Watching Little Mazarn perform is almost voyeuristic, as if witnessing an intimate dance or eavesdropping on a hushed, private conversation. Their music doesn't so much demand deep attention as inspire it.
At the release show for the duo's debut LP earlier this month, silence swept through the Cactus Cafe. Lindsey Verrill poised herself center stage with eyes closed and voice drifting patiently against her softly plucked banjo. Jeff Johnston followed each movement carefully from her right, looking shamanistic in a long white beard and shading each musical turn with the bend of his saw. The two move in their own space, a repose of quiet epiphanies floating in calm contemplation.
"I would say in those moments, you're not even really with the audience," offers Verrill. "There's a certain amount of improvisation, and you're exploring in some different places."
"People are drawn to that empty space and they pay attention," adds Johnston. "I like the quiet, and the space, and Lindsey's voice is so pure and honest it just draws you in. She creates that feeling that makes you want to hear what she's saying."
That sense of space suffuses Little Mazarn's music. The restless wandering of Verrill's twanged, languid phrasing and meditative pull of Johnston's careful accompaniment open up a lingering expanse. The songs temper haunted ephemerality, a spectral Americana that simultaneously summons deep Appalachian valleys and desert plains.
Verrill always connected with unique spaces. When the Dallas native moved to Austin in 2006, she helped start the Annie Street Arts Collective, an informal cadre of artists that staged hushed house concerts and secret shows in unlikely places. Playing in bands including Some Say Leland and the McMercy Family Band, Verrill and her co-conspirators gathered in cemeteries, underground drainage systems, and abandoned buildings, playing to the situational acoustics of locales as much as reverential fans.
"Our intention was, really, that we played this weird, quiet music that had a lot of nuance, and we had nowhere to play," she recalls of the shows. "We were all pretty uncompromising about our sound, not wanting to play amplified or play over people talking, but we were also young and didn't have any influence and couldn't get gigs. So it really grew out of our desire to not compromise with our music.
"The audience's response to that was really that they didn't want to compromise their listening experience, either."
Largely self-taught on cello and upright bass before studying music at the University of North Texas in Denton, Verrill became a key component across a number of indie bands in Austin, but not until 2015 did she begin performing her own material seriously. Little Mazarn's eponymous debut EP, released in late 2017, mesmerized behind Verrill's wounded, poignant, and vivid narratives, emerging songs with both an untethered timelessness and visceral, personal pull.
The duo's first long-player, Io, evolves Little Mazarn's sound further. Recording with Britton Beisenherz at Ramble Creek Studios on Slaughter Lane, Verrill and Johnston recruited fellow musical wanderers Thor Harris, Ralph White, and Will Johnson to contribute. The result maintains Little Mazarn's sparse and minimalist aesthetic yet provokes with a menagerie of subtle sounds and layers.
The songs anchor around strong hooks, like the wistful refrain of "You can't stay everywhere you leave a piece of your heart" on "Vermont," while allowing room for the tunes to exhale organically. Opening track "Peace Like a River" rings both harrowingly heartbroken and gorgeously reflective, a dichotomy within which Verrill and Johnston thrive.
That tension shines brilliantly on the duo's transformation of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," ripping the song down to its desperate studs as the banjo and saw twine in a lonely, haunted longing. The moment perfectly captures Little Mazarn's uncanny balance of the familiar with the utterly otherworldly.
Verrill exudes greater confidence across Io – whose title takes its inspiration from the moth of the same name, pronounced "eye-oh" (revisit "Track Premiere: Little Mazarn's 'Vermont,'" April 29) – and moves beyond Little Mazarn's off-kilter Americana to showcase the songwriter as an impressive stylist. Whereas just last year Verrill acknowledged the struggle and growth in stepping out front and sharing her music (see "SXSW Picks 2 Click," March 9, 2018), now she speaks with a clearer sense of purpose and vision. And at its core, Little Mazarn hinges on the interplay between Verrill and Johnston.
"With this album, I really felt empowered," says Verrill. "I started this project with the intention to break orbit with being a side person, and I feel like I've become different. I've become myself to the extent that Little Mazarn isn't just me anymore. It's us and has its own identity that isn't just me trying to be something. It's very much a mutual force."
Little Mazarn returns from tour to the Hard Luck Lounge on Wednesday, June 19, with Wood & Wire frontman Tony Kamel supporting.
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