According to legend, when Graham Nash spontaneously added his voice to a David Crosby/Stephen Stills living-room jam session in a Laurel Canyon bungalow, magic happened. So it’s not really surprising that when The Northstar Session decided to make its first record, they went to the California Mecca that spawned CSN, the Eagles and other great harmony bands, to try to capture the good vibrations there.
Listening to the trio’s latest effort, Late Bloomer, one can practically smell the eucalyptus leaves wafting in the coastal breezes. Immediately establishing its vocal bona fides with a quick opening burst of a cappella on the title cut, it moves through a spectrum of West Coast moods. The long-distance love song “Love Won’t Keep Them Apart” evokes Van Morrison’s Marin County days, while “Did I Let You Down,” beginning with sounds of seagulls and crashing waves, could be an outtake from Smile.
The easygoing “Who You Were” suggests Paisley Underground supergroup The Thorns and the neo-folk band Dawes, but The Northstar Session — guitarist Matt Szlachetka, drummer Kane McGee and multi-instrumentalist Dave Basaraba — can also rock out. “Where Did You Go” and the ragged but right “Turn You Around” are particular gems, each colored by gorgeous three-part harmonizing and raw, amped-up guitars.
The group’s affinity for the music and history of the SoCal region becomes apparent when guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Szlachetka talks about making the video for “You Come Up Like a Rose.” The music tracks for the 2010 song, which was featured in an episode of the NBC sitcom Parenthood, were done at a studio built for Fleetwood Mac to record Tusk that was subsequently used for several landmark albums; lately, it’s home to T-Bone Burnett’s many projects.
“We were like kids in a candy shop,” Szlachetka said recently by phone from Chicopee, Mass. “We thought they would have us lip sync to what we’d already done, but they wanted us to re-record it live — we did it in two takes. We got the tour after, and they were like, yeah, this is where Steely Dan recorded half their albums in the ’70s, this is the piano used on Breakfast in America — it was pretty awesome.”
The band, which appears at The Shaskeen in Manchester on Saturday, Nov. 26, began in the studio and has evolved into a road-tested machine. The trio came together in 2007 when Szlachetka and McGee met while both worked as L.A. session musicians. Szlachetka had moved west to escape a stifling hometown music scene, initially performing solo in San Diego clubs.
“But I was always looking to form a band,” he says. He hit it off with McGee, and the two began writing and recording together. “Then we found Dave, and he became the third piece of the puzzle.”
The luscious harmonies that are The Northstar Session’s trademark didn’t happen as the result of some musical kismet, but were rather won through hard work — the labor of necessity.
“The early mentality of the band was make a record, shop it, get a deal — the old-school approach,” Szlachetka says. Those plans were shattered, however, by the brutal economics of today’s music business. To make a living, the band tours constantly; it turns out that night after night of performing pays great creative dividends.
Playing in a lot of stripped-down settings, with McGee often slapping hand drums instead of hitting a kit while his mates worked unplugged, allowed the group to shape raw material into musical elegance.
“We had the bare essentials of the song, not the full produced sound we were always used to playing electric,” Szlachetka says. “That’s when the harmonies began to develop more and became the focus. The songwriting had always been there and the singing. But … the three of us singing together is really now what grabs people.”
It’s been a prolific partnership. The band’s early efforts, including two EPs (To Be Continued, 2007, and Winter Collection, 2010) and the full-length New Prehistoric Times (2008), were all self-produced. Studio veteran George Thompson (Pink Floyd, John Fogerty) came on board for Late Bloomer, along with indie producer Joe Napolitano (Le Switch, Parson Redheads).
“We wanted both of those influences to be fused together to further what we’ve already been able to do,” Szlachetka says.
The band is in the midst of an Eastern swing, with stops in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island before the tour ends at the Shaskeen. It’s their first stop in Manchester, and the final show for a while — they’ll be off the road for December to regroup and write new material.
“The club came highly recommended to our manager through a friend of the band,” Szlachetka says. “We’re looking forward to it, and it sounds like it will be a great way to end to the tour, and a great last gig for the year.”