Songs, Soot & Silver Linings

CanaryCoalmine

//by Jessica Pettengill

The saying goes that music runs deep, and for Jessica Pounds and Sandy Wicker, two of the musicians who make up local folk band Canary in the Coalmine, it couldn’t be more ingrained in their lives, both musically and personally.

The stars aligned for the singers five years ago in Asheville, North Carolina. Both were street performing, also known as busking, around Asheville, when they passed each other a few times. They were first drawn to each other’s voices—Pounds with her sweet and high harmonies, and Wicker with the lower but soft melodies—but soon learned their connection stretched farther back than love at first listen.

“After we talked for a while, we realized we had dated two guys who used to be roommates back in Jacksonville, and one of them was a bassist in Jessica’s band at the time,” says Wicker.

“We were basically strangers, even though we had this weirdly specific connection,” says Pounds.

“It’s amazing to connect to someone that quickly and be able to blend not only voices but writing styles and everything else.” That was only the beginning of the seemingly fateful similarities between the two Southern singers, who still find connections even now.

“We found out recently that Jessica was probably an aid for my class when I was in second grade,” says Wicker with a laugh. “We’re still learning how to tell that story.”

Pounds and Wicker grew up about ten miles away from each other in small towns—Baldwin and Macclenny, respectively—only a half-hour outside of Jacksonville. Both were raised on Southern gospel music and participated in choirs, which remains a heavy influence on their music to this day.

Even before Pounds invited Wicker to move to Jacksonville to pursue music professionally, they began writing together. Their favorite song to play is one they began writing melodies for back in Asheville, titled “Black Hole,” which Wicker wrote about her father’s drug addiction before his overdose only weeks after the song was finished.

The duo describes their sound as “eerily hopeful,” which is exemplified in not only the lyrics of their songs, but in the band’s name as well. “I had seen a documentary on coalminers on television when I was a kid and have been sitting with this name ever since,” Wicker explains. “Their was a saying that, if the canary stopped singing, that meant the gases were too toxic and everyone needed to evacuate the mine. It’s such beautiful symbolism.”

“It’s either completely morbid or eerily hopeful, depending on how you look at it,” says Pounds. “There are a lot of dark themes in our music, but we want to have silver linings beneath everything.”

When the singers began building their band in Jacksonville, the other four musicians fell into place easily. The band is now comprised of an eclectic group with talents that range farther than what audiences might see on stage. Arvid Smith, was the first to join the band and plays dobro, mellobar, mandolin and guitar. Then came Philip Pan, a violinist who attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music and is Concertmaster of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Next was Peter Mosely, who plays upright bass and sneaks in with backup vocals. Mosely is a veteran of local bands—a former member of Jacksonville punk band Inspection 12 and bassist and writer for Yellowcard in the early 2000s—and acts as pianist and bassist for Canary. Last on board was drummer Eric Bailey, the youngest and newest member. The group is currently looking to add a seventh member, as an additional stand-up bassist.

Pounds and Wicker say that their intimidation of the others’ prowess soon gave way to collaboration. “Sometimes we bicker over little things,” says Wicker. “But we record all of our practices, and when I listen to them and hear myself yell at Arvid for doing some Hendrix guitar playing while we’re talking, I remember what’s important: putting all of our energy into our music, our real job.”

This month is the second anniversary of the release of the band’s EP, and their first full-length album is nearly ready. The still-untitled album was cut and recorded over the past year at New Orleans’ Parlor Studios. While waiting for finalization of the album, the band has been hard at work, touring and performing across the state.

Canary in the Coalmine will perform at Jacksonville Magazine's Whiskey Affair on November 20.