They've survived the harsh routines of a nomadic existence. They've traveled the country on a barely-existent budget. They've touched down in a string of strange towns and cities, performing everything from sidewalk protest gatherings to chicken wing joints. Now, settled happily in North Chucktown, songwriters Megan Jean Glemboski and Bryne Klay are ready to release a collection of ditties that just might anchor them as one of the more exotic acts in the Lowcountry.
"We go from playing Latin clavés to straight-up gypsy waltzes," says Megan Jean. "It's important to have all those colors in your crayon box. We take all this stuff that we like — from norteño and crazy world music — and we just synthesize it."
Unlike so many newcomers who initially hit the downtown scene with all their might, Megan Jean and Byrne made their first splash in the Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston.
"Park Circle is such a nice place, but it's also kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys, too, so we fit right in," says Megan Jean, who grew up near Seattle during the grunge-rock phenomenon. "I was blown away by Charleston when we first came here — not just by it's natural beauty, but by the fact that we could make a living doing this here."
Megan Jean met string player Byrne Klay (pronounced "Burn Kligh"), a New Englander, in 2004 while she was attending N.Y.U. She was already working as a solo singer/guitarist when they decided to perform around the Big Apple as an acoustic folk/blues duo.
"We've had people tell us that we'll never get signed to a major label doing what we're doing," remembers Megan Jean. "But that's not our goal."
Based in Brooklyn, they played a few times a week for a while before frustration with the New York scene set in. In 2007, they initially booked 12 shows in the Southeast, just to get away from things back home. That short tour soon extended into a 200-show trek covering a span of 50,000 miles.
"Before we even went on the road, we spent a year and a half planning it and working it out, because we went completely transient for a year," says Byrne.
"We never expect anything," adds Megan Jean. "You have to know that nine out of 10 shows you ain't shit — you're there because they're letting you be there, and it's up to you get up there and make it happen. Our goal is to make as much noise as possible for a duo — in a tasteful manner, without it being hokey. And there's a razor-thin line we walk on, doing what we're doing. It could be really cheesy if we let it get there."
Their first local first gig was a brief set at Sesame Burgers, followed by a slot around the corner at the Mill's open mic night.
"We found an open mic gig at the Mill in North Charleston, and they welcomed us with open arms," says Megan Jean.
Byrne adds, "Our whole attitude is always, 'Just get us up in front of people and let us do what we do.' We know that we can at least get people's attention."
The twosome officially moved to North Charleston on Election Day 2008. Driven by a determined desire to express themselves artistically, the duo focused their efforts on writing, performing, and recording that fall and winter. After failed attempts in three other studios, they finally completed the studio work on first full length album at WhyLago Studios in Marietta, Ga., with their friend BJ Richardson (of the Shathouse Rats). The 11-song collection is titled Dead Woman Walkin'.
"Recording an album four times in a row is a terrible way to document your songs," laughs Byrne. "Also, it was really hard for us to learn how to record what we do."
The songs on Dead Woman Walkin' produce powerful imagery — some which are creepier than a small-town carnival. Megan Jean's lyrics mostly touch on strength and weakness, desire and deception.
The scratchy shuffle rhythm of macabre lead-off track "Cemetery Man" contrasts with the creepy verses about a grave-digging lover lurking from headstone to headstone. Byrne's prickly banjo work propels the upbeat wine-soaked two-step anthem "Red Red" and the swingin' cowboy tune "Hoka Hey." Splashy cymbals and brushy drum kit work accent the slower "Enfant Terrible."
The most straightforward folk ballad of the bunch is "Northern Winter" an elegant and sparse song with a slow-waltz pace and some of Megan Jean's highest-soaring notes (think Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Edelweiss" crossed with a Lucinda Williams). The peppiest is the fiendishly upbeat "Demons," replete with a polka rhythm, a thumping bassline, and Megan Jean's most pronounced yodel of the collection.
"Our stuff is very theatrical, and every song is telling a story," says Megan Jean. "I think the number one lesson [of the album] is that lying is bad. Another thing is that I'm really fascinated by epic falls-from-grace. In America, there are so many of them — and they're all loved by the public."
At times skeletal and spare, Dead Woman Walkin' has its moments of bleakness — some of which are emotionally charged and blackly comical. Fortunately, there's enough beauty in their performance and tone to balance any sort of gloominess. It's a wealth of gorgeous tunes that brilliantly merges American roots music with exotic elements of Euro/gypsy styles. Altogether, there's hardly anything dead about it.