A Conversation With Indie-Folk, Nashville-Based Band Escondido

 In Culture, Feature

If you were to ask them, Tyler James and Jessica Maros, of the Nashville-based band Escondido, would tell you that the bulk of their songs are about that which somehow formulate both the bane and joy of human existence: relationships. Their sound is dreamy, with ethereal lyrics that habitually crystallize into moments of pure axiom:

“I’m a stranger to love
I’m a stranger to you
I’m a stranger to me.”

From “Heart Is Black,” which appears on their second studio album, “Walking With A Stranger,” the lyrics hold the messiness of losing oneself in a relationship, without explicitly saying so. While their debut album, “Ghosts of Escondido,” was recorded in a single day, “Walking With A Stranger” was a product of more internal digging, the type that requires time. In between the recording of the first and second album, Maros moved to LA while James stayed in Nashville, and they reconnected during a camping trip to Death Valley, driving out in the middle of nowhere, rediscovering what inspired them to begin with.

While James and Maros originally met with the kind of happenstance that tends the jungle of the Nashville music scene, Maros had previously worked as a fashion designer, and James toured with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes as a keyboardist. Their next album, called “Warning Bells,” comes out next year, and you can listen to their latest single “Darkness,” on Spotify and iTunes.

Keep reading for our interview with the musicians, with James phoning in from Nashville and Maros from L.A.

Together, you did a cameo on Nashville, correct?
Tyler: We did. It was a funny story—Jess can tell you more, too. Connie Britton, who plays Rayna James on Nashville, had a producer she was working with and we walk up and meet up with him. In the story, he used us to make her jealous. Jess can tell you the part about the clothes … Jess, you’re breaking up. Are you driving or something?

Jessica: Yeah, sorry—Ah, I’m sick with the flu. I’m going to get myself some medicine.

T: Jess had a crazy outfit on, and as we were leaving the set that day the costumer designer was like, ‘You can’t leave with those.’ And Jess was like, ‘These were the clothes we came in.’ [laughs]. I also wrote some music for a couple of the characters on the show. One of them was “I Will Fall,” which Scarlett and Gunnar sing in the very beginning. I wrote that with Kate York.

And Jessica, I know you also had a clothing line before you began working in music full time.
J: I had a clothing line called Sleeveless—it was a store I started in Nashville. I made things for the Academy of Country Music Awards and did gowns, as well as neck pieces for Prince on his tour. The pieces were very avant-garde, with jewelry, handbags, gowns and wedding dresses. When I decided I wanted to do music, I sold the company and started a band. I still love fashion. I often make the clothes we wear on stage. It’s a handy tool to have. And it’s a real extension of myself that I love.

How did you make the transition into music?
J: I’ve always done music, ever since I was 16. I came to Nashville because I had a record deal in my 20’s. They brought me to Nashville to write. I started in fashion, and then music. I’ve been all over. A friend of mine knew I was a singer. She said, ‘Why don’t I introduce you to my friend Tyler?’ She invited me to a Christmas party and forced me to sing. That night Tyler recorded the song I played for him, called “Rodeo Queen,” and I walked out that evening with a demo of the song. I had recorded with several people before, but knew that he captured something really unique in my voice that no one else had done before.

T: We had both been kicking around the Nashville music scene. I’ve been here 17 years—I’d see her picture in the paper about a show and things like that, but it wasn’t until a totally different phase in life that we connected. At 22, we did our first recordings with the same producer. I’d quit solo music to join Edward Sharpe, and after that I didn’t want to be a solo artist anymore. We were aligned in that we wanted to make this Spaghetti Western, dusty kind of music.

What was it like working with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros?
T: It was an eye-opening experience for me. You see the world and do a lot of bucket list stuff. I learned a lot of things about the music business and what it’s like to be in a band. I saw the benefits of having a creative partner.

What is it like navigating the music industry?
J: The music industry is a really, really tough industry. We’ve been extremely lucky. The main thing about it is this perception of … I don’t know … you can get these great accolades and things may happen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re financially stable, especially if you don’t have any backup funding. Everything we make we put back into the band. We really believe in what we do as artists, but it makes it more challenging to make a living. And much of the time you’re living on the road, away from your family.

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T: Being in Nashville has huge benefits as well. I moved here, ironically, to study the music business. I didn’t know anything about a career in music. Being in a city like this, you learn really quickly. A big part of it is that we were lucky. We started playing music when the old business model of the record label was starting to die out, and streaming was beginning. It was the wild west. Nobody knew how to make money in the music business anymore. We weren’t ingrained in the old way, either. I had friends dropping out of college with million-dollar record deals, but not often. We were able to be a part of the new changes.

J: On one hand, it’s a really fantastic time to be a musician. You can put anything on the internet, and you have a way for people to hear it and access it. But there’s so much content now, it makes it harder—especially if you don’t know how to be proactive, which most musicians don’t. So a lot of the really talented ones get lost in the shuffle. That’s frustrating to see.

T: We probably wouldn’t exist without the internet.

J: You don’t know that. We could have been huge in the ’90s.

T: But in the ’90s you couldn’t really have operated outside of the record deal model. Or maybe we would have been on tour with Soundgarden. Who knows. But people aren’t waiting around for record deals anymore. It’s so much more complex.

Do you ever get nervous before going on stage?
T: We get nervous more about technical things, rather than getting on stage and playing for people. Connecting with the audience is fun. We get more nervous about things like, “Are we going to be able to sing through the monitor tonight?” or “Is my guitar string going to break?”

J: I get anxious beforehand, because each crowd is different. I always try to test myself and try different things. I try to understand what it is that they’re needing in the moment.

T: There are so many things to be nervous about—how many tickets are we going to sell? Things like that. The music part is the one hour in the day where you have a break. That’s when you get to perform and do your art.

The songs you write feel very specific and personal. What does the writing process look like for you?
J: It’s very much a collaboration. When it comes to the songwriting process, I write a lot by myself and I’ll send Tyler ideas. I’ll write poems or lyrics and send them to him, and we collaborate and go from there. Usually it starts like that.

T: Our bread and butter is relationship songs. We’re aware of politics and current events, but with our music the songs tend to revolve around relationships, whether it’s a new relationship, a breakup, or just life. Whatever is happening to us, what we’re feeling in the moment.

J: Tyler’s right—I would say that our songs are really based on relationships.

T: But when we sit down to write, I don’t write a hundred songs a year, or anything like that. It’s more when I’m going through something; when I’m bummed out about a girl, or excited.

You must have a special window into what’s going on in each other’s lives, especially when you’re seeing it processed through songwriting.
J: We actually don’t really discuss what’s happening in our personal lives when we sit down and write. I think the majority of the feeling of the song is written before we get together. The sentiment is already there. We’ll guide each other and say, ‘I’m trying to say this, or this.’ I sort of have a sixth sense about it, where I don’t have to explain it.

T: Our lives are so hopelessly intertwined that when one of us sends the other a song, we know what’s up. We come to the same feelings once we nail down what personal things we want to put in the song. Then we can figure out how to make it more beautiful, and not something so specific.

When you say your songs are about relationships, can you elaborate? What does that really mean?
J: For me—I’ve been through a lot in my life with men, and it’s really been a learning experience. I was married, went through a divorce, then moved to L.A. I was in and out of a lot of these relationships that didn’t, really—that weren’t fulfilling. I had to go through them to learn more about myself, to understand the person I want to end up being with, or even myself. It’s a personal journey. Some of the songs are even about being in a relationship with myself, and self-discovery through your love of other people. I’m a totally different person today than I was five years ago. I definitely feel like I’m writing differently. My intentions are becoming clearer, and I feel like I’m becoming a better songwriter. Before, I would add a lot more. Maybe I didn’t fully understand what I was going through.

T: It’s funny, I look back and most of my favorite songs that I ever wrote came out quickly and fully formed when I was going through a terrible breakup. Looking through the songs, you see you’re going through the same things and learning the same lessons. I was doing the same things when I was 22 in that song. When you’re trying to get someone to feel a certain way and they don’t. I used to think when I was this age, that wouldn’t happen anymore. Sometimes I feel a little ashamed of it. I wish I were less earnest and pathetic. Those girls didn’t deserve those songs. But now I try to say something a little less specific, instead of how bummed I am about a situation. As you grow older, you gain self confidence.

J: Tyler, your old songs are amazing.

What is one of your favorite songs that brings you inspiration? 
J: Gerry Rafferty’s song, “Right Down The Line.” I’ve been having it on repeat lately. There’s something so sweet about it.

T: I was with a couple of guy friends one night and we were talking about songs we wish we’d written. I said Bonnie Raitt’s song, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” I wish I’d written that song. The verses, without saying anything specifically, create this moment. It gives you a play-by-play of what they’re doing, and the chorus finally says what they’re thinking. The verses speak to the heart. Turns out, my buddy, Matt Reid—his dad, Mike Reid, co-wrote the song [laughs]. I had no idea.

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