Nineteen Hand Horse: Cowboy music from the wild, wild East (Bay)

The musicians in Nineteen Hand Horse all have impressive resumes. Lead singer and main songwriter Nathalie Archangel earned a platinum record for “All of a Sudden,” a song Bette Midler recorded on her Some People’s Lives album. Lead guitarist Mark Montijo grew up on a horse ranch and, in his youth, opened a show for Duran Duran with his band Dogs on Fire. Keyboard player James Early produced MC Hammer’s multi-platinum breakthrough, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’em. The rest of the band and the guest musicians also have extensive resumés. They came together a few years ago to play country music and record Revel, their debut album.

The music on the record is country, played with the understated polish that made country music so exciting before it moved closer to the mainstream in the ’80s. Archangel’s lead vocals flow between plainspoken elegance and soulful grit, while her lyrics reference a range of sources from Dylan Thomas to Marty Robbins. The record opens with “Just Another Honky Tonk Night,” a slow ballad with Montijo’s twang-heavy guitar supporting a vocal by Archangel describing the dreams of fame and fortune that are fading in the neon barroom light of another one-night stand. “Fete Ginette” is a shuffle with a Cajun rhythm, goosed along by Kevin Gallagher’s pedal steel and drummer Lowell Stephenson’s inventive brushwork on the snare. 

“‘Revel’ encapsulates the idea of the record, and the band,” Archangel said. “It expresses the feelings of a group that doesn’t get enough of a voice; older folks. It’s full of observations on the joys and uncertainties of getting older. The word’s similar to rebel, but what good would rebelling against aging do? I thought, we’re all older, why not revel in that? I snuck in a quote from Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel,’ to give a nod to the musical and cultural references we stick into the songs.

“Before this band, I wrote quirky pop songs. When I decided to write country music, I had to open up. ‘Mother Blues’ and David Allen Coe’s ‘You Never Even Call Me by My Name’ were touchstones. There’s an arch, winking quality in them that appeals to me. It’s a genre that allowed men to show their feelings, to cry and not be made to feel unmanly for expressing emotion.”

Archangel and her husband, Mark Montijo, were scratching out a living as musicians when they met, years ago, in L.A. “I saw friends approaching 40 and still not making a living,” she said. “We played music a bit, and I wrote songs—then suddenly the stars aligned. We started playing as a duo and put a band together. Why it took so many years, I’ll never know.”

“We started the first iteration around 2009. Mark grew up on a horse ranch and we wanted a title for the band that referenced his past. A 19-hand horse is a huge freaking animal.” 

“The work on the record started in 2018 and finished during the lockdown. Our second guitarist, Brad Sears, has a recording studio, but it came together slowly. Everyone has other commitments. Mark and I worked in a hospital during the pandemic. During the last part of the recording, we were masked, but for most of it we played together in person. I wanted it to be like a Sun Records session, everyone live in the studio. Some of the songs are the first and only take. After 2019, when things went viral in the worst possible way, we sent in parts to add to the basic tracks. It was good, in the sense that we had time to think about what we wanted and invite in folks to play fiddle and steel guitar.”With the pandemic winding down, the band is ready to perform live again. “We live in Clayton and love playing the Clayton Club Saloon,” Archangel said. “It’s been around since 1874. There’s a real hitching post out back. We’ll be doing a residency at Toot’s Tavern in Crockett the last Sunday of every month. We’re also taping a variety show for our YouTube channel called Horsing Around @ The Songbird Lounge. Think Hee Haw meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse … in David Lynch’s neighborhood. I’m hoping viewers will tune in and think, ‘Boy, that show is weird and twisted, but they look like such nice people.’”

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