivity lies and how they want the world to be. For us, musically, that’s a perfect song. It suits me, or maybe us, and our personal dreams perfectly.

David: I agree with that. It’s just one of those easy contenders for the top 100 to the question, “What’s the best song every written?”

HMS: For a lot of people, knowing that would cause them not to try to record it, but I’m really glad that you did, particularly with your personal history.

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