Everything changes; that's just living. The axiom has been especially true for quixotic Durham act Midtown Dickens, a songwriting pair of lifelong best friends who've never let their band sit still. When Kym Register and Catherine Edgerton formed Midtown Dickens in 2005, the band was but a ramshackle, open-minded duo that compensated for any lack of technical prowess with spirit and comity. The outgrowth of a high-school friendship tighter than Spanx, that bond finds a new, better-lit space on their third album, Home.
"We started playing in parking decks, picking it up. I couldn't play much more than Mazzy Star or 4 Non Blondes. She had the harmonica and could play a little guitar too," Register says, laughing. "We were terrible."
But that was no reason to quit. Making music was exploration. The pair scored a banjo from a dumpster and became an island for orphaned instruments of all sorts. Fueled by the friends' sweet harmonies and the joyous energy of a playful hootenanny, Midtown Dickens started to take shape. Their 2007 debut, Oh Yell!, bubbles still with sweet, close-to-twee earnestness. On the plaintive plea "Eggs & Toast," they sing, "If you get a chance today, maybe you could like me." On the ambling, anxious and devastating "The Job Song," Edgerton laments yet another dismissal from a job that didn't deserve her.
"I've been fired from my last six jobs, and I still don't call myself a musician," Edgerton says, any humor seemingly unintentional. "It's very hard to do, and it's a constant push of self-confidence, self-identity and doubt."
One way to dampen that doubt was to build a party, and that's exactly what their first tour was. Two weeks before leaving for that debut trek, they simply asked some friends to come along and play, whether or not they knew the tunes.
"They came though," Register remembers. "A lot of them didn't know the songs, or maybe how to play music."
That was the spirit in which Trekky Records co-owner Will Hackney joined Midtown Dickens on mandolin—just for one show, at a benefit in Durham. He's been part of the band ever since. "I just kept showing up to rehearsal and shows and sort of weaseled my way into the band," he says.
It was around this time that multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Henderson joined the band on bass in similar fashion. Both Hackney and Henderson played on Midtown Dickens' second album, Lanterns, but Home is the first time they've contributed to the songwriting. While Home sounds similar to 2009's Lanterns, it feels much fuller and more developed, with shading surrounding the song skeletons. You can hear it in the cello and snippets of pedal steel lingering in the background of "Apple Tree" or the instrumental flourish at the end of the rollicking, five-minute "Volcanoes (Covered in Snow)." Register and Edgerton admit that crafting music with such deliberation and intensity was a new and sometimes challenging experience.
"We were able to sit and all work on these compositions, so they say what we all want to say. It's been a wonderful exercise in letting go, but it's also been very hard," explains Register. "We used to sit around and set up a microphone and drink whiskey and fuck off. We would listen to it the next day and crack up and be, 'Wait, I think that one's a song.' There's very much a new level of intentionality behind it that before was not there."
Register recently turned 30. Her relationship with Edgerton has changed subtly of late, a theme not only reflected on the album but also in how it was written. Rather than craft the songs together, as they did with almost every other song they've made, they only collaborated on one song this time, their bluegrass-flavored ode to contemplation, "Walk, Don't You Run."
"It wasn't our intent, but we needed time to explore ourselves as adults—as individuals," Register says. Home's title refers as much to their evolving relationship as any geographical locale. "That was kind of an epiphany for me. It's not just about North Carolina or this front porch being my home. Catherine and I have definitely had our own defining of that."
Edgerton elaborates: "So I think being able to access these hard places is best done on one's own. It's easier to cut closer to the bone when you're the only person in the room."
So on Home, there's a tension between Midtown Dickens' wild-eyed spontaneity and the subtle sophistication and songcraft. The record is still spare and rather raw, but there's a light dusting of color and depth to their Sepia-styled gait.
That new balance is likely to be challenged more as the stakes rise, but as a relative newcomer, Hackney's confident that the original spark that drew him to Midtown Dickens will survive the journey.
"The kind of music Kym and Catherine were playing when I first came into the band wasn't particularly my forte or even my interest. It was more that I really liked them and wanted to hang out with them," he says. "Now that we're getting the slightest bit of attention, it's the first time we have to operate like a business sort of. It's good we have that basis of friendship, so we don't hate each other as we get into playing 100 or more shows a year."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Home improvement."