Kym Register worried that, at the age of 30, her first breakup would also be her last.
For eight years, she'd written, recorded and toured with her childhood chum, Catherine Edgerton, in a band of best friends called Midtown Dickens. They began as a rather playful duo, handling bittersweet songs about the exigencies of life (romance, work, pals) and manifold creature comforts (Tetris, old dogs, breakfast) with the same casual aplomb. Their harmonies could slide slightly out of sync, their banjos and guitars would slip wildly out of tune. But they smiled and played along just the same.
Midtown Dickens steadily became a rather professional outfit, though, enlisting new members and settling into intricate folk-rock arrangements. Their third album, last year's Home, was recorded in a professional studio, with the harmonies well-mapped, the banjos well-tuned, the rhythms well-placed. The tours shifted from living rooms and DIY art spaces to proper rock clubs, with the band opening for the likes of the Mountain Goats and Lost in the Trees. After nearly a decade, their momentum was finally reaching the level of full-time, sustainable musicians.
But for the first time as bandmates and pals, Register and Edgerton wrote most of Home's songs separately, a portent of the end. Then, last year, during a late-fall span of shows that stretched from Tennessee to California and Minnesota to Texas, it became clear that this was the lifestyle Register wanted, not Edgerton.
"It was this long relationship that was ending, and I was afraid I'd never love again," Register says, laughing at her own exaggeration. "It was a friendship breakup. It was a lot of hard conversations, and we just couldn't spend that much time and energy on music together, like we used to."
When Register first started playing music, she says, she did it to have fun and share friends. A self-described extrovert, however, she'd become addicted to the stage's thrill of interaction. Not only could she make music with her friends, but she could travel the country playing those songs and exchanging conversations with people about issues important to them—"being queer, racism in the South, losing love. I was freaked out that wasn't going to happen. I felt like my identity was questioned."
But just 10 months since Midtown Dickens played its last show, at least for now, Register has released her first set of songs as Loamlands, a crackling Southern rock band with former Midtown Dickens multi-instrumentalist Will Hackney and an alternating cast of friends. The five-song set, Some Kind of Light, shows no signs of upstart diffidence. Though its songs navigate the sort of emotional fault lines you'd expect from a writer working through a recent breakup, musical or otherwise, it's a confident debut, a transmission of resolve from a musician who has found her own new avenue to audiences.
"I want to not stop playing," she says. "I'm one of those rare people that loves touring because I love playing music. I want to give and receive energy from people who love music, too. I want to do that constantly."
That approach is echoed on Some Kind of Light's opener, the smoldering "Another Reason." The song's subject is stuck between stations, troubled by mutually exclusive options such as staying or leaving. But Register offers a supportive mantra, repeated by Hackney in a distant, comforting sing-along. "Got to keep on walking. I know it's hard to do, but you just start with your left foot," they sing, selling the homily with sincerity. At song's end, Register turns the advice into an order: "For me, you've got to keep on walking."
The separation has allowed Register to focus on songcraft. When bands break up, their members often talk about the need for new frontiers, for a new outlet where they can sing the sort of songs for which the previous act didn't make space. But Midtown Dickens reveled in risk, using that foundation of amateur beginnings as a permission slip to try instruments and arrangements that they might not have been ready for. (Edgerton is fostering that sense of adventure in her new project, Norm & Norma. Speaking from a stop in Georgia during a combined road trip and impromptu tour, she says, "I support whatever they're doing.") With Midtown Dickens fading away, however, Register longed for more stability as a songwriter and to put more emphasis on how all of her words worked together. On "Scottsboro," she attempts to write outside of her own perspective. And on "Girl I Haven't Met," she adds teeth to the humor often found in Midtown Dickens tunes, turning the prospect of future failure into existential despair.
"I used to write in a very guttural way—onto paper, onto song, here's everything that I'm feeling, uncensored. It's still important for me to do that, but there's more concentration on how it's being presented," she says. "I'm enjoying the craft now."
She wanted to front a band with consistent instrumentation and ideas so that she could rebuild the foundation beneath her songs. She admits that, less than a decade ago, she would have laughed at that prospect.
"We have a rhythm section. When I'm writing, to be able to think about having a bass player and a drummer, it's so fun," she offers. "It's about knowing what tools you have to build a house. You think, 'I've built five houses before, and here's what I need to do it.' And I actually have those tools."
From the outset, Register and Hackney set limitations on what they could play in Loamlands. In Midtown Dickens, members shifted between instruments and incorporated new sounds as needed. For Loamlands, though, the pair wanted to do what made them the most comfortable and let the experts handle the rest.
"We would pick a couple things each of us could do really well and not stretch ourselves too thin," Hackney says. He'd alternate between acoustic and electric guitars, while Register would limit herself to banjo and one of two electric guitars her grandfather had gifted her. "We'll leave all bass and drums to people who focus on bass and drums," he continues. "Setting that rule for ourselves has kept the quality high."
It's also allowed Hackney and Register to focus on quickly building a catalog of material. Though they elected to record and release an EP first, they've already written an album's worth of material. After having played in a band with Register for five years, Hackney says she's never grown as much as a songwriter as she has in the last 10 months.
"Every time she brings in a new song, it wows me," Hackney says. "She'll bring stuff to me at rehearsal that I can't even believe she could do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Walk on."