Cooma folk duo Cielle Montgomery and James Church have been making sweet music since they met at a live-in intensive before the Tamworth County Music Festival six years ago.
Performing as Montgomery Church, the pair have just released their second album, Where The Quiet Can Hide, but like artists everywhere at present, are unable to tour.
After wowing audiences at the Easter Good Folk event in Queanbeyan staged by the National Folk Festival, they were excited about taking their new songs on the road to promote the album, including a gig at the Street Theatre in Canberra in September.
That’s now been postponed until February, along with a bunch of other dates.
But the silver lining is that being holed up in their stone cottage outside of town will probably mean more songwriting.
“I’d say we’ll probably start writing again soon just out of the need to do something creative and fresh,” says James.
That’s good news for those who love their timeless blend of folk, country, bluegrass and that broad label known as Americana.
Think Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlins, just one of their influences, but let’s call it the Snowy Mountains sound because their beautiful melodies, perfect harmonies and fine instrumental playing are all theirs.
A defining element is James’s evocative dobro or slide guitar playing, a sound he was hooked on the first time he heard it as a 16-year-old.
“Once I picked one up and played it that was it. I’m going to play it for the rest of my life,” he says.
“It’s a vocal instrument – you move the notes around the same as a vocal. It makes it easy to respond to Cielle’s vocal – it’s complementary and sits alongside.”
The pair made an instant musical connection when they met, discovering they had the same tastes and afterwards swapped music for a while before getting together permanently.
James grew up on a property outside Bathurst and Cielle outside Cooma where her parents still live. Cielle moved back to the Snowy in 2015 and James followed.
By the time Tamworth rolled around again in 2016 they were an act and performed their first gigs there.
They’ve played at venues and festivals across Australia including the National in Canberra, collecting some Golden Guitar nominations along the way and finding time to start a family.
Their parents were country music fans, particularly of John Williamson, and while their music is a much broader brush, their songs are in the time-honoured tradition of storytelling and the land.
Family, wounded relationships, small-town life, the rural landscape – subjects full of characters brought to life in finely wrought songs.
“That’s what naturally comes to us,” says James.
“Songwriting has always been inspired by the people that we love (to listen to). They’re almost writing these timeless stories about characters from history, or could be.
“We find it the best format to explore the human condition and try to make sense of things.”
On the new album, they have also tapped into the deep well of local history with a song about the post-war Snowy Mountains scheme called The Great Divide.
Their songwriting is a complementary interwoven process, bits of songs assessed by the fresh ear of each other before going on to completion or being dropped altogether.
“And most of the time when Cielle says to me that’s not working or I’m not fussed on that, in my head I go ‘I probably knew that’,” said James.
They have different approaches – James being more scheduled while Cielle is more inspired, where James says some of her best work happens.
This album also introduces a more expanded sound than just the two of them with fiddle, mandolin, double bass, percussion and a gorgeous cello adding to the guitar and dobro.
It was a conscious decision and something they are keen to do more in their live shows.
“We’ve only had a couple of chances to do that but enough to know that that’s the way we want to present our music,” said James.
“We’re looking forward to doing that a lot more in the future.
“I still love playing just with Cielle but apart from it being really nice to mix things up and have things fresh, it’s really nice to share musical moments with other musicians and experiences with them.”
COVID also defined how the album was made, with Grammy-nominated producer Erick Jaskowiak, formerly of Nashville, cut off in Victoria, and James and Cielle laying down the core tracks in a converted room of their home and farming out the other parts remotely – one of the benefits of the digital age.
That included award-winning US fiddle player Michael Cleveland.
“We wanted someone exceptional and likely from the States to play fiddle for us on a lot of these songs,” said James.
“If you have a contact like Erick, who knew a lot of these people, you can have your pick. They were locked down and wanting the work. We had a tough time choosing who we wanted.”
The other Australian-based players were friends or came recommended.
Recording at home has its advantages in lower costs and convenience, but there is also the risk of overdoing things when you are not buying studio time, something they were keen to avoid.
James said their goal was to do the best job they could at representing this style of music in Australia and get it to as many people who will get something out of it as they could.
“We wanted to create something that did justice to what we aspire to in the sense of song writing and playing,” he said.
Does the big smoke beckon?
It’s something they’ve talked about off and on but with a young son and family nearby for support, it has become less likely.
Besides, Australia is a big country and “you’ve got to get on the road no matter where you are coming from”.
And temperamentally, where they are suits both them and their music. “We’re not especially social or outgoing people,” said James.
That’s a win for the region, where you should be able to catch their music live when COVID recedes, at festivals and venues in the mountains, on the coast or in Canberra. And hopefully at the National Folk Festival at Easter.
The album is available on disc or by download from their website.