Grace & Tony- Phantasmagoric Track By Track

Posted: by Sean Gonzalez

Album overview from Tony:

The Phantasmagoric album has been so much fun to put together. Not only did we push ourselves further than we ever had musically, but lyrically as well. We spent many hours researching each of these stories and also learned a lot in doing so. We set out to make an album different from anything we’d ever heard and we weren’t interested in following any traditional songwriting rules. We let the songs go where they wanted to go, and for that reason we wound up with a lot of longer, and very dynamic, compositions this time around. 

After adding a cellist to the band we had  fallen in love with the sound of stringed accompaniment. We felt the combination of orchestral strings with Americana music would be something new and original. I (Tony) was interested in producing this album and wanted to find the right person to co-produce and engineer. We were originally slated to go to Austin to record, but the guy we were supposed to be working with got cold feet. He wasn’t sure he could deliver the sound we were wanting in the the timeframe we had allotted, and so we we were back on the hunt. I asked my brother if there was someone in the Muscle Shoals, AL area we were overlooking and he suggested Jimmy Nutt right away. (Jimmy Nutt has worked with everyone from Jason Isbell to Percy Sledge, and worked under the legendary Rick Hall for years). He felt Jimmy’s experience would really be helpful, and also felt Jimmy would be excited about this grand vision we had. We were off to The Nutthouse in Sheffield, AL to record Phantasmagoric

Jimmy suggested we add Cody Simmons to help with the engineering process and he blew us away with his speed and precision. When it came time to decide who would play on this album we really wanted to stick to our core group of traveling musicians: Pete Teselsky (drums) and Chris Wilson (cello/bass). Chris also offered to arrange strings for the album, and proceeded to blow our minds. The strings became the star of the show, thanks to Chris. We also wanted to stick with musicians we knew from in and around the Muscle Shoals area for strings on this project. We felt like that would help us capture the essence of this legendary music scene. So in came Kimi Samson who took on a huge role playing 1st and 2nd violin, along with viola, and was absolutely amazing. We also brought in a local musician, Will Campbell, to play timpani, bells and percussion, and that really added to the epic nature of this album. 

There was not a lot of drama once we got into the studio. Jimmy has a way of making everyone feel comfortable and okay with themselves. He really was interested in helping us realize our vision, but was also the voice of reason when we weren’t sure where to go next. With his encouragement we performed the majority of this album together as a band, which really added a live feel to the album. In the end, I think everyone involved would agree that The Nutthouse was the perfect place to record this album and I would recommend it to anyone. This album is for true music lovers, who can appreciate something a little outside the box, and we believe it will challenge the listener’s ear. Thanks for taking the time to read about the process, and we hope you enjoy Phantasmagoric!

Phantasmagoric Song-by-Song, by Grace:

Adam of Labour – Tony had the idea for this, and I remember having a really hard time coming up with my bridge part.  I’m super picky about characters within the song being known and being easy to follow, so I made him change some words in his verses or that the doctor would be female, since I come in as the doctor. During my part, I wanted the doctor to sound almost crazy, and I think I achieved that since every time I sing it, I’m aware of how gruesome the imagery painted is. As far as the rest of the song, I think it’s a great picture of a man succumbing to an illness, dying, and then waking up again with some crazy person standing over him telling him he’s a masterpiece. A song about Frankenstein’s monster was something that attests to our interests. Growing up, we saw this every year at Halloween and in movies. When writing stuff like this, you really have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s the fun part about writing songs for me. 

Invitation to an Autopsy – I remember sitting on the couch at home, alone, which never happens, and I picked up my guitar. I had recently seen a special on the History Channel about Burke and Hare, and I guess it was still fresh on my mind. Burke and Hare were a duo in Scotland who invited homeless and poor people into their homes and then would suffocate them without leaving any marks and then sold their bodies to a medical college to be dissected.  I started playing the chorus part and writing down words, and that’s where it started. I sent it to Tony and he liked it and started working on the music part to the verses. I was really protective over this song and I wouldn’t let him touch the lyrics at all. It was my baby. This song encompasses everything I love in a murder mystery novel. British (well, Scotland), the 1800s, a great plot, great characters, and a gruesome murder. I read so many of these books, I even used some of the terms that would have been used: petticoats, coal, theater (for a room an autopsy would be performed in at a medical college). It was fun! I didn’t set out to make it a huge production as far as my vocal abilities, but I was having a hard time with the end of the second verse and I was toying with it in the car, and it just came out. You know, you always sound better in the car. I think Tony was a little apprehensive about it at first, but then he decided we should keep it that way. Then at the end where I hold the long note – that came about when Tony was listening to my vocal notes on my phone and I held out a note for a really long time and so we tried it there and it worked! The whole song feels like a Broadway performance and I love it! 

The 1 – Oh, man….this song brings back weird memories. This was the first song we started on for this album. I remember catching a Greyhound bus from London to Cirencester one day in 2013, and Tony sitting down beside me demanding that I spend that time writing my part. He had been writing his parts for a while and I was having a really hard time thinking of how to word the fact that I was a stalkee being stalked. I didn’t want anything to sound general. I wanted to paint a picture. I didn’t take the time in England to write that part, as it came to me later on, when we were finally in our house after being married in July of 2013. Fast forward seven more months and we were still working out the kinks when we boarded the Cayamo Cruise in February 2014. I talked Tony into playing it for the first time ever on an island in the British Virgin Isles at our excursion show. I don’t feel like we nailed it, and I almost felt like people were not very sure about it that day, but we kept playing it and working out the kinks and now it has become a fan favorite. Everyone laughs when Tony introduces it as the “stalker gets the girl” song. 

Marsten Prologue / A Lot Dies Today – This was Tony’s baby. I finally talked Tony into reading and when he discovered Stephen King, he was hooked for a while. This song was based on King’s novel of a town that was populated by vampires. I had never read any King novels at this point, so I couldn’t help but very little in the lyrical aspect. I finally read the book a few months back, and I was surprised to find that the main character in Tony’s song had a very small part in the book. It was a great idea to tell the story from the Sheriff’s view. I was proud of Tony for going that route with the song. 

072713 – I’ll have to give all the credit to Tony on this one as well. If you have ever been to one of our shows, you know that Tony admits readily that I am the one that is bent on death and destruction and if there is ever a sweet heartfelt song anywhere in our set or album, it’s his doing and not mine. Tony wrote this about how we decided to jump on into marriage even though Tony had two daughters, had an average job, and I was a full-time nursing student. We had zero money, but we got married anyway. Everyone will be happy to know that we do not live in a cardboard box, and everything has gone well since our rash decision. 

The 2 – I’m not really sure how Tony stumbled upon the story of The Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, but he did, and we sat down and watched a documentary on the whole ordeal and we were completely engrossed in the entire thing! We batted around ideas of who we wanted to tell this story: Applewhite or the man who opted to leave right before the suicides who still believes in Applewhite’s teachings. We finally settled on Applewhite and started writing the story. If you listen to the words, you may be surprised to find aspects of the story that you weren’t familiar with or didn’t remember. We tried to put in every detail possible. This was a fun one as well – getting in Marshall Applewhite’s head, and telling a historical story from what we thought was going on in his head. 

Lullaby of the Red Death – When I decided that I wanted to write a lullaby, I was a little scared. How do you write a lullaby that’s completely awesome?! One that is dark, but yet still a soft lullaby that you can put a child to sleep to? I’m a Poe fan, and that’s because my mom read that to me as a child for bedtime stories, and so I was reminded of the story The Mask of the Red Death. The way Poe writes about the way the disease manifests reminded me a little of the current Ebola problem, so I wrote a story about an apocalyptic world where Ebola was spreading rapidly and a mother had thrown a child out to protect herself and her newborn, and then when she catches Ebola anyway, she spends her last moments singing her child to sleep because she knows that God is punishing them for her sins and that they will both be dead by morning. It’s in a lullaby format, and is soft and carries the same melody throughout its entirety. I’ve even tried it out on my nephew, and it seems to work! People can say that it’s morbid all they want to, but how many of us have sung “ring around the rosies”? If you research the story behind that, it’s pretty morbid as well. 

A Fever on the Cthulhu Queen – Tony and Chris really worked hard on the base to this song, then I came behind and put in fills to accent the sways in mood. We came up with a story line of a sea wench on board with her dad who was the captain and she wanted to try to captain the ship when she came of age, but he wouldn’t let her. When the wind died one day and kept them still for weeks at a time, cabin fever set in and the wench hallucinated one night and saw the Cthulhu, who told her to send her dad overboard as a sacrifice and he would carry them to shore and she could have all she dreamed of. After the mutiny was committed, the fog in the crew’s brains was lifted and they found themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean with the compass and map to get them to shore floating to the bottom of the sea. I worked for weeks on words just right to convey this story, and I had written almost half of them down. Tony and I sat down one night and tried so hard to fit the parts where they needed to be, and finally we both looked at each other, as I crumpled the piece of paper with the words and decided without words that the song didn’t need words. The music told the story perfectly and you could feel the moods changing perfectly. It’s even better to think that people can write their own story to the song as it develops in their ears. 

This Is It – I can’t say much about this one, except the fact that this is a story about a point in Tony’s life that is hard for me to hear. It took a long time for me to not tear up every time I heard it, much less sing the words that he wanted me to sing. Tony wrote this about a time where he was really down in life, and had to be pushed out of others’ lives. It’s a song about tough love from a mother, and how that love resonated in the heart of one who needed it so much.