On the second floor of the Downtown Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel, Dana Falconberry sets up quietly on the bar's corner stage. It's the final night of South by Southwest 08, and the weeklong binge of music, booze, and industry hype culminates in a frayed tension palpable throughout the elongated, boxcar lounge.
Flanked on either side by the perfectly laced harmonies of Gina Dvorak and Erika Maassen, Falconberry begins her 1am showcase set unassumingly. Her acoustic guitar hangs awkwardly large against her small frame and light vintage dress that could have been threaded directly from an old Carter Family portrait. As she launches into "Baby Blue Sky," boots stomping time against the floor, her voice slides effortlessly within the uneasy juxtaposition of the room's mood.
Falconberry's songs pivot on the alluring paradox of her voice. Behind her low moaning drawl, an aching quiver of vulnerability lingers under the forceful need to reckon the world in narratives hung on hope and loss. Her 2006 debut EP, Paper Sailboat, sustained a longing woven into a restless determination and haunting frailty. With first LP Oh Skies of Grey, released this week on L.A. imprint 00:02:59, Falconberry stretches her songwriting and sound, retaining the elemental blues and folk core while delivering more strength and versatility with Dvorak and Maassen's melding harmonies and even moments of bruising electric guitar.
As her set brings SXSW to its conclusion, Falconberry has draped the lounge in nostalgic haze. The swell of harmonies built upon her lead vocals drowns the week's latest buzz with an authenticity that feels rooted to some deeper, timeless well. In that mysterious play between control of and acquiescence to the song, Falconberry has found an art hinged upon both a personal poignancy and universal connectedness.
Growing up in Dearborn, Mich., Falconberry, 28, trained to be a dancer, and the calculation of movement through body and soul resonates just as strongly in her music. After moving south to attend Hendrix College, a small liberal arts school in Conway, Ark., she began writing music, discovering an expression that moved beyond the restrictions of dance.
"I found that I was doing very different things with the two art forms," she offers, sitting on a bench in Hemphill Park, a couple of blocks from her apartment off Guadalupe Street. "With songwriting I would be expressing an emotion that just had to come out, and in dance it was more like I would be doing more of a study of a subject. It was more detached for me, as opposed to songwriting, which is more subconscious.
"I really don't ever feel limited by songwriting," continues Falconberry. "I am, obviously; my voice only goes so high; I'm only so proficient on the guitar. But I never feel held back by those things, whereas in dance, I'm constantly feeling held back by my body or gravity. The limitations of it are very present."
The South also sparked her imagination, giving context to her songwriting, even if unrecognized at the time. For her senior thesis in a self-designed music business major, Falconberry traveled to the Southern Delta and Ozark Mountains to compare the respective roles of blues and folk music within small communities. The influence seeped into her own work.
"I feel like I'm more influenced by landscape than anything else, so moving to the South and Arkansas, which is gorgeous, I think that's the biggest influence on any writing I ever did," she says. "And just the history of everything, of the Delta and the Ozarks and being in the middle of all that, it was just really important to me, though I don't think it was really until I moved here that maybe I was able to process how Arkansas influenced me."
Falconberry transplanted to Austin in 2005, immersing herself in the open-mic circuit. One evening at Ruta Maya, she met Red Hunter, who was just beginning to ply his wondrously strange songs throughout town.
"I thought his music was the weirdest thing I had ever heard," she laughs. "He sang some song about chicken bones and floating and black rivers or something. So I told him we had to start playing music together."
The two began performing as Peter & the Wolf, Falconberry's gentle voice providing a soft edge to Hunter's deep croon, and the duo eventually expanded to an assortment of friends and artists. On Peter & the Wolf's official debut, Lightness ("Texas Platters," Oct. 27, 2006), Falconberry's soothing harmonies lace Hunter's wandering narratives with an exquisite ethereality. Hunter returned the favor by contributing to Paper Sailboat, which featured, thanks to producer Roy Taylor, Patty Griffin playing piano on the haunting closing ballad, "Sadie."
Falconberry still takes dance classes when she can find the time, but following a year performing with the local Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company in 2006, she's turned her focus almost exclusively to music.
"I've tried to just omit [dancing] from my life before, and it's not a good idea. I just turn in to a raging bitch if I don't dance, somehow," she offers with a laugh. "Dancing is so physical that it's difficult to compare it to songwriting, which is so much more cerebral. When I'm writing, I'm alone. It's a totally solitary thing. But in choreography, you can't really do that. You have to see where this person's body – as connected with that person's body – will go next. You can't make it all up in your head first and then present it. You're working with other people, so for me, that's more exciting, but it's always more confusing."
With Oh Skies of Grey, Falconberry's songwriting has developed into a much more coordinated and collaborative effort. During the recording of the album, Taylor suggested bringing in Dvorak and Maassen to provide harmonies. The three bonded instantly, and their intertwining voices have become a bolstering force of Falconberry's songs.
"The first songs I had were songs I had done harmonies on myself, so to actually have people doing this live was great," enthuses Falconberry. "I feel like our voices just really melded, and they were really into the process and collaboration, so now I find I'm writing with them in mind. It's been a really natural and organic progression, and we've just clicked; we work really well together. They're just incredible."
It's not simply the harmonies that add new textures to Falconberry's work. Whereas Paper Sailboat provided ballast through stark acoustic arrangements and her patient, molasses-dripped delivery, Falconberry's new album floats eclectically into waves of more rock- and pop-inspired styles. "Fluorescent" and "Silver" unload a backdrop of heavy and droning electric guitars that couch her voice into a Mazzy Star haze, while "Do You" bounces with a light pop lilt.
Yet the primary appeal of Falconberry's songs still rests upon the intoxicating lull of her vocals, winding with a vintage flair that the twining waltz of three-part harmonies only accentuates. Within her voice echoes the legacy of stories long passed down in song, the simple and direct witness to time and perseverance that connects the personal with the communal, worn desperation and youthful defiance, and the anachronistic balance of past and present.
"When I'm writing, I definitely don't feel like I'm in 2008," Falconberry muses with a distracted gaze. "I feel like the period of time I'm most connected to is the Thirties. And I don't know why at all."
Dana Falconberry's CD release party takes place tonight, Thursday, Oct. 9, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 8pm.
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