This article first appeared in The Alt on May 24, 2018.
Photo by Kiki Vassilakis
From The Light’s title track opens with echoing, mismatched claps and a gradual cascading guitar progression that climbs to a breaking point of a tightly knit harmony that breaks open like a firecracker—an illuminating moment of warmth and power. It was the first song, The Sea The Sea’s Mira Costa says, that really felt like they had cracked it.
“That was the first song that emerged where it was like, ‘This is our sound. This is us.’ I’ve heard bands talk about that before…it has everybody’s voice in a creative way. It really shaped the rest of the album.”
The moment reminded the musician of the first time The Sea The Sea found their sound, in “Love We Are We Love,” as the original indie folk-pop duo consisting of Costa and her husband Chuck.
“It’s like recognizing somebody. So much of being a band is searching for what you want to say and what your sound and your voice is, what rings true to you,” she smiles. “When you hear it, or it emerges, it just makes sense.”
The duo has recently grown to add on drummer Stephen Struss and vocalist Cara May Gorman, diving even deeper into their enchanting sound. Their new album From The Light is the first to showcase their new arrangement.
It can be difficult to precisely explain just how big this band feels. They’re not trying to make you ache or bleed with ripping intensity, they’re gently filling in space until it’s nearly oversaturated.
“We like being enveloped,” Mira says. “When it’s sort of on the border, sometimes, of being too much, kind of taking over,” Chuck adds.
It took time and patience for them to get to this point, but even when the duo started out in late 2013, they were itching for it. They took the stage surrounded by more instruments than you’d think they could manage: a banjo, a keyboard, three guitars and a mini drum set placed between them, willing to fill in the cracks of silence all on their own.
“It was starting to get in the way of our ability to fully connect with each other and with an audience because we could never be completely present in what we were doing. There were too many elements to it,” Mira says.
The idea was there and what they had was working, they just needed to shift gears in order to grow.
“We were trying to have more depth in the sound and trying to be able to express the creativity with more dimensions,” Chuck says. “There was a point in which we were like, ‘Wait, I think we just want to have a band.’”
But they needed to do it carefully. Their sound wasn’t one that could just be piled with percussion and synth, it needed placement and thought.
“It’s been a very deliberate progression,” he says. “The drums more than anything was sort of an evolution in trying to figure out how to make it sound correct in the context.”
With two new band members with specialized sounds and experiences to lend, the songs of From The Light needed time to take on new life. So unlike their previous records, the Costas decided to scrap the concept of an album deadline.
Reaching the perfect stopping point in any form of art can be difficult, Chuck said, but for this project, the band felt they had too much to tackle to set a date.
“If it has to come out a year later than we want, it’ll be worth it. We have to figure this out right now, what we really want it to sound like,” he recalls deliberating.
A lot of that deliberation and sound searching was led by Troy-based producer Troy Pohl who helped The Sea The Sea craft their In The Altogether EP in 2015 and has circled back to work with four-piece in From The Light.
“He’s a master at creating a sonic space,” Chuck says. “We worked so much in tandem on this record to make it what it is, to evolve our sound. We sat down and said, ‘We’re trying to get from here to here, you can’t just throw drums in and loud noises, it’s so much more than that.’”
The process has been messy, they say, but not in a negative way. With half of the songs having been written before the arrival of Struss and Gorman, there was unraveling and restitching to be done: songwriting, piecing together arrangements in the studio, adjusting to a new recording process, learning how to run through their recorded arrangements in a live performance and letting that performance then inform the recording. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Some of its best parts emerging from their collaborative moments and happy accidents. The title track’s clapping intro, for example, was a last minute miracle.
“We had been recording our rehearsals through a computer and also an iPhone and then we would line up the recordings and it was slightly off so it was creating this effect,” Mira explains. We were like, ‘Oh my god that’s what it has to be, and then it took fucking forever to figure out how to recreate it and do it on purpose. That was a hilarious process.”
“That’s one of my favorite parts of the record and that wouldn’t have happened had we given ourselves a deadline,” Chuck says.
It helps that the band came together pretty seamlessly. In live performances, their connection is almost palpable. Wrapping their first month-long tour, spending 24/7 together, they liked each other even better than when they started, Chuck attests.
