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The Many Compelling Voices Of A Folk/Pop Duo
Andy and Denise
We think it's important when choosing another person to work with, whether it be recording, graphic design, or co-writing, that your personalities "click". Make sure the person you chose will help support your vision of the project and of your music. - Denise O'Brien
by Matt Mrowicki
 [Chorus and Verse] Andy and Denise
Andy & Denise

The northeastern folk circuit has been producing a number of impressive performers. These traveling musicians have created a popular scene in intimate venues and coffeehouses, finding their melody across the simple lines of an acoustic guitar and the human voice.

In this world of singular performers, men and women who struggle to project community with a lone microphone, a duo stands out both for their music and their backstory. For anyone who doesn't think that a singing/songwriting duo doesn't have breakthrough potential in the world of modern popular music, listen to the buzz surrounding the latest release by Jack and Meg of the White Stripes; then keep reading.

Andy & Denise, Andy Fox and Denise O'Brien to friends and family, traveled two different roads to their current partnership. Andy trained at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, cutting his teeth around the Boston music scene. Denise was an aspiring actress in New York City, where Andy has moved to pursue his music career. While Andy and his band mate were warming up to perform one night, the waitress from the dinner theatre upstairs came down to yell at them. Before this starts to read like a John Cougar song, boy saw girl, they started going out, band breaks up, girl starts singing backup and they were really, really good at that first open mic night.

They have performed along the eastern seaboard, from the deep South, through the Mid-Atlantic states and into New England. A ten-track debut album, Sunlight In Goodbye, was released in May 1999; followed-up by a live disc, Live At Eddie's Attic.

Now based in Deptford, New Jersey, they call it "extreme Eastern Philadelphia", and supporting their third CD, Go, which came out in August 2002, the duo have expanded their love of music and performance into other areas of the business. In addition to songwriting, they are involved in many other aspects of the industry, and have offered those services to other musicians as well. Chorus and Verse started off the interview by inquiring about the many talents it requires to be a self-supporting musician, and continued along the winding road that tells the story of this talented duo.

Andy & Denise

You've gotten involved in all aspects of the music business, singing and recording, as well as engineering, graphic design and the other promotional necessities of releasing an album. How has working on your careers from so many different angles shaped your attitudes about what it takes to make a living as a singer/songwriter? It sounds like you both work very hard for people who proudly display a "Work Sucks: I'm Goin' On Tour" bumper sticker in your CD booklet.

Andy: As difficult and overwhelming as it can be sometimes, it's very gratifying to be so self-contained. I think we're lucky: through our combined skills we're able to handle most aspects of the music business. We're doing what we can to stay self-employed. But, that's not to say we'd turn down a booking agent if one showed up at our door. The business does take a lot of time and can easily cut into the creative end of things. It's all a balance.

Denise: It is a lot of hard work. But, in ways it's easier because we only have to rely on ourselves to accomplish our goals and finish our projects. We're able to design our own press kits and web site, we're able to record our own music as well as other musician's music, which helps supplement our income and touring expenses. It's given us a lot of insight on what it takes to make a living as musicians.

Your latest album, Go, is obviously a labor of love. In addition to the usual songwriting and performing duties, you have credits for production, recording and mixing, even layout. Does it add to the pressure when you finally release something that has so much of yourselves tied into it? Are there people around you who are able to bounce ideas off or who provide input towards your creative process, or are you comfortable being more persistent in putting forth your own vision?

Andy: It absolutely adds to the pressure. Towards the end of the project, we totally lost objectivity about what we'd recorded. We had to take some time away from it. During this time, we sent out copies to friends of ours whose opinions we deeply respect. They helped keep us focused and sane throughout the process.

Most of your music centers on two-part harmony. Did singing in harmony come natural to both of you when the duo was formed? Are there challenges in recording and mixing two part harmony, or being able to perform live that are different than a solo performer? Have you found that being a duo makes you a little more unique among the coffeehouse set, which tends to be filled with solo singer/songwriters?

Denise: I think we've both always been "harmony junkies". It does seem to come naturally to us. The challenge is to find interesting and different harmonies to keep things fresh. Performing as a duo is not for everyone, but it works really well for us. We have a great chemistry together. It's nice to have a partner up there with you to feed off of, to banter back and forth, and to have fun with. I give a lot of credit to solo singer songwriters. I can't imagine doing this alone.

Andy: It seems less common for people to see a male/female duo than a solo singer/songwriter, so I guess that can be unique.

Talk about the creative process for the songs on Go. Do you tend to sit down together and collaborate on ideas and work towards a finished song, or do you work out ideas individually and bring them to the other for refinement? Or, are the both of you just walking around the house all day throwing song and lyrical ideas out at each other?

Denise: All of the above. We write songs in many different ways, largely because we're victims of whimsy, but all the songs on Go are a collaboration to a greater or lesser degree.

Andy: For example, the song "Go" was a 50/50 collaboration. We sat down together with next to nothing and an hour later had that song. There are other songs, like "Empty Chairs," which Denise wrote the majority of, or "Body On The Pier", which I wrote the majority of. In those cases, we sat down with the first draft of these songs and worked together to complete them. In the end it's definitely the input from both of us that makes the songs what they are.

Two of the artists that you've worked with through your recording and graphic design company are Erik Balkey and We're About 9. What are the qualities you look for in someone who you work with, and what are the qualities that an artist should look for in someone to record and mix their album, or handle design and layout of their CD packaging, website, or other promotional materials?

Denise: Both Erik Balkey and We're About 9 are good friends of ours. We totally respect them personally as well as ... artistically, which was a huge part of why we wanted to work with them.

We think it's important when choosing another person to work with, whether it be recording, graphic design, or co-writing, that your personalities "click". Make sure the person you chose will help support your vision of the project and of your music.

Andy & Denise Performing With Antje Duvekot, Erik Balkey and Jeff Twardzik

Talk about some of your other projects:

Andy has been working on a solo CD; how are you progressing with the album, and what are you looking to do with it that is different from your music with Andy & Denise?

Andy: The solo instrumental CD is coming along nicely. It's a lot more challenging for me. The guitar is the centerpiece since there's no vocal, so the performances have to be spot-on. This is obviously the hard part. I've always loved instrument guitarists; one of my biggest influences being Michael Hedges. So it's exciting for me to be working on this project. We should have this available by the end of the year.

Denise has an acting career, with appearances in commercials, soaps and theater. Can you share some of your performance credits, and anything new that you're pursuing these days?

Denise: Since moving out of New York City, I haven't really pursued much acting work. I find that life as a musician in all aspects is much [more] fulfilling for me than acting. I may go back and try some commercial work at some point, but right now I'm focusing all my attention on the music.

You've performed throughout the tri-state area, as well as up and down the East Coast. What have been your favorite rooms, and are there certain places that you look forward to returning to again and again? Since Denise handles booking and management, have you learned any tricks for getting into a new venue?

Denise: Listening rooms for folk societies and coffeehouse series, as well as house concerts, are our favorite places to play. The intimate setting and one-on-one contact you have with the audience is incredibly fulfilling as a performer.

We'll always have a soft spot for the Delaware Friends of Folk Society. They were the first large series to book us and have been incredibly supportive throughout our career. That being said, a good and loud sound system seems to make Andy really happy.

I don't know if there are any tricks to getting booked at a certain venue, but the best advice I can give is to not get discouraged if they say no. Work at your craft, make your contacts, become a more seasoned musician and you'll be able to turn those noes into yeses. There aren't that many "overnight successes" in the folk genre. It takes a lot of patience and hard work to have a career with some longevity.

With the growing popularity of acoustic music, is it getting more competitive and more difficult to stand out and be distinctive among the crowd? Is the tried-and-true method of breaking into the singer/songwriter scene through open mic nights and small coffeehouses still effective today, or do performers have to be slicker in their promotion and production to be noticed?

Denise: It takes a lot more energy to be competitive than to focus on yourself and work on your craft. I think the most important way to stand out and be distinctive is to be yourself; to tap into that part of your original personality and creativity. It's a lot more fun as well.

Andy: As for getting noticed, playing the open mics and such is still a great way to introduce yourself to a new venue or area. Not only do people see who you are and what can you do, but you can get inspired by other artists. Slick promotion and production can be cool, but it can also be overdone.

Go was released in August 2002. What are your plans for a follow-up CD, or other projects for the band in the upcoming months? Do you feel that Andy & Denise has reached a point where you're happy with keeping things how they are, or do you still have goals that you're pursuing to accomplish with your music?

Denise: We're in the middle of a fun project right now. We're working on a CD of cover songs. Over the past few years we've gotten a ton of requests for recorded versions of the covers we perform, so we decided to record them. It's a lot of fun to take another artist's song and try to make it your own. It's also a wonderful way to relieve writer's block. We're working on Andy's solo instrumental CD, and we're writing songs for our next CD of originals. These projects will likely keep us busy for the rest of the year.

We are always trying to set new goals and challenge ourselves, both as musicians as well as people. It keeps life interesting.

[ Website: www.andyanddenise.com ]

Photos in this article were taken at The Point (August 29, 2002) and are provided complements of Andy & Denise. Photo credit: Shanon Leigh.

Matt Mrowicki
Matt Mrowicki [publisher@chorusandverse.com], is an Internet entrepreneur and owner of Chorus and Verse. In 2002, he founded Impression Technologies LLC (www.imprtech.com) a digital design company offering website development, graphic design, online marketing, social media and technology consulting. He has been interviewed on topics ranging from how bands can best use their websites for promoting their music to current trends in social media. He has successfully launched over 100 websites and branding projects for clients and continues to develop new online opportunities and promote effective uses of technology and online media.
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