In Conversation with Mouths of Babes

Mouths of Babes is an Americana folk duo made up of Ingrid Elizabeth (formerly of Coyote Grace) and Tylan Greenstein (formerly of Girlyman). Their recordings and live appearances have won passionate praise from across the continent. they’re currently working on their first full-length album, Brighter in the Dark, due for release early next year and from which they’ve just released the single “Lock & Key”. Recently the two took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about their backgrounds, the new album, and their advice to women entering music.

Describe your musical background. What role did music play in your childhood?
INGRID ELIZABETH: I grew up singing in choirs and performing in musical theater. I’m a completely self-taught instrumentalist (upright bass, ukulele, percussion, and harmonica). In fact, I didn’t play any musical instruments until I was an adult (aside from a short stint in the middle-school band’s trombone section), but music has always been my lifeblood. From a very young age, I was obsessed with listening to music, memorizing the words, and even choreographing dance moves in my living room. All those things still hold true today!

TY GREENSTEIN: My dad taught me the basics of folk guitar when I was about ten and made me tapes of harmony groups like The Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, which is how I learned to sing harmony. Listening to those tapes, I became obsessed with harmony and with songwriting? with this idea of expressing something using words and music at the same time.

Much of my actual musical training happened while I was in high school; I studied classical guitar and sang in a choir that competed nationally, so I learned to read music pretty well. And during my summers while other kids were partying I went to the
National Guitar Workshop in Connecticut and took classes in jazz, rock, and fingerstyle guitar, as well as music theory and performance. I guess I always knew that music would be really important in my life.

What or who in your musical training had the most?and best?influence on you, as a musician, a composer, and a human being?
INGRID ELIZABETH: Honestly, my biggest teacher was the soundtrack to the Broadway musical play Dreamgirls, which was written by my great-uncle, Tom Eyen. Since I didn’t have much of any classical training, I looked up to larger-than-life vocal divas like Jennifer Holliday (Effie) and the soul-infused grooves of Motown music. And the message of the musical centers around the importance of honesty, fairness, hard
work, loyalty, and most of all? family. These are the cornerstone morals I come back to again and again, not only in my writing but in my daily life.

TY GREENSTEIN: Well, my dad was a big influence? he’s a multi-instrumentalist and has always played in a lot of different bands. I grew up listening to him play bluegrass
in bars. But it was really when I was in my early teenage years that I started to become obsessed with songs and with vocal harmony. I worshiped the great songwriters?Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, John Phillips?and took apart every little thing they did, both lyrically and musically.

I read that Ty’s dad sang and played bass in the Chad Mitchell Trio, a group holding a prominent place in my collection of albums by sixties folk trios. During adolescence did you ever think that that music was hokey and passé?
TY GREENSTEIN: Well, I’m sure I wasn’t exactly considered cool for listening to 60’s folk groups in high school, but I never really cared much about that! Of course listening now a lot of that music sounds dated, but it also has a timeless quality. And my dad always taught me to respect it and to see the musicality and sophistication in it. In the end studying all those intricate harmonies helped me when I started forming harmony groups of my own, and I had more tools in my toolkit than just the latest vocal stylings!

If you had to give your music a genre, what would you call it?
INGRID ELIZABETH: Soulful Americana Folk!

What’s the story behind your album’s title track, “Brighter in the Dark?”
TY GREENSTEIN: I wrote that song about my friend Heather, who I got to know because she often volunteered to sell CDs at my last band’s (Girlyman) shows. She was a poet, a musician, and an artist with a huge heart, and she struggled for years and years with chronic illness. Sometimes she was OK, and sometimes not. Over the years it broke her down physically and psychologically. And then a couple years ago I found out she’d taken her own life. I was devastated. The song was written directly to her, as a way of acknowledging her pain and struggle, her brightness and her lack of options. It was a way of fully seeing her. I think fully seeing a person is a way of loving them. So you could call this a love song.

What do you love best about the whole album, so far?
INGRID ELIZABETH: It’s been pretty exhilarating to have new kinds of instruments and artistic collaborations on this album. I’m particularly loving the presence of the pedal steel, hammond organ, and string sections. Being a self-produced labor of love, we got to hand-select our “dream team” of musicians for this album. There was a ton of collaboration, which was scary at times, putting the artistic control in someone else’s hands. But the risk was totally worth it! Everyone involved brought their best work and their own flavor to the mix, which helped to make the music feel so much bigger than just the two of us.

TY GREENSTEIN: I’m really thrilled with how the arrangements came out? how sweeping and full they are. When we first started this project we were working with an outside producer, and it didn’t work out, so we had to start over. Self-producing was a scary choice, but in the end I’m so glad we trusted ourselves and our vision for the album. I’m so grateful for all the musicians and knob-turners who brought their talents to the table and helped us to create this sonic landscape. There are so many little moments where the strings or the guitar or the vocal layering really brought a song to life in exactly the way we had hoped? that makes it all worth it.

How easy is it for a woman to break into the music industry?and stay there?these days? What advice do you have for other female musicians?
TY GREENSTEIN: It’s not easy for anyone to break in, but It’s absolutely harder for women. It’s harder for us because we’re two women, no question. If we were two guys, we’d just be another band, judged on our talents. But because we’re two women, we’re automatically seen as “women’s music,” or we’re sexualized, or we’re somehow niche. How can we be “niche” when women are 51% of the population? That’s ridiculous and I truly hope that the next generation obliterates that kind of thinking. I hope that one day female musicians will be judged by their merits alone.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.

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