“We’re realizing, the more time we spend on the road together that that’s equally important as how it affects the sound. Who you are together is the energy that you’re putting out into the world” Mira says.
The album has had nearly two years to ripen since it’s conceptualization in 2016. After Chuck and Mira were married in August, the pair took a block of time to focus on building their new album, a creative process and commitment that they jokingly liken to having a baby and buying a house at the same time. (“We’ve never done either of those things, we only release albums,” Mira laughs.)
“We had never been able to do that before. We’d been writing on the road or writing in between things,” she explains. “We thought, ‘Let’s just process everything and give ourselves some time now that we’ve been growing in whatever direction we’ve been growing in and let’s explore that fully.’”
Summer turned to fall and everything shifted. Their new bandmates became available to commit to the project. The election happened. Their project took a different tone.
“It was hard because, for obvious reasons, the whole world felt so different from one day to the next after the election. At the time, it was such a big shift, when I listen to the songs now I can see that we were just sort of shell-shocked and trying to figure out how we were feeling about it, what we thought,” Chuck says. “I think the way it comes through in the songs is that it’s more about being honest. Songs about the truth.”
“Working through division,” Mira adds.
“Communication between people,” Chuck says.
“Grey areas,” Mira nods.
The album encompasses the need to connect with each other on a deep, intimate level without having to define or place on another. “When you come to me/ let it be brave/ unencumbered by the mistakes that we’ve made,” they gently croon in “Let It Be Said.”
Inspired by the time The Sea The Sea has spent touring, couchsurfing and breaking bread with friends and strangers, the record aims to start conversations from a place of understanding, from compassion.
“‘Everybody’ is the opening track on the album and that wasn’t intentional but ended up being a nice little prologue for the album because I think we were trying to find common humanity,” Mira explains. “Realizing that there are really disparate views and really serious things that we have to look at as a country and as people, as human beings.”
It’s a deeply moving peace project, urging listeners to keep their eyes and ears open to those living on the opposite side of your spectrum of beliefs. It’s about giving each other the time and space to hear and be heard. “Everybody’s right/ everybody’s sane/ everybody’s trying the best that they can/ everybody’s falling/ everybody’s getting up,” they sing in harmony.
“Trying to accept that most people that you meet are not gonna be all right or all wrong about anything,” Chuck adds. “It seems like such a simple, obvious thing but I think that we don’t always appreciate that with people.”
The Sea The Sea suggests exploring the gray areas of the world, the space between extremes or binaries: light or dark, good or evil.
“We give everything binaries. We think the most interesting stories, and everybody’s stories of their everyday lives, lie somewhere in between the extremes. We’re trying to shine a light on the grey areas and understand them better,” Mira says. “Looking at the things that are difficult to understand when you can’t classify things as one or the other, whether its political affiliation or just a feeling.”
After the June 1 release of From The Light, the band will hit the road for a 60-gig summer tour, kicking it off with a hometown show with Onlyness, the new solo project from Troy’s Rick Spataro (The Firs, Florist) at The Hollow in Albany. It holds a special significance for the pair who floated their way towards the region only recently, after living on the road for the past few years.
They had been planning to live in a music hotspot like Austin, Nashville or L.A. when they tripped over Troy.
“We spent two years staying here trying to figure out which one, then we were meeting people and playing music with people and we were like, ‘Maybe this is where we should be,’” Chuck said.
The couple became enamored with the up-and coming energy of the city.
“Not only is there stuff going on but it’s also not so inundated that people are jaded and don’t care about art. You need that support of your community when you’re growing your band. It’s everybody growing together to create a scene that raises the profile of an area.” Mira says. “This is our first album release show really living in the area and we’ve never really had a home base before so this feels very close to us.”
They did have their first album release show in Troy before deciding to stay put, tucked into Superior Merchandise Co., surrounded by friends and supporters.
“That was the first time we felt the community in that way,” she adds. “We want to continually make our shows a part of lifting and celebrating the music scene locally and I think that’s an important thing to talk about and celebrate: Getting over the stigma that local music means that it’s not as good because most of those bands that do well nationally [do so] because their local scene is behind them and they’re behind their local scene.”