Willow Willow has been captivating audiences for the past few years with a single acoustic guitar and two angelic voices delivering astounding harmonies. On stage, the duo laughs and jokes around like the best friends they are, but when they sing, their voices entwine, spinning an ethereal web that snares listeners in its beauty. Willow Willow — singer-guitarist-songwriter Miranda Zeiger and singer Jessica Vohs — are one of the best acts playing the Bay Area's varied folk scene. Therein lies the rub. "We sing pop music," Zeiger says. "The freak-folk bands and the punks and rockers get attention, but people don't seem to want straightforward pop. They want stuff to be weird and ironic, and we're not."
Which isn't to say Willow Willow isn't unique. Zeiger's songs have a bright pop surface, but British and American folk, '70s rock, and the flavors of Brazil swim through the mix, producing their own singular sound. "The Brazilian thing is unconscious," Zeiger explains. "I'm not going bossa nova, but I love jazzy Latin chords. I learned guitar from a [Antonio Carlos] Jobim songbook."
On their eponymous debut for the local Mod Lang label, Willow Willow spins out ten tunes with that classic "Where have I heard that before?" aura. "Follow the Spring" sounds like Bacharach-David on a bossa nova kick with its romantic lyrics and lush production. "Lovely Hours" brings to mind a traditional British step dance with bright acoustic guitars and lilting harpsichord, while "Fall in Awe" has a jazzy, Pentangle-like feel.
Zeiger and Vohs met in kindergarten in Albany and became best friends, making up songs in grammar school and singing together in the choir at Albany High. From the start, they had a natural talent for close harmonies, with Vohs singing the lower parts and Zeiger handling the high end. "We're still best friends, even though it sounds silly for 30-year-old women to consider each other best friends," Vohs says. "We're very much like sisters; it may be a past life thing, but who really knows?"
Zeiger's dad was a blues guitarist and songwriter. He bought her a guitar and taught her the basics and she took it from there. In high school, Vohs and Zeiger become enamored with The Silly Sisters, the duet album by British folk superstars Maddy Prior and June Tabor. The a cappella ballads they learned from the album still turn up in their shows every so often. A few years ago, when they started performing as Willow Willow (the name is taken from a song by Arthur Lee's band Love), their charm, good looks, and amazing harmonies wowed audiences and other musicians, who often asked the Willows to open shows for them. "We never tried to score gigs," Vohs recalls. "We had a strong word-of-mouth buzz and people called us up wanting to book us." The band quickly built a following and was one of the highlights of the Strictly Hardly Bluegrass Festival in 2005.
When the duo went crate-diving at El Cerrito's Mod Lang Records, store owner Paul Bradshare invited them to open an in-store show for local songwriter Bart Davenport, and later signed them to the store's label. Since, they've been playing as many gigs as possible, while still holding down day jobs. "Make that night jobs," Zeiger corrects. "We work in restaurants, but believe we can be full-time musicians. It's frustrating, 'cause we're making it up as we go along."
The duo's sound is likely to evolve — Zeiger said she is learning piano, while Vohs wants to pick up an instrument or two. "Since we're both good at accents, and we do have that Brazilian thing going, maybe we should learn Portuguese and go down and play in Brazil for a while," says Zeiger.
In the meantime, the Willows kick off a mini West Cast tour — their first gigs outside the Bay Area — when they play the Starry Plough this week. Joining them are the musicians that played on their album, including percussionist Paul Burkhart and bassist Josh Miller. "We want to polish our sound," Zeiger says. "Some bands just throw on a T-shirt and hit the stage. We don't embrace the indie mentality. We want to sound as tight as we can and look good; we don't care about being cool."
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