Andrea DeMarcus had just graduated from Juilliard, and she didn’t know what to do. “Juilliard wanted you to have a certain kind of sound… I wasn’t interested in playing just for the money or because it would look good on my resume.” She returned from New York to Georgia, and started writing songs on guitar. But the classically trained bassist was critical of her early writing and make-do guitar playing. That’s when a disheveled vagabond of a guitar player hopped off a freight train and into her life.
Dave Kirslis had been at a crossroads of his own; the musical projects he was involved in weren’t giving him a “big enough palate” for the way that his songwriting was evolving. Feeling directionless, he’d taken to riding freight trains in search of the quintessential American adventure. One day, rumpled and covered in soot, he jumped off a train near the house of a friend, where he met a wide-eyed and skeptical DeMarcus. “I could tell by her eyebrows that… well I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight.”
Despite the shaky first impression, the two soon found themselves spending a lot of time together. Kirslis had found someone who could understand and respond to his new song writing, and DeMarcus had found someone who could encourage hers and take the role of guitar player, allowing her to return to her preferred instrument. And secretly, in the back of both of their minds, they thought that maybe they’d found something more. Though their musical backgrounds couldn’t be more different – Kirslis taught himself roots music, while DeMarcus had mastered music theory and the nuances of counterpoint at Julliard – they shared a sense of what music should be about.
Four years later, Cicada Rhythm’s self-titled album meanders through folk, rock, Americana, and further afield, but this shared sense of what makes music powerful binds all of the songs together. At the center of their appeal is the mystery of how the interplay between two different sounds – whether it be the spirited finger-picking of guitar dancing over the rising swell of the bass, or their voices layering into sweet harmony – fills the space in between with meaning. In Cicada Rhythm, this space is explored with a fervent intensity that is belied by the effortless elegance of the arrangements.
Perhaps the most striking interplay is the contrasting lyrical styles of the two singer-songwriters that compose this band. DeMarcus’ lyrics are opaque and mysterious, giving shrouded glimpses of the story underneath and letting the listener piece the puzzle together over multiple listens. “Shadows Before You” sets the listener in the eerie landscape of the Southern Gothic, where a troubling story hides behind every darkened window. In “The Keeper,” the upbeat guitar-picking is overlaid by the ominous bowing of the upright and melancholy twang of the pedal steel, giving an unsettling resonance to DeMarcus’ questioning: “Can’t you hear the world crying out for you? Can’t you feel the ground, holding, holding you?”
In contrast, Kirslis’ lyrics are more straightforward to interpret, but deliver a blow to the listener’s sensibilities with their heartfelt sincerity. He is a natural storyteller, and this talent shines through on “Ms. Eloise,” a study in how the careful selection of a few telling scenes can convey the entire emotional impact of a narrative. In “Werewolf,” we instead see a story used as an allegory for an age old internal conflict: “Deny the demons in you, you can fight them nail and tooth/But you’ll just find yourself, fighting off the truth.” “In The Garden” is a playful romp through the surreal landscape of Kirslis’ imagination, filled with striking symbols reminiscent of the evocative power of Bob Dylan’s imagery.
But the contrast does not end at lyrical styles: it extends into the composition and mood of the songs as well. Kirslis’ pieces seem to be permeated by a certain brightness, even when dealing with difficult subject matter. The bewitching harmonies of “Static In My Dreams” pull the listener down a rabbit hole into the unnerving uncertainty that lies beneath even the most resolute convictions. Kirslis delivers a boisterous rock anthem in “Dirty Hound,” managing to make a song of devotion feel as wild and free as any hard rocking hedonistic paeans.
DeMarcus’ songs, on the other hand, possess an organic animism that breathes in the surroundings, a desire reflected in the band’s name. “Walking Late” brings to life a Southern summer romance, its tones imbued with the heavy July air of Athens, GA. “I’m Sorry Charlene,” an ode to her dog, captures the playfulness and confusion of a pet’s perspective but still manages to impart an important truth about dealing with loss.
Cicada Rhythm was recorded with acclaimed producer Drew Vandenberg of Chase Park Transduction, who has previously worked with Drive By Truckers, Deerhunter, of Montreal, Toro y Moi, Kishi Bashi, and many more. They recorded the album entirely using an analog tape recorder, giving the songs a timeless feel. Vandenberg’s influence can also be heard in the haunting outro of “Shadows Before You” and the subtle mixing of “Yellow Suitcase.” Part of the recording process took place in Mt. Zion church in Sparta, Georgia, which, though now unused, was built in 1814. This helped the aura of the Old South, in both its beauty and sorrow, soak its way into the album. In recording, artists often find their artistic intuitions clashing with the technical concerns of the producer. Thankfully, in Vandenberg, Cicada Rhythm found someone whose aesthetic impulses matched their own. “Drew didn’t rush us at all. He always wanted to be true to the art: he hates the sound of fake things.”
This concern with the genuine is the perfect match for Cicada Rhythm. In a time where music is focus-grouped and musicians are more image conscious than politicians, Cicada Rhythm’s authenticity strikes one with the kind of wonder that listeners are always searching for. That is not to say that other bands don’t try and seem authentic – it is precisely because they aren’t trying that Cicada Rhythm’s music has the ability to inspire. This is clearly seen in a song like “Do Not Destroy.” While the song could be seen as a statement about environmentalism and the destruction of rural America, it doesn’t carry the heavy-handed messaging that comes with most political songs. Instead, it strikes one first as a story the artist has a deeply personal connection to: the listener is moved to care about its speaker, and the implications are a natural outgrowth of the emotional connection that is made.
Perhaps Cicada Rhythm remains true out of necessity. Soon after they met, the two musicians began to fall for one another. “We fell in love the weekend we recorded ‘Do Not Destroy,’ at Dave’s mamma’s house.” Just as the meaning of their songs is often found in the spaces between the voices, the truth about a person is often found in the relation with another. For Cicada Rhythm, to be untrue musically would be a sort of infidelity. This gives the love songs on the album an exquisite sweetness without sappiness, a difficult combination to find in romantic songwriting.
They have toured all over the South, as well as in New York and internationally, playing everywhere from prestigious theaters to back-country bars. As their profile continues to rise, they hold on to the homegrown flavor that makes their sound unique. “I remember we played a show and there was a 35- year-old guy who had just gotten out of prison, where he’d been since he was 17. He told us it was the best show he’d seen in 18 years.”
Today, they live in a little old house in the Athens countryside, filled to the brim with dogs, various musical instruments, and obscure vinyl records. It is comforting to think that someday in the future, someone will be able to play this album and capture the spirit of this remote little corner of the world where music and love are created. One can only wonder what creations lie in store.