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Making Something Together 

Andy Jenkins and James Wallace discuss their new collaborative EP, Nothing No. 1.

click to enlarge Andy Jenkins (middle) performs with James Wallace (left) and Cameron Ralston at Black Iris in June.

Scott Elmquist

Andy Jenkins (middle) performs with James Wallace (left) and Cameron Ralston at Black Iris in June.

Ever had a cassette tape turn your perception of reality inside out?

“The tape is real but this cover isn’t.” So read the 15 limited-run, J-card inserts that Richmond-based singer-songwriter Andy Jenkins designed at the last minute when the official inserts didn’t arrive in time for the June pre-release show he and Oakland-based singer-songwriter-producer James Wallace played at Black Iris Social Club in celebration of their new collaborative EP, “Nothing No. 1.”

Then again, Wallace and Jenkins are comfortable with the uncanny. Wallace is known in indie music circles as Skyway Man, and his prior releases have carved out a psychedelic spirituality that sounds like it could have formed from the dust of some distant nebula, or from the murk of a vast, underground river untouched by humans. Jenkins' wordboth in the verses he lends to other artists’ songs and the music he releases under his own name, invite you to look at familiar images – flowers, sunlight, shadow – from unexpected angles.

Jenkins sings it this way in the title track of the EP, out July 29 on Mama Bird Recording Co.: “Somewhere the earth is cold / Somewhere it is burning / I am but a stranger here.”

Despite the fresh perspectives these musicians offer, they’re not strangers to one another, nor are they new to the community they enlisted upon deciding to set a co-release in motion. “It’s just been gradually building,” Jenkins says.

Wallace was born in Richmond on, as he mentioned to the audience at Black Iris, the same day as the Grateful Dead’s October 1984 stop at the Richmond Coliseum. His dad even had tickets. “There was a moment after everything was done when it was just him, me, my mom [and] my aunt, just hanging out in the hospital,” he says. “I think maybe [my mom] was still in that post-birth daze and said something like, ‘Well, I mean, if you want to go to the show…’ and my aunt was like, ‘He’s not going to the show.’”

Wallace attended Virginia Commonwealth University for a year before transferring to Appalachian State University. Back in Richmond for the summer after graduating in 2006, he saw Jenkins perform at Poe’s Pub. Wallace soon started sharing gigs with The Great White Jenkins, the pivotal collaboration between Jenkins, who had moved to Richmond after attending the University of Virginia, and Spacebomb Records founder Matthew E. White.

In 2010, Wallace recorded his “More Strange News from Another Star” album in the Libby Avenue attic where Spacebomb took early steps toward becoming a production powerhouse. Jenkins now lives in that house on Libby, and it’s where rehearsals for the Black Iris show took place.

“Great energy in that attic,” Wallace reported. “Smells the same as it did when I recorded ‘More Strange News.’”

Jenkins sang on that album, and he has co-writing credits on the two Skyway Man LPs that followed, 2017’s apocalyptic masterpiece, “Seen Comin’ from a Mighty Eye” and 2020’s colorful vision of the afterlife, “The World Only Ends When You Die.” One composition on “Nothing No. 1,” entitled “Moment of Quiet,” actually predates both of those releases, having been written in 2015. “This was sitting down and working on a song together,” Jenkins recalls. “That was kind of the only time that’s happened, so that one feels special.”

The song glides placidly atop shimmering synths, lightly played piano and restrained upright bass, crystalizing a pause between two people. It’s among the most arresting work from either artist, containing a gem of a lyric penned by Jenkins — “Ribbon of smoke so thick you could tie it / A moment of quiet” — and guest vocals from Molly Sarlé, who is one third of harmonizing folk trio Mountain Man.

While many artists learned to collaborate remotely during the pandemic, that’s long been the modus operandi for Wallace and Jenkins.

“It takes me a long time to write a song,” Wallace says. “I might write a quarter of the lyrics and know what it’s about, but then I’ll get too hung up on if certain things are going to work… I’ve found that in those moments, it’s good for me to just send it to Andy and say, ‘Where would you go with this?’”

“The types of contributions [he’s] given to the songs that I’ve asked for input on have been very interdisciplinary,” Wallace says of Jenkins, who frequently shares writing credits with Matthew E. White as well.

“There is a more standard approach to co-writing and songwriting that I don’t think I have a great facility for,” Jenkins says. He describes a more consultative process that takes the shape of each song’s needs. “Co-writing can be like, ‘Oh, you need a third verse. I can write you a third verse.’ Or it’s like, ‘This song is finished, but it doesn’t feel good.’On one of the songs my contribution was, ‘You should repeat this line three times.’”

Jenkins likened that variability to how a producer’s role changes from project to project. Cameron Ralston, a longtime contributor to Skyway Man albums and the bassist on Jenkins’ 2018 debut LP, “Sweet Bunch,” stepped up to co-produce the EP with Wallace. Most tracking took place at Spacebomb Studios between Christmas and New Year’s at the end of 2020.

“He really gave a lot to it,” Jenkins says of Ralston. “It was fun to watch James and [Cameron] communicate and work on things together, in the moment and then post-[production], because I feel like they both really care about the way it sounds and have a vision for things, but then are also aware of how things are flowing. They’ll both go deep.”

Producing in partnership Ralston helped Wallace find a new frequency on which to vibrate, one that breaks free from an anxiety about scarcity of time and resources that had become ingrained. “[Ralston] works on a wider, deeper, slower plane, and getting on that plane with him was interesting and fun,” Wallace says.

The pace may have been different, but the project didn’t lack for momentum. In fact, Wallace, who was alone at the producing helm on his last two LPs, reveled in his ability to lean on others.

“Oftentimes, when I’m working on records [in Richmond], which is where I usually start my records, I structure it in a way where I book all of my friends in a space, and suddenly we’re there, and it’s up to me to push forward on the record. It is very collaborative, but it’s 100% me holding the bag until I know when to delineate the jobs and the tasks. But this was an opportunity to work with these same folks, and learn how to really share.”

The same goes for those 15 limited-edition “Nothing No. 1” cassettes. “When I came down the stairs at the 11th hour after rehearsing a little bit and I saw [Jenkins] working on them… I mean, I’m not saying I teared up, but I got a little bit emotional because it was the very first time that I [could] experience what it might have felt like to be in a band with someone else who is also carrying the bag.”

Their performance at Black Iris embodied that spirit. A few solo tunes from Jenkins, a few from Wallace accompanied by a drum machine, then a string of songs together, backed by Ralston on bass and Scott Burton on guitar. One they shared vocal duties on was “Tell It All Brother,” second of the EP’s four songs. A thematic sibling to “Lean On Me” and “The Weight” that was recorded by an early-career Kenny Rogers, “Tell It All Brother” is an ode to letting others help shoulder your heaviest emotional burdens.

“Tell it all brother, before we fall / Tell it all brothers and sisters,” they sang together, encapsulating a collaborative relationship that continues to grow.

“Nothing No. 1” is out July 29 on Mama Bird Recording Co. To pre-order the cassette and find Skyway Man tour dates, visit skywayman.bandcamp.com. Andy Jenkins is touring with Laura Veirs in July; for tickets, visit andyjenkins.ltd.

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