Wild Child comes of age

Photo by Shelley Hiam

Off a quiet road just outside Wimberley, the Wilson homestead opens up like a hidden oasis. Trees flank the driveway as an array of antiques and familiar Texas Hill Country treasures crop haphazardly about the yard.

Kelsey Wilson sits at a picnic table on the back deck of her father's house, the Wild Child violinist watching the family dog splash in the Blanco River down below as she waits for the other half of the band's songwriting and vocal duo, Alexander Beggins, to arrive. Her fiancé Bobby Fitzgerald, best known as the howling frontman and fiddler for local stringers Whiskey Shivers, attempts to call the dog back up the steep staircase leading to the water.

"His bow is the fastest thing in the entire world, but my fingers are way faster," she laughs of Fitzgerald's talent. "He's a fiddle player, and I'm a violin player."

This outpost provides an idyllic songwriting escape for Wilson and Beggins, refuge from their usual South Austin stomping grounds. Many of the songs for Wild Child's recently released sophomore LP, The Runaround, were composed along the shores of the Blanco, the twentysomething duo hashing out youthful daydreams and jaded realities into infectious, bittersweet folk-pop anthems.

Wild Child's quick rise in popularity took even the band by surprise. Before the release of their 2011 debut, Pillow Talk, the Austin sextet had already earned a fervent following behind the intimate charm of their live shows and a distinct style of roots music aligning them with the local scene while also setting them apart. Their music likewise swept across the Internet, continually topping Hype Machine, an influential aggregator that registers the most shared songs among music blogs.

"People started getting married to 'Darling Divine,' and we'd find YouTube videos of people covering 'Silly Things,'" marvels Wilson. "It was just crazy."

In March at the Austin Music Awards, Wild Child took home honors for both Best Folk and Best Indie Band.

With high expectations for their second act, the band wanted to provide a professional polish to their sound without losing any DIY legitimacy, so they found a like-minded ally in Ben Kweller. Raising over $40,000 from Kickstarter in support of the new album, the group teamed with Kweller as producer, and became the first artist signed to his label, the Noise Company.

The Tale of You and Me

Beggins, 25, emerges from the house with a lanky stride. In many ways, he and Wilson, 23, are an unlikely musical pairing.

She, home-schooled and third among seven siblings, trained on classical violin from an early age, learned guitar as a teenager from neighbor Ray Wylie Hubbard, and spent nearly two of her high school years abroad in Barcelona studying and teaching violin. Upon returning home she discovered bluegrass, and new possibilities opened up for her instrument, which could suddenly be found in Austin clubs with everyone from rappers to rockabilly bands.

For his part, Beggins grew up in Houston amid a houseful of instruments that he taught himself to play. He moved to Austin to attend UT and kicked through a number of college bands before he and Wilson were brought together as part of the U.S. touring band for Danish psych-folker the Migrant.

"He brought one of these with him, because it was small and portable," says Wilson, nodding to Beggins' ukulele on the table. "We just started jamming in the backseat, writing tunes together. We'd never written music with anyone before."

"I don't think a lot of bands start that way," adds Beggins. "It was really just about us writing songs because we were having a good time and we had no intentions with them."

"We were also both going through our first big breakups and finding out a lot about ourselves, a lot about how angry and jealous and selfish and unhappy you could really be," chimes in Wilson. "But we're both not very good at being upset, so that put a weird spin on the songs."

The pair returned from the tour with 10 songs that encapsulated the ambivalent turmoil of youthful romance. Sparse, uke-based ballads caressed in the vocal interplay between Beggins and Wilson came bitten with a disillusioned edge of heartbreak. Recorded at a makeshift studio in a rented East Austin house, Pillow Talk reeled in both the poignant and eclectically playful.

"No one really knew what we were doing with Pillow Talk," laughs Wilson. "We didn't have a kick drum, so we slammed pillows up against the couch cushions for that noise, shook a bottle of Ambien for the shaker, match strikes for scratches. We just got to play with stuff because there was no one there telling us that's not allowed, or that we're not supposed to do that.

"When we first started playing together, it was just the two of us, and people thought it was the cutest thing in the world and that we were absolutely in love because we'd just stare at each other," she continues. "But it was really because we were so nervous, just big smiles because we were terrified!"

Here Now

Following the success of Pillow Talk with sold-out tours, performances at SXSW, ACL, and on Last Call With Carson Daly, labels and agencies began courting the group. Kweller's Noise Company offered something different: being the sole focus of the boutique local imprint's efforts and the expertise of an artist who himself made a successful career of transgressing genres with a decidedly DIY ethic.

"The thing that I love the most is that they're unique and authentic," offers Kweller of the band. "The chemistry between Alexander and Kelsey, and their songwriting, is just really special. They're the whole package. There's the pop element, but also this cool, kind of hip-hop element to Wild Child that I really love. We would joke, 'What the hell kind of music is this?!' And we came up with a new genre. We called it 'aloha' – ukulele and hip-hop beats!"

While the studio capabilities push Wild Child into new, bigger dimensions on The Runaround, most notably with the slinky beats of "Rillo Talk" that seem to consciously riff on and re-orient the band's debut, the underlying vibe remains the same through songs like "Victim to Charm" and "Coming Home." Wilson's powerful vocals and virtuosic violin take more prominence as Beggins' coy uke and harmonies play perfect foil, padded by the calculated arrangements of cello, banjo, and keys.

It's a unique sound and sensibility that carves a pop niche into Austin's contemporary roots scene, with Wilson adding a feminine juxtaposition to the boys' clubs of Wild Child's peers like Whiskey Shivers, Hello Wheels, the Marmalakes, and Shakey Graves.

"I think we're a little bit closer to the commercial side of things," muses Wilson. "The Whiskey Shivers have the rowdy bluegrass hoedown scene down, and Shakey Graves has the cool twangy, make-you-want-to-chug-whiskey-with-a-gun-on-your-front-porch kind of music. We're like the poppy side of that."

"It's almost like high school with different grades," laughs Beggins.

"In that case," counters Wilson, "we're just the cool sophomores that get to hang with the juniors and seniors."

Wild Child plays Fun Fun Fun Fest Sunday, Nov. 10, 6:25pm on the Yellow stage, sandwiched between Sarah Silverman and Daniel Johnston.

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Wild Child, Alexander Beggins, Ben Kweller, Bobby Fitzgerald, Whiskey Shivers, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shakey Graves, Float Fest 2017 Performer

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