Sister Act

Willow Willow spins the sweetest two-part folk harmonies you'll ever hear.

Willow Willow, why do you bend so slowly? — Arthur Lee

“We just suddenly decided like a week ago to really make music a priority in our lives,” admits the waify and wistful Miranda Zeiger, one-half of the East Bay folk duo Willow Willow. “Everything has fallen into place for us so easily that we just took it for granted and didn’t pursue anything ourselves.”

Indeed, Zeiger and her lifelong singing partner, Jessica Vohs, can sing heavenly harmonies so fluidly and effortlessly that they sometimes forget a God-given talent still needs nurturing. But to a certain extent, maybe it doesn’t. When you see these two hip young women take the stage and coyly smile at each other with nothing between them but an acoustic guitar, you just know that they’re about to do something to you. But you really have no idea until that first harmony hits the air and it sounds like life. You wonder if they’ve been doing this for as long as they’ve lived, and then you know that they have, because between lulls and pauses in their songs the room is crisp with the silence of awe.

Upon first impression, you’d think they were sisters. Not that they look a lot alike, but Zeiger and Vohs interact as though they’ve known each other their entire lives. And they have — they’re East Bay natives who met each other on the first day of kindergarten at Cornell Elementary School in Albany more than two decades ago.

That’s where Willow Willow’s supernatural connection first began — as small children, they started singing together. “Harmonies came really naturally to us,” Vohs recalls. “One of the first little songs we wrote had no words, but just a bunch of ‘la la las’ that we harmonized on.”

Actual lyrics followed soon after. “Just on the way over here, Miranda was singing the first song she ever wrote,” Vohs continues. “How old were you? Like, five? She was five, and it was called ‘The Unicorn Horn.’ And then I wrote a song about chocolate chip cookies when I was eight.”

Zeiger smiles slyly. “You’re right. That song was about a unicorn that lost his horn.”

Although not sisters by blood, Willow Willow’s close harmonies often birth that magical third voice — common to close siblings — that appears when two voices braid together, like the mythological semihuman sirens who lured mariners to destruction with the bewitching sweetness of their singing. Needless to say, the dulcet duo’s hypnotic harmonies, spellbinding songs, and straight-up foxy good looks have garnered quite a bit of local attention.

Also needless to say, this is not always easy to accomplish as a folk act –you have to win over a niche crowd of Mojo magazine-obsessed music snobs (or “enthusiasts,” as they call themselves). You also have to catch the fleeting attention of the majority of concert-going postadolescents, who want to gear up, go out, get drunk, and prattle on over electrically amplified music, if they’re not busy smoking on the patio or standing center stage, immobile, with their arms crossed. With six strings and two voices, Willow Willow’s performances command the kind of silent attention and respect people used to give Elliott Smith. And the audiences seem to understand; it’s as if they know some kind of wonderful rebirth is among us.

Luckily for those of us who live for the song, the Bay Area is enjoying a healthy and hip little folk revival right now. Oakland’s Moore Brothers are actual brothers who sing sibling harmonies like the Everlys by way of Guided by Voices. Michael Talbott and his band the Wolfkings can at times channel a Fairport Convention-era Ian Matthews. The Court and Spark covers songs by John Martyn and Fred Neil — plus the band is about to release an album featuring a guest spot from Linda Thompson. And Joanna Newsom, whose Drag City solo debut just came out, plays a harp almost as beautifully as John Fahey played a guitar, while her soulful croons have garnered many comparisons to Karen Dalton.

More proof: Devendra Banhart has moved back to the bay from New York City and is about to unearth a CD that includes an outstanding vocal performance by renowned English folk heroine Vashti Bunyan — plus Barnhart picks out acoustic arpeggios that would make John Renbourn cry. Berkeley’s Hope Sandoval actually got Bert Jansch to play guitar on her solo debut. The Britfolk-influenced Winter Flowers (who’ve relocated to Los Angeles) continue to perform in the same San Francisco and East Bay venues where they cut their teeth. SF folkies Lionheart Mirth’s beautiful songs have got people talking. The trio Vetiver blends lush string arrangements with delicate indie-folk hybrids. And Oakland’s Antenna Farm Records boasts a roster that includes the French folk-pop musings of Hélène Renaut (her band is called Beam) as well as Bart Davenport, a prodigious jack-of-all-trades whose solo acoustic performances dabble in both American and British folk.

But although they represent an integral part of this budding/blooming acoustic scene, the Willow Willow girls are hardly scenesters. “I’m not as in touch with local music as I’d like to be,” Zeiger says. “I guess I’m just ignorant to anything outside my friends, but I think we’re very lucky to know the talented musicians that we know. There are so many here. I love the Moore Brothers, the Winter Flowers. We just saw Michael Talbott for the first time, and that was very pleasant for us. Joanna Newsom is really one of the most amazing musicians I’ve seen ever — really brilliant.”

Whereas many of its contemporaries glommed on to folk after experimenting with various other genres, Willow Willow are non-neophyte anomalies — raised on folk from day one, which has only helped hone their harmonies.

“My parents just had Peter, Paul & Mary records and some other folk records,” Vohs explains between sips of sangria. “But Miranda’s dad gave us a Silly Sisters album with June Tabor [a renowned British folksinger] and Maddy Prior [the chanteuse from Steeleye Span], and as soon as we heard it we started learning those harmonies and it just came very naturally.”

Still, they’re always expanding their repertoire and seeking out new influences. “One day these two girls came in with a slip of paper, saying a friend had told them to get Mellow Candle and Vashti Bunyan,” explains Paul Bradshaw, shopkeep for Berkeley’s Mod Lang Records. “I talked to them for a bit, and they told me they were Willow Willow. So I asked them if they wanted to play in the shop, as Bart [Davenport] was doing an in-store in a couple of weeks. When they played I just thought they had a charm and innocence that reminded me of Sallyangie and Bridget Saint John. Their harmonizing is unreal — quite magical — and they didn’t seem to realize how special it was. They gave me a CDR of a bunch of their songs and I really liked it. I was walking in Tilden and I couldn’t get their song ‘Fall in Awe’ out of my head! So I said ‘Let’s make a record,’ and they said yes.”

In addition to his amazingly stocked record shop, Bradshaw also runs a small indie label by the same name. Adding Willow Willow to his growing roster (including Devendra Banhart, Chris von Sneidern, and John Wesley Harding) represents a perfect marriage of the minds — Bradshaw is a Britfolk aficionado too.

“We signed a contract with Mod Lang for a seven-inch and a CD to follow,” Vohs explains. “So we still have a lot to do. We have to record the full-length, and we don’t know any details about that because we want to have accompaniment that we haven’t found yet — a little acoustic and a little electric. But we do want to stick with fairly simple arrangements.”

It shouldn’t be too difficult for the duo to find the accompanying musicians needed for their debut long-player — plenty of talented folk-rockers abound these days. Perhaps the Bay Area’s recent organic return to the roots of the song will prove that quiet is indeed the new loud.

Previous articleWaiting for the Bus
Next articleLe Chef du PBS
Support the East Bay Express, local news, donate

Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

broken clouds
49.3 ° F
52 °
46 °
76 %
75 %
66 °
61 °
64 °
63 °
59 °