In a small doorway in downtown Missoula, sheltered from windy weather, two 18-year-old girls play a mash-up of Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia" and "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard." It's First Friday and a small crowd has gathered to watch them. Kaylen Krebsbach is rocking in motion as she strums the guitar and Mari Wolverton exuberantly beats a big drum. In such little space, they emit endless energy. This is the duo's natural habitat: an intimate audience in the open air. When they get to the "Oh-oh oh oh!" part of "Cecilia," they lift their faces toward the sky like wolves howling.
The duo, who call themselves Baby & Bukowski, have been busking the Missoula streets for two years, though they just graduated from high school. They released an album of originals on May 28 called We Won't Go Home Until Morning, a collection of striking folk songs. "If You See This Ghost" started in rotation on 103.3 The Trail just a few weeks ago. At their CD release party last week, they sold out of their 300 albumsa split with another band, Comatose Smile. Several days ago, the album debuted at #4 on two Amazon chartsContemporary Folk and Easy Listeningalongside Frank Sinatra and topping The Eagles.
Wolverton, a percussionist, grew up in a musical family. "My family sings 'Happy Birthday' and it's like an eight-part harmony," she says.
"My head exploded a little bit the first time I heard it," adds Krebsbach. "'Happy Birthday' is one of those songs that absolutely no one can sing well, but you hear the Wolverton family sing it and you're like [clapping], standing ovation."
Krebsbach got her guitar from her brother, who gave it to her before he was deployed to Afghanistan. She decided it was important to learn to play.
The band started in 2010, when the duo attended an Edward Sharpe concert as acquaintances and came out of the show "thick as thieves," Krebsbach says.
"One day I said, 'Hey, I have my guitar, do you want to go down to the market and play for a little bit, see if we can make some money?' We went down there and made, what, $12? We didn't even know any songs; we were just messing around. But we fell in love with it and started doing it every weekend. Last year we played inside the market and we got kicked out because we were causing congestion."
They played Bon Iver's "Skinny Love" at First Night Star 2011an "American Idol-style" contest for young musicians held at the Wilma. "There's a certain cloud of music snobbery that surrounds Bon Iver ... and we were playing 'Skinny Love,' a song that lots of people really know, and so I was really nervous that I was going to mess it up," says Krebsbach. "But then, of course, I did mess it up about halfway through. I stumbled. I was really nervous."
In 2012, they played First Night Star again with their Simon & Garfunkel mash-up. Since then, nerves haven't been much of an issue.
The album's modest origins makes their current success all the more sweet.
We Won't Go Home Until Morning was made in a makeshift studio at Big Sky High School. Comatose Smilean equally talented young bandhad already recorded their album, Townsend, MT, as part of one student's senior project through the Music Recording and Production Program, which is part of the school's Flagship Program. They were looking for another group to record, and Baby & Bukowski was their pick. The resulting double package is called Trains and Tunnels (Comatose Smile has a song called "The Train" and Baby & Bukowski has a song called "Tunnels").
"We recorded 'If You See This Ghost' with a single condenser microphone, with the girls gathered around it and an old truck brake weighting down the mic stand so it wouldn't tip over," says Flagship coordinator Scott Mathews. "It was kind of like how I imagine bluegrass records were made many years ago. It totally speaks to the talent and chemistry of the group that they could thrive in that kind of setup."
We Won't Go Home Until Morning showcases the duo's exquisite vocals: Wolverton's are dreamy and Krebsbach's a little saucy, and their harmonizing is a sweet balance of the two. The lyrics are sharply rendered for anyone, let alone two 18-year-olds who've just begun their writing careers. "If You See This Ghost" is a kind of girl-power song, but not in any sort of cliché way you've heard before. "That song I wrote as an homage to being a feminist," says Wolverton. "It's about girls who don't think they're good enough, who are constantly regretting things they do in their lives." Lines like "She carries a love note in her back pocket / Always afraid someone is going to take it away" and "The hero don't come until act two," show keen observation for subtle pain and literary tragedy. (Their band name also reveals their sharpness: a tribute to Charles Bukowski's love for starting his poems with "baby.")
"Trouble" was written on a ukulele at a bowling alley while the duo was acting as designated drivers for Wolverton's dad and uncle, who were drinking and bowling.
They named the album after a needlecraft hoop Krebsbach found at a thrift storea scene of a tree, two white owls and a moon with a face, with the words "We won't go home until morning" embroidered on it. They didn't write the actual title track until the night before they recorded the album. "We could never come up with anything," says Krebsbach. "Everything we played didn't feel right. We sat down in [Wolverton's] room and she was playing some chords and I said, 'That's it. That is it!'"
Their love for Simon & Garfunkel is palpable. Besides the mash-up, you can hear the upbeat, stomp-and-jangle folk sound in their originals, too. Krebsbach says her favorite line she's written so far is off of "Trouble," and it goes, "You're the Garfunkel to my Simon / And I promise I'm not lyin' when I say I like/ I likethe sound of your voice. / You make me feel groo-vy!"
"Simon & Garfunkel are our boys," says Krebsbach.
Baby & Bukowski plays Saturday, June 9, at Caras Park for Indy Fest, which runs from 2-10 PM. Free admission.