The Gentle Ascent of Tall Heights
Street musicians aren’t known for their subtlety. To catch the attention of an indifferent, sometimes hostile, and endless stream of passers-by, performers are apt to take aggressive action against overturned buckets or, say, spice up a bagpipe act by adding a unicycle. Rarely do they have much success performing sensitive original numbers on acoustic instruments—but that is exactly how Tall Heights, a singer-songwriter duo from Somerville, cultivated a following and ended up onstage.
Guitarist Tim Harrington and cellist Paul Wright staked their claim on the tourist-swarmed streets of Faneuil Hall in the summer of 2010. As they honed arrangements and tested new material, they also perfected the elusive art of captivating an audience.
“I think in a way we try to create this smaller space within the larger bustle of the city,” says Harrington. “By just doing what we do … we were able to sift through all the people and find the ones who were really craving that sort of intimate space within the city.”
What they do isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it does stand out. Wright wears his cello strapped to his body so that he can stand up while playing, and together he and Harrington deliver shivery two-part harmonies atop the fragile interplay of many strings.
The duo will perform at Club Passim on May 10 in anticipation of their debut release, “Man of Stone.” The album is named for the title track, an eerie piece of music grounded in the propulsive plunk of plucked cello.
“’Man of Stone’ is about the artist’s place in our world, our society,” Wright explains. “And so that theme of finding one’s place ties a lot of the tracks together as well. That track specifically, we were thinking about cavemen, throwing up art on the walls of their caves and why that happened, what that meant.”
In fact, “Man of Stone” emerged from a cave of sorts—Harrington’s Somerville apartment, to be precise. Like the band’s two self-produced EPs, the album was the painstaking result of a kind of self-imposed exile within the city itself.
“This is what happens when you’re not paying for studio time,” remarks Harrington. “When we’re in the studio we don’t feel the clock ticking like you do when you’re bleeding money in a professional studio.”
This process is evident in the final product, which jettisons the necessary minimalism of the duo’s live shows in favor of rich, seemingly bottomless layers of sound.
At the same time, “Man of Stone” retains the eagerness and passion that characterizes the band’s performances. Harrington and Wright are young and charismatic, and they sing with an unabashed abandon that feels, at times, shockingly intimate. Their lyrics juxtapose heartfelt sentiment against New England’s raw natural imagery: oak leaves, frost, and the chilly ocean.
This may seem strange considering the album’s urban origins, but it all adds up to expansiveness in the face of limitations. With just two voices, two instruments, and some recording equipment, Tall Heights prove it’s possible to escape without ever leaving town.
Amelia Mason is a writer and musician living in Cambridge. Those pesky “day jobs” she has to “make money” really aren’t worth mentioning. Naturally, she also has a blog: blog.ameliamason.com
Previously: Tall Heights joined Radio Boston in studio in August 2012.