The town of Breathless may or may not actually exist, but that’s more of a minor detail, really. A cavil that pales in comparison to the corporeal reach of the place’s stories, collected in the simmering dustbowl folk songs of the AwesomeHots.
A place of beauty and grit, the town’s named for the incomparable landscape that dazzles along its horizons, and the whispers of frequent hangings that have capped off a great many of its denizens’ lives. It’s the sort of town that collects roughshod, wanderlusting people and deposits them in proximity to one another, for better or worse.
“It’s a place with no history,” Darren Radbourne begins. “Where all the records burnt down, so no one really knows where it came from. It’s always been populated by transients.”
Beside him sits Amy van Keeken as they discuss the release of NightHorse, the band’s second release and first full-length. Fictional or otherwise, Breathless is where Radbourne, van Keeken and the other members of the AwesomeHots have set the album’s songs, from the legend of the titular mare—a “champion of justice,” van Keeken notes/sings—that behooves its streets at midnight to tales of its more longing-hearted residents.
It’s all told through rustic, and—for all its grim edges—very fun folk songs occasionally buoyed by instruments as inventive as its stories: train your ear to the percussion to pick out the frequent clickety-clack of a hamperwriter (that’s laundry hamper plus typewriter), or the rickety rumble of the bucketchain n’ brush (bucket plus chain plus brush).
If this sounds particularly theatrical for what’s ostensibly a folk album with some western/cinematic vibes, you can blame the album’s very genesis: NightHorse was originally envisioned with a different sort of delivery.
“We always thought it would turn into this radio show,” Radbourne admits. Van Keeken picks up the thought: “The original plan was we were going to write a radio play, and we were going to have these songs in it. But that didn’t happen.”
“That was a bit too conceptual,” Radbourne adds.
“We just never did it,” van Keeken admits. “And then were like, we need to put out another album.”
Envisioning Breathless in songs rather than scripts has proven to have unexpected creative benefits. Instead of trying to thread a throughline through its tales, a song-by-song approach has allowed the AwesomeHots to flesh out Breathless’s legends without getting stuck trying to connecting to a single narrative.
“We were so focused on making a radio play, and deciding this story,” van Keeken says. “That was the hardest part: what was this story about? That kind of limits it, whereas now, I find we can access the feelings and ideas of Breathless and it’s so wide open.”
“Without carving a distinct narrative, or setting a stage,” Radbourne adds. “It’s like revealing the gestalt of the place.”
“So now when I go to write something,” van Keeken continues, “I almost, even subconsciously, put myself in the character of the Bard of Breathless, because it’s easier to get into that mindset and write.”
The release of NightHorse ends a four-year gap between Awesomehots albums; four years ago Radbourne and van Keeken released an EP under the moniker, after the band’s inauspicious beginnings—playing a brunch at the Artery—found them facing requests for further gigging around town. The band was a duo then, just the two of them; in the years since, its ranks have grown to include George Ireland, Norman Omar, Tom Murray and Jessica Facette in a rotating cast: Sometimes it’s still just a duo, van Keeken and Radbourne; sometimes it’s the whole outfit, or some number of the lot of them.
It was also about a year ago that the band actually recorded NightHorse, with Patrick Michalak and his mobile studio taking over van Keeken and Radbourne’s living room. That it’s only seeing release now, the pair note, stems from a few places: they wanted to put the album out on vinyl, but most pressing plants have a significant backlog these days, meaning they had to wait. There’s also the detail that both of them—as well as the other AwesomeHots—are involved in full rosters of other bands.
“We both have other jobs, and we’re in four bands together,” van Keeken says. “And then Darren is in another two bands.”
But the time isn’t that pressing for the band: van Keeken compares the AwesomeHots to a family band; something to come back to when time permits. Among everyone’s myriad other projects, the AwesomeHots will surface on occasion, bringing its tales of Breathless back whenever those particular stars see fit to align. But van Keeken and Radbourne note that with so much on the go—they’ve also created a record label, Scorpio SeventySix to manage their and others’ releases—there isn’t going to be much forcing of the muse.
“There’s never a rush for something,” van Keeken says.
“We’re already resigned to the fact that we’re getting older,” Radbourne adds, wryly. “It’s not like we have to do this while we’re young. Well, we’re not really young.”
“And what does that even mean?” van Keeken concludes. “We’re just going to get more wise.”
Sat, Mar 28 (8 pm)
With Kayla Hotte & Her Rodeo Pals, Jody Shenkarek