AUSTIN, Texas — Water. It’s the essence of life. And when you grow up on the island-like continent of Australia, you form a special relationship with it, one that goes far beyond mere survival. Which helps explain why The Greencards’ body of work is filled with songs that reference the substance, along with the often-related concepts of motion and travel. But the band never intentionally wove those threads into a theme — until now.
For their Aug. 20 release, Sweetheart of the Sun, Greencards co-founders Kym Warner and Carol Young focused on those aspects of their lives to craft a unified sonic document, one that catalogs their journeys while transporting listeners to a beautiful, welcoming world.
The second release on their Darling Street Records label, Sweetheart of the Sun nestles under the Americana umbrella, though its influences are as vast as the sea. Drawing on their Aussie upbringings, their American experiences and their restless natures, The Greencards use imagery and instrumentation to evoke moods and suggest movement; the songs themselves ebb and flow like tides, linked by instrumental interludes that shine like bits of sand-smoothed glass.
“In Australia, you’re always on the beach, or fishing or whatever,” says mandolinist Warner, explaining how they chose their theme. “And we’re always moving, and always searching for something . . .”
Adds Young, “We seemed to always have some sort of nautical component on previous records, so we really honed in on it this time.”
Young and Warner have traveled far, literally and metaphorically, since forming The Greencards in 2003 after transplanting themselves in Austin. Their debut album, Movin’ On,earned them a deal with Nashville-based Dualtone Records, so they headed east in 2005.Weather & Water, Viridian, Fascination and The Brick Album followed, along with two Grammy nominations and a 2006 Americana Honors & Awards win as New/Emerging Artist of the Year. In 2012, Warner and Young finally made their long-planned return to Austin, in part to reinvigorate their music.
“We’d had a little bit of trouble writing. I think we’d done a record like two years on the clock every time, but this time, we weren’t feeling it at all,” Warner admits. “And then Carol came up with the idea of the theme, and it just started rolling.”
Austin also held musical influences such as Patty Griffin and Robert Earl Keen. “And we just love the live scene,” Warner says. “And we’ve got so many musical friends we like collaborating with.”
Ironically, their main writing collaborator this time was Nashvillian Kai Welch (Abigail Washburn). Jedd Hughes, another Nashville-based guitarist and songwriter — and fellow Aussie expat — contributes as well.
“Every album we make, Jedd’s a big part,” says Young, who notes their relationship goes back to the days they roomed together in Sydney, when he was 16, she was topping the country charts and Warner was winning the Australian National Bluegrass Mandolin Championship (which he earned four years in a row).
Young and Warner flew their friends to Austin for writing retreats, working by day and going out to hear music at night. Recording took place in Nashville with Grammy-winning producer Gary Paczosa (Sara Jarosz, Alison Krauss, John Prine), whom Young credits with having a major role in the record’s outcome.
“He really ran with it,” she says. “Sonically, his ear is just second to none. But he made it all flow together. From the moment we started playing him demos, he got it, which made us way more inspired to keep going.”
Their musical references were in full sync, too. Explains Warner, “If Pink Floyd had done a record like this, or Rufus Wainwright, where sonically it gets from here to here and the journey just goes . . . Gary’s ideas were exactly what we were thinking.”
Welch, Hughes and Greencards guitarist Carl Miner share six-string work on the album, which also features the band’s first use of pedal steel, played by Guster’s Luke Reynolds on the track “Black Black Water.” There’s some accordion as well, on “Boxcar Boys,” and percussion, though Warner notes they specifically constructed the album around the band’s acoustic guitar-mandolin-bass core, and Young’s alluring vocals.
Sons of Fathers partners David Beck and Paul Cauthen also contribute harmonies, and Beck, son of longtime Greencards collaborator Bill Whitbeck, plays bass on a few tracks. The voices of Aoife O’Donovan and Jon Randall can be heard on “Traveler’s Song”; O’Donovan’s also on “Ocean Floor.” Andrea Zonn, a member of James Taylor’s band, delivers violin and viola, a major element of the album’s gorgeously atmospheric textures.
Not only does that guest list contain some of Nashville and Austin’s finest Americana talents, it’s also a short list of The Greencards’ favorites — purposely gathered together as a gift of sorts to their supportive fans. The band’s last release, 2011’s The Brick Album, was a collaboration with those fans; donors who helped get it made even got their own “bricks” in the album art. But this time, says Warner, “We wanted to turn the tables and give back.”
Sweetheart of the Sun marks a departure in another significant way: It’s intended to be listened to in its entirety; for that reason, the band hopes digital listeners will choose full-album downloads.
“We really want it to flow,” Young says, as Warner adds, “Flow sets the whole thing. We wrote a record; we didn’t just write songs and try and find the order later.”
They’re also bucking the trend of what Young calls “rawer, boisterous” acoustic music, having long ago left their early bluegrass terrain behind for a blend of jazz, pop, Celtic, blues and other genres into what might be called progressive folk.
Using the studio as a tool, they created a cohesive, sonically nuanced album that fully realizes their concept. Though they don’t plan on performing it in its entirely on a regular basis, that could happen on occasion. Young says she’d like to try it; she’s confident their fans will happily come along for the ride.
After all, invitations to tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, and accolades such as “The Greencards have elevated Americana” (American Songwriter) don’t form in a vacuum.
But if one must single out a song that crystallizes both their vision and talent, it might be “Wide Eyed Immigrant,” a beguiling marriage of music and lyrics with the chorus, My heart is a tile of white on a mirror ball, So we shuffle, like two old souls on an old wooden floor.
Though Blurt.com said the following in a review of The Brick Album, it applies equally to “Wide Eyed Immigrant” — and to every track on Sweetheart of the Sun: “Simply stunning,” the site raved, “an adroit example of what exceptional skill and unerring taste can reap when deftly applied.”
Yes, Sweetheart of the Sun is one special musical voyage. The time to book passage is now.