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Sugar Candy Mountain: Bright songs from the heart of darkness

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DUET ‘The music, and our relationship, grew,’ Reiter said. ‘We worked day jobs, until we didn’t have to.’

The songs on Impression, the new album by Sugar Candy Mountain, are full of sunshine: bright pop gems, glistening with hope and optimism. Knowing that the couple—Ash Reiter and Will Halsey—wrote, produced and recorded most of the record during the year-long lockdown makes it even more remarkable. Reiter, the band’s lead singer, lyricist and lead guitar player, said the process wasn’t remarkably different from their usual method of composing.

“We usually work records over the course of several years, crafting the sound and figuring out which songs belong together,” Reiter said. “We both play guitar, bass and various keyboards, so we have fun adding a lot of tiny parts and textures to the arrangements. We do it bit by bit, putting everything together, then stripping some away, before we do the final mix. 

“This one started January 2020, in L.A. We did a session down there with Jason Quever, our co-producer. Right after that, he relocated to the Bay Area. We did the rest of the recording at our home studio and his new studio. Jason and his wife moved to our town, so we could walk to his studio. During the early days of the pandemic, we had a ‘bubble’ that included them. It was mainly the three of us working on the record. The logistics of collaborating with other musicians during the pandemic was too complicated. We also liked the results we got as a trio.”

While the songs on Impression often reflect the stressful events of the past year and a half—wildfires, Covid, sheltering in place—the buoyant melodies, positive lyrics, playful production and Reiter’s breezy vocals shower your ears to unexpected musical sparks. “Please Don’t Look Away” is a slow R&B ballad celebrating love and intimacy. Reiter’s shimmering harmonies are offset by a memorable electric guitar hook that’s equal parts surf music and country twang. A wave of guitar feedback and spacey synthesizer effects give way to a funky bass line on “The End,” a meditation on the limitations of love and life. Reiter’s vocals combine hope and regret, as they drift through washes of celestial sound that wouldn’t be out of place in a science fiction film.

Reiter said the album came together organically, despite their concerns about the pandemic. “It’s the third album we’ve co-produced with Jason, so things are pretty fluid,” she said. “We met Jason after Will started playing drums in his band, Papercuts. Jason is like a third band member. His touch is all over our records. When it comes to mixing and producing, he’s the voice of reason. If left to our own devices, we’d go on endlessly, adding different parts to songs and experimenting. We have a tendency to add so many ‘cool’ parts to songs that, at some point, you can’t hear anything. Someone has to say enough is enough.”

Sugar Candy Mountain evolved out of the band Reiter put together in college. “I grew up all over the Bay Area—Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond and Sebastopol,” Reiter said. “I used to sing along to Billie Holiday in high school. In college, when I began writing and playing, Jolie Holland and Mirah were huge influences. My music was folkier and vocal centered. I didn’t get serious about a career until my late 20s. I wish I’d started younger, but I was too intimidated to play with a bunch of guys and didn’t know any other girls playing music.”

After graduation, Reiter made a couple of albums with Halsey as Ash Reiter. They ended that band to focus on Sugar Candy Mountain. “We found each other by chance—I needed a drummer and put an ad on Craig’s list,” Reiter said. “Will got the gig. We became friends quickly. He was making his own music, but helped me produce some songs. He was doing a lot of cool creative stuff production-wise, with the tools he had at the time. He has a natural aptitude for technical things. The music, and our relationship, grew. I was working as a teacher, so we played gigs at night and toured during school breaks. We worked day jobs, until we didn’t have to.

“Will had some basic recording gear when we met. We kept adding to it, getting better at production. He mastered the software and the tricks of the trade. We’re Beatles fanatics. Will started discovering the gear and techniques they used. We’d try to reproduce some of those sounds. We’ll never sound like them, of course, but we like dropping those sounds into our arrangements. We just watched a Paul McCartney documentary. He talked about the Lowrey electric organ on ‘Lucy in the Sky.’ They had one at Abbey Road. We found one and used it, and another Lowery, on this record. People get rid of organs like that because they take up so much space, but they have so many unique sounds in them. We’re keeping ours.”