Appearances can be deceiving. The setting is clearly a hillside home in Mountain Brook during early autumn. The living room furnishings are contemporary, and the couple sitting on the couch (he’s playing a guitar) are obviously twenty-somethings in the year 2011.
But when their voices join to begin singing the first verse, all bets are off. The song, in its dark minor key, could be a hundred years old, or 500.
“Soon I’ll fold upon my kin,” one verse says. “Rain is blood / Take these fields and cast away / I am light…”
The term “laudation” even comes up.
Successive songs don’t clear up the mystery of vintage, only deepen it. One of them, “Abel and Shiphrah,” is about two seemingly unconnected Old Testament characters and the potential lessons they might offer for today’s society. Another number, “Fire Away,” could — despite its spare and fraught lyrics — almost pass for a new country song about love gone wrong.
“I really don’t know where the verses come from,” says Stephen Collins, who performs with Lauren Little as a duo named The Clay States. “Maybe God gives them to you, and if you’re willing to take a moment to stop what you’re doing and listen, you’re allowed to communicate them to the world.”
Collins and Little both grew up in Birmingham, spent several years in Flagstaff, Ariz., and recently returned home. Not surprisingly, The Clay States’ online bio describes their music as “an exploration of Western Americana and Southern Gothic imagery… currently experimenting with hymn and lament concerning war, death, betrayal and redemption.” Here and there, a cello weaves its way through the mix.
In other words, a far piece from your average jukebox. But like most bands, Collins and Little have played their share of roadhouses and bars.
“We worked hard in Arizona to find a place where people would just be still and listen,” Little says. “And when you finally find that place, they sit and take everything in as if they’ve been starving for it. But those cases can be rare and far between.”
“It’s like the scenario where the power goes off at a concert,” Collins adds, “and all of a sudden the band has to put aside all the electronics and play an acoustic set. And afterward, the fans talk about how it was the greatest show ever. But the next time the band plays, everything’s plugged in just like before, and you think, ‘Why…?’
“So the right atmosphere can be the result of a happy accident, or it can be something you intentionally set up — you can keep making the experience meaningful without the power having to go out again.”
If there’s one thread that runs through The Clay States’ bracingly disparate songs, it’s the aching weight of history and how the old courses of human events can linger into the present day.
“Songwriting is telling stories,” Collins says. “And a lot of these songs involve what Joseph Campbell would call the first story. Something that comes from within us all. What you want to do is sit there and plug into that connective tissue and render it sonically. If you’re paying attention. But all the other senses — what you’re eating, what you’re seeing — tend to trump what you’re hearing and feeling. And it’s a shame, whenever the musician in you loses that battle of the senses.”
Some of the songs seem to drop the audience into an intense movie scene of some distant era, leaving the listener to intuit what event has just transpired and what comes next. One example is the haunting “Eli Whitney,” in which Whitney himself does not appear, only an indirect reference to his invention:
“They tell me now that slavery’s sin / Well, so says the manual on the cotton gin…”
“The song’s also played on ukelele,” Collins says, “which is not traditionally a Southern instrument, so it’s already anachronistic. I wanted to write a hymn, a lament. I’m really drawn to the genre of lament — trying to put loss into words, and singing them in a way that’s discernibly human. It’s not necessarily radioed, no pun intended, but it’s not taken out of its context either.
“Somehow by singing you’re able to transport your voice and the song to the person who’s singing it, and vice versa. You channel them, in a way. The song came from a voice and a sound, that haunting feeling. The lyrics revolve around a time when people were conscripted and taken off to war without a choice… a time when technology sort of taught us our morals.
“Slavery wasn’t abolished because it was convenient at the time. It became convenient, and then it was abolished. So the line about the cotton gin manual is like, ‘Don’t do slavery, because now we have a more efficient way of picking cotton.’”
Even their outwardly gentle and effervescent love song “Mayfly” skims, at moments, across the dark depths of the void:
“Morning is tarnished / As the moon lingers on / Creeks flow in wings / On the day I am born / My body’s sewn together / But it’s made to fall apart / The shortness of time / For this mayfly heart…”
The audience response to the Clay States’ uncategorizable music is nearly always a roll of the dice, Little says:
“That’s been our experience, at least. From venue to venue, the atmosphere can be very different.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Collins says. “When I sing, I close my eyes.”
The Clay States play Friday, Oct. 21, 7 p.m. at the Peanut Depot on historic Morris Avenue. Sharing the bill is Lauren Michael Sellers. Proceeds go to the nonprofit Three Circles Foundation that provides services to kids in foster care.
A sampling of The Clay States’ music can be found at www.reverbnation.com/theclaystates. You can hear an interview with them on Dale Short’s weekly radio show “Music from Home,” archived at carrolldaleshort.com/MusicFromHome